Don't Follow Leaders (Tea Party Edition)


Jonathan Rauch has a smart piece in the National Journal on the radically decentralized structure of the most important Tea Party organization, the Tea Party Patriots. An excerpt:

So the queen said, "Off with his head!" And I thought to myself, "OK, we'll overthrow her with a headless political movement." Have some tea.

Strange though it may seem, this is a coordinated network, not a hierarchy. There is no chain of command. No group or person is subordinate to any other. The tea parties are jealously independent and suspicious of any efforts at central control, which they see as a sure path to domination by outside interests. "There's such a uniqueness to every one of these groups, just as there's an individuality to every person," [Tea Party activist Dawn] Wildman says. "It has this bizarre organic flow, a little bit like lava. It heats up in some places and catches on fire; it moves more slowly in other places."…

From Washington's who's-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems, to use Wildman's word, bizarre. Perplexed journalists keep looking for the movement's leaders, which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet. Baffled politicians and lobbyists can't find anyone to negotiate with. "We can be hard to work with, because we're confusing," Meckler acknowledges. "We're constantly fighting against the traditional societal pressure to become a top-down organization." So why would anyone want to form this kind of group, or network, or hive, or starfish, or lava flow, or whatever it is?

First, radical decentralization embodies and expresses tea partiers' mistrust of overcentralized authority, which is the very problem they set out to solve. They worry that external co-option, internal corruption, and gradual calcification—the viruses they believe ruined Washington—might in time infect them. Decentralization, they say, is inherently resistant to all three diseases.

Free the Knave of Hearts!

Second, the system is self-propelling and self-guiding. "People seem to know what the right thing to do is at the right time," Dallas's Emanuelson says. "As times change, then our focus will change, because we're so bottom-up driven. As everyone decides there's a different agenda, that's where things will go."

If a good or popular idea surfaces in Dallas, activists talk it up and other groups copy it. Bad and unpopular ideas, on the other hand, just fizzle. Better yet, the movement lives on even as people come and go. "The message is important," Wildman says, "but people are expendable."

Third, the network is unbelievably cheap. With only a handful of exceptions, everyone is a volunteer. Local groups bring their own resources. Coordinators provide support and communication, but they make a point of pushing most projects back down to the grassroots.

Finally, localism means that there is no waiting for someone up the chain to give a green light. Groups can act fast and capitalize on spontaneity. Equally important, the network is self-scaling. The network never outgrows the infrastructure, because each tea party is self-reliant. And the groups make it their business to seed more groups, producing sometimes dizzying growth.

One important point: This sort of structure has been evolving for a while, and not just in a single segment of the political spectrum. The Bush-era Netroots were a remarkably decentralized movement, as anyone who remembers the early days of the Howard Dean campaign can attest. But the Tea Party Patriots make the best-known Netroots group look like a stuffy bureaucracy. "In more than a few ways, MoveOn.org resembles the tea party movement," Rauch writes. "But here is a difference: In addition to its thousands of volunteers…MoveOn has a core staff of about 20, including a national political director, plus another 20 field staffers—all paid professionals." The Tea Party Patriots may not be as decentered as Anonymous or the Black Bloc, but when it comes to activists engaged in electoral politics, they've become the cutting edge.