National Journal | September 11, 2010
THOUGH headless, the tea party movement is not mindless. Its collective brain meets every Monday night.
More than 200 leaders of local tea parties — coordinators, as they usually call themselves — join a conference call every week organized by an umbrella group called the Tea Party Patriots, the largest national tea party organization. On one Monday recently, three national coordinators begin the session with a rundown on plans for upcoming rallies. The events are expensive; does anyone have a problem with a search for $1,000 donors? (No one does.) An organizer has put together a manual on what to ask candidates at town hall events. ("That will go to the entire e-mail list.")
The group is polled on whether to hold a second round of house parties throughout the country. (Yes.) A coordinator gives an update on an iPhone app for tea partiers who will be going door to door this fall to talk to voters. (It will use Global Positioning System technology to download walking lists and upload voter data in real time — cutting-edge stuff.)
The floor is then opened. Local leaders propose ideas, announce new tea party groups, float queries, and offer tips. (How can we maximize free publicity? Lawn signs, movie events, and digiprint postcards are cheap and effective.) A newcomer introduces a start-up tea party in Winfield, Ind. A coordinator in nearby South Bend offers a welcome. ("I know all these folks. I want to get you connected with them.")
Rick, from Albuquerque, N.M., asks if the national agenda includes investigating voter-roll irregularities, something his group is concerned about. Mark Meckler, a Tea Party Patriots coordinator and co-founder, weighs in. Newcomers "often don't understand how badly we need you to lead the way," he says. "If this is an area of concern to you," he admonishes, "the way the Tea Party Patriots works is that you guys really lead the organization. We're a relatively small group of people who are just trying to help coordinate. We're not in charge; we're not telling anybody what to do. You need to take a leadership role and stand up." Meckler suggests that Rick gather a group of people concerned about the issue and go to work.
Rick gets the message. "We'll get on the Ning [social-networking] site and try to take the lead on that."
Will vote fraud emerge as a tea party cause? Maybe, maybe not. Meckler, the closest thing the movement has to an organizational visionary, meant what he said. No one gives orders: In the expansive dominion of the Tea Party Patriots, which extends to thousands of local groups and literally countless activists, people just do stuff, talk to each other, imitate success, and move the movement.
"Essentially what we're doing is crowd-sourcing," says Meckler, whose vocabulary betrays his background as a lawyer specializing in Internet law. "I use the term open-source politics. This is an open-source movement." Every day, anyone and everyone is modifying the code. "The movement as a whole is smart."
Can it work? In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on so large a scale. Tea party activists believe that their hivelike, "organized but not organized" (as one calls it) structure is their signal innovation and secret weapon, the key to outlasting and outmaneuvering traditional political organizations and interest groups. They intend to rewrite the rule book for political organizing, turning decades of established practice upside down. If they succeed, or even half succeed, the tea party's most important legacy may be organizational, not political.
Out of Nowhere
The tea party began as a network, not an organization, and that is what it mostly remains. Disillusioned with President Bush's Republicans and disheartened by President Obama's election, in late 2008 several dozen conservatives began chattering on social-networking sites such as Top Conservatives on Twitter and Smart Girl Politics. Using those resources and frequent conference calls (the movement probably could not have arisen before the advent of free conference calling), they began to talk about doing something. What they didn't realize was that they were already doing something. In the very act of networking, they were printing the circuitry for a national jolt of electricity.
The spark came on February 19, 2009, when a CNBC journalist named Rick Santelli aired a diatribe against the bank bailout. "That," Meckler says, "was our source code." The next day, the networkers held a conference call and decided to stage protests in a few cities just a week later. No one was more astonished than the organizers when the network produced rallies in about 50 cities, organized virtually overnight by amateurs. Realizing that they had opened a vein, they launched a second round of rallies that April, this time turning out perhaps 600,000 people at more than 600 events.
Experienced political operatives were blown away. "It was inconceivable in the past" to stage so many rallies so quickly, in so many places, without big budgets for organizers and entertainment, says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime political organizer. Without a hook such as a musical show, he says, "I can't think of anything on the right or the left that mimics those numbers on a local level."
By the summer of 2009, tea parties were springing up all over. Multitudes of activists, operatives, and groups were claiming the tea party mantle, many of them at odds with or suspicious of each other. Believing that coordination was needed, an ad hoc committee emerged from among the core group and, by August of last year, had opened a bank account under the spontaneously chosen name of the Tea Party Patriots.
Today, the Tea Party Patriots is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group. It has seven national coordinators, five or so of whom draw salaries, which they decline to disclose but say are modest. Three other people get paychecks, according to Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder and national coordinator.
The organization has no offices, dwelling instead in activists' homes and laptops. Martin says it has raised just over $1 million in the past year, a trivial amount by the standards of national political organizers. About 75 percent of the group's funding comes from small donations, $20 or less, she says.
By conventional measures such as staff and budget, then, the Tea Party Patriots is minuscule. Viewed another way, however, it is, to use Martin's expression, "gi-normous." Lacking dues or bylaws, the network's closest thing to a membership roll is the list of groups that have registered with its website, now approaching 3,000 and spanning the country. The website, teapartypatriots.org, lists almost 200 tea parties in California alone.
Many states and localities have their own coordinators. Dawn Wildman, a national coordinator based in San Diego, doubles as a California state coordinator, hosting two weekly conference calls that typically include about 40 of 180 or so local coordinators. Organizers in Dallas are setting up a tea party in every ZIP code. "If the beauty of the tea party is decentralization," says Ken Emanuelson, a member of the Dallas steering committee, "in large metro areas like Dallas, the decentralization needs to go well below the metro area. It needs to go down into the neighborhoods. We go to our neighborhood groups, and we get our agenda from them." Asked how many neighborhood tea parties exist in the Dallas area, another citywide coordinator replied, "I don't even know."
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," 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."
Lava is a pretty good analogy. Ask the activists to characterize their organizational structure, however, and usually they will say it is a starfish.
Look, Ma, No Head
The Starfish and the Spider, a business book by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, was published in 2006 to no attention at all in the political world. The subtitle, however, explains its relevance to the tea party model: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.
Traditional thinking, the book contends, holds that hierarchies are most efficient at getting things done. Hierarchies, such as corporations, have leaders who can make decisions and set priorities; chains of command to hold everyone accountable; mechanisms to shift money and authority within the organization; rules and disciplinary procedures to prevent fracture and drift. This type of system has a central command, like a spider's brain. Like the spider, it dies if you thump it on the head.
The rise of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous, interpersonal interaction, however, has broken the spider monopoly, Brafman and Beckstrom argue. Radically decentralized networks — everything from illicit music-sharing systems to Wikipedia — can direct resources and adapt ("mutate") far faster than corporations can. "The absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset," the authors write. "Seemingly chaotic groups have challenged and defeated established institutions. The rules of the game have changed."
Moreover, hierarchies are at a loss to defeat networks. Open systems have no leader or headquarters; their units are self-funding, and their members often work for free (think Wikipedia). Even in principle, you can't count or compartmentalize the participants, because they come and go as they please — but counting them is unnecessary, because they can communicate directly with each other. Knowledge and power are distributed throughout the system.
As a result, the network is impervious to decapitation. "If you thump it on the head, it survives." No foolish or self-serving boss can wreck it, because it has no boss. Fragmentation, the bane of traditional organizations, actually makes the network stronger. It is like a starfish: Cut off an arm, and it grows (in some species) into a new starfish. Result: two starfish, where before there was just one.
"We're a starfish organization," says Scott Boston, the Tea Party Patriots' educational coordinator, and a rare paid staffer. He started a tea party group in Bowling Green, Ohio, but then let it slide when he went to school. Filling the gap, another group popped up; now there are two. Groups fuse as well as split. In Dallas, Emanuelson says, if a coordinator burns out, "sometimes another coordinator picks up the reins, but if not, a group can get involved with a nearby group." No one else even needs to know about it.
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.
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.
Ginni Rapini, of the NorCal Tea Party Patriots, holds training sessions in California every six weeks; just since March, she says, more than two dozen tea parties have launched in Northern California alone. Lorie Medina, who acts as recruiter and trainer for the Dallas Tea Party, says she can't count the number of groups she has helped launch or resuscitate; currently, she says, she is rolling out 15 to 20 youth groups in Texas and beyond.
That kind of uncontrolled growth would cause many a hierarchy to collapse. So would a rapid contraction. A network, by contrast, can constantly resize itself as it goes along.
Starfish Can't Catch Flies
Will it work? Is it sustainable? Is it really new?
As to new, yes and no. "There have been many efforts to create decentralized movements before," says Francesca Polletta, a sociologist at the University of California (Irvine) and a student of political movements. Those efforts, however, have been smaller in scale than the tea party. And, ironically, they have typically been offshoots of the political Left. (Structurally speaking, you could do worse than to think of the Tea Party Patriots as a left-wing organization with a right-wing, or at least libertarian, ideology.)
Polletta and David Meyer, another UC Irvine professor and the author of The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America, cite an assortment of earlier groups that tried to be both ambitious and headless: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s; the anti-nuclear-power movement and the Green Committees of Correspondence in the 1970s and '80s.
None proved durable in its decentralized form. The SDS and SNCC succumbed to dissension. The anti-nuke activists lost their issue when nuclear power lost momentum, partly as a result of their efforts. The Greens gradually centralized and now are a national political party. Few decentralized groups, Meyer notes, outlive the issues that brought them together.
One important, if partial, exception is MoveOn.org. It began in 1998 as a small online protest against President Clinton's impeachment, snowballed, and grew still bigger in opposition to the Iraq war. Although those issues are mostly gone, MoveOn is larger than ever. It boasts 5 million members and is a potent political force, able to rapidly mobilize and target political protests and donations.
In more than a few ways, MoveOn.org resembles the tea party movement. It emphasizes people power and civic engagement as a remedy for flawed governance. It owes its existence to new media and relies heavily on that world. It prides itself on following, rather than leading, its membership. "MoveOn.org is our members," says Joan Blades, the group's co-founder. "Our job is to listen as well as we possibly can to them. If we decided to do X or Y and that was not supported by our members, it would just fizzle. It wouldn't work."
But here is a difference: In addition to its thousands of volunteers, Blades says, MoveOn has a core staff of about 20, including a national political director, plus another 20 field staffers — all paid professionals.
"I would argue that MoveOn has had far more impact" than the tea party, at least so far, says Ralph Benko, a Washington-based public-affairs consultant and the author of The Websters' Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World. MoveOn strategizes nationally and focuses money and attention on winnable battles. "The reason the tea party isn't yet there is they don't yet make a distinction between friends and foes and persuadables," he says. "They don't yet make a distinction on who they can focus on to change a vote, or how they can change the fortunes of their preferred candidates. As long as they're in 'We hate you all' mode, I don't know if they'll manifest as a powerful national force."
Headless organizations have other problems. They are much better at mobilizing to stop a proposal or person they dislike than at agreeing on an alternative. They are bad at negotiating and compromising, because no one can speak for them, and many of their members regard compromising as selling out. They rely on volunteers, who can wander away or burn out.
"What I see is, every three, four, five months about 10 to 20 percent of your active people trail off," says Medina, the Dallas-based organizer. "Those numbers have to be replaced every few months. It's a continual grind to keep the numbers up."
Leaderless groups also have trouble protecting their brand against impostors, opportunists, and extremists who act in their name and sully their reputation — a vulnerability that the tea party's adversaries are currently doing their utmost to exploit.
"This kind of tenuous balance" — between decentralized structure and national ambitions — "is hard to sustain," Meyer says. "I would suspect the amount of influence they're going to have is peaking right about now, in the current Republican primaries."
It's Education, Stupid
To all of which, tea partiers reply: Just watch us.
"That's what traditional thinking has been," says Tea Party Patriots co-founder Martin, a bustling activist who seems never to pause for breath. "Look where traditional thinking has gotten us — and look at what we've done in just the last three months."
Answering the skeptics, tea partiers point out that bygone efforts at radical decentralization lacked Internet-age networking and communications technologies — without which, of course, the tea party movement could not have arisen in the first place. The Tea Party Patriots' very existence suggests that something new is afoot. One coordinator notes that Facebook alone allows the movement to communicate with up to 2 million people simultaneously.
Rogue elements, it is true, cannot be fired or forced into line. But the movement can and does marginalize them by dropping them from the website, excluding them from coordinating meetings, and generally ignoring them. The main body of the movement simply flows around marginal actors, consigning them to irrelevance.
As for the objection that headless groups are bad at negotiating and strategizing and leveraging influence, the Tea Party Patriots' answer underscores the unconventionality of their thinking: We don't care.
Well, they do care — some. Sure, they say, replacing bad politicians is worthwhile. Sure, changing policies is a goal. Yes, politics matters. If it didn't, local tea parties wouldn't be pressing their members to run for office and change things from the bottom up, much as religious conservatives did a generation ago. Nor would they be producing and disseminating soup-to-nuts guides on how to hold candidate forums, stage rallies, set up new tea party groups, and conduct get-out-the-vote campaigns, as many are doing.
But, tea partiers say, if you think moving votes and passing bills are what they are really all about, you have not taken the full measure of their ambition. No, the real point is to change the country's political culture, bending it back toward the self-reliant, liberty-guarding instincts of the Founders' era. Winning key congressional seats won't do that, nor will endorsing candidates. "If you just tell people to vote but you don't talk about the underlying principles," Martin says, "you just have to do it again and again and again, in every election."
What will work, they believe, is education: DVDs on American history; "founding principles" training; online reading lists; constitutional discussion groups; cultural and youth programs. In Tennessee, says Anthony Shreeve, an organizer there, groups are giving courses on the Constitution and "socialism and the different types of isms," bringing in speakers from around the state. "Our members have gotten more involved and learned about our local government, how it works, and what kind of influence we can have," Shreeve says. "Education has been the biggest thing."
Not coincidentally, the educational coordinator is among the Tea Party Patriots' handful of paid employees. "Our real mission," says Sally Oljar, a national coordinator, "is education and providing resources to grassroots activists who want to return the country to our founding principles. We recognize that's going to require a cultural change that will take many years to accomplish."
Many years? How many? "We have a 40-year plan," Meckler says. "We don't want to raise another generation of sheeple."
One hears again, there, echoes of leftist movements. Raise consciousness. Change hearts, not just votes. Attack corruption in society, not just on Capitol Hill. In America, right-wing movements have tended to focus on taking over politics, left-wing ones on changing the culture. Like its leftist precursors, the Tea Party Patriots thinks of itself as a social movement, not a political one.
Centerless swarms are bad at transactional politics. But they may be pretty good at cultural reform. In any case, the experiment begins.