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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Tea Party Movement as a Starfish

Jonathan Rauch has a very smart article at National Journal:
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.

Activists, he explains, liken the movement to a starfish:

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. ... 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.

In August, Kenneth Vogel wrote in Politico:

In fact, FreedomWorks has included the book in an eclectic lecture series for grass-roots activists that also includes the writings of Friedrich August Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Alinsky, author of 1971’s “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.” Brandon explained, “One of the last books that we were kind of hot on was ‘The Tipping Point,’ and a lot of our activists read it to understand how you get to this mass, this point, and then — bam — all of a sudden you become a movement. Well, that happened. Now, we’re in this movement, and it is kind of uncomfortable when there is no coordination. So when you read [Starfish], it makes you more at ease and comfortable with the way this movement is growing.”

But the book also seems to encapsulate some of the central dilemmas facing tea party activists as they struggle to transition from a protest movement to one that flexes its muscles through lobbying and electing representatives who share their small-government principles.

A faithful application of the starfish theory would seem to hold that, in order to perpetuate the tea party’s grass-roots momentum, tea partiers should reject the compromises often necessary to unite behind candidates and resist the temptation to raise the money and build the centralized infrastructure traditionally used to elect them.

“The tea party is encountering a very spidery political system where it is about power and it is about money and it is about getting someone into office,” Brafman told POLITICO. “It can be easier to unite around shared values if you’re not trying to elect people into office.”

“If the tea party starts bringing money and power into the equation, that makes some people more equal than others, and they will start losing the advantages of being adaptable and starfish-like,” Brafman said. “That’s the biggest challenge the tea party movement is facing.”