Sunday, September 26, 2010

Practicing What They Preach: Jonathan Rauch on the Tea Parties

Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal writes an excellent piece on the the tea parties, Inside the Tea Party's Collective Brain.

I know it's the all the rage for media outlets to try an "get inside the head" of the tea parties these days, but this article is set very much apart from the rest. It has far more to do with organizational structure than politics.

This video provides a brief synopsis:





The ideas in the article seem a lot more Clay Shirky than Glenn Beck:

"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.

Watching both the Left and the Right wrestle with concepts central to understanding a distributed organization is fascinating, because the nature of the tea parties is just so alien to people who think that top-down hierarchy and bureaucracy are the only forms of organization possible:
From Washington's who's-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seem [...] 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.
There are lessons in this article that can both serve as a model for truly decentralized political movements, as well as function as a warning to those who would write about the tea parties as if it were just another political interest group (or even more off-target, "astroturf").

While there seems to be a natural connection between the sentiments of the tea parties' feelings towards an overly strong centralized government and a radically decentralized political movement, there's nothing here that make this kind of organization exclusive to the political Right.
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. 
Whether you agree with their politics or not (or whether the varied tea parties even agree with each other's politics) is beside the point. This is a pretty fundamental leap forward in organizations, and it likely won't be the last of it's kind, on the Left or the Right.

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