Jonathan Rauch on the Tea Party as an Open-Source Movement

by Reihan Salam

Rather surprisingly, Jonathan Rauch, one of my favorite writers, has emerged as the most keenly observant chronicler of the Tea Party movement. I say surprisingly because I’ve never thought of Rauch as a political reporter per se, yet it’s clear that he has a knack for it. As much as I admire National Journal, I think his essay on “The Tea Party Paradox” deserved a much wider audience. And his latest article, “How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders,” is similarly insightful:

“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.

The open structure of the Tea Party movement allows it to leverage relatively modest financial resources into a tremendously high level of political effectiveness:

 

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.

And as Rauch explains, the organization has no chain of command, a quality that flummoxes most political journalists. Yet it is this very quality that makes the movement self-propelling and self-guiding. Activists don’t have to wait for approval from central office, and so they’e able to spring into action to capitalize on a compelling, potentially popular idea. They do, however, suffer from a serious limitation:

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.

This is the kind of thing those of us of a wonky bent lament. Tea Partiers can win races. It’s not, however, clear that they can build a constituency for difficult compromises. Yet this might be too narrow a view of what the Tea Party might accomplish:

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.” [Emphasis added.]

This reminds me of Glenn Beck’s talk of a Third Great Awakening, and Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. If the Tea Party movement really does change our relationship to government, by helping us move beyond the idea of the citizen as supplicant, it will have done the country a great service. But it’s early yet.

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.

Contrast Rauch’s coverage of the Tea Party movement with Frank Rich’s fatuous suggestion that it is an artifical cat’s paw of corrupt billionaires. We’re lucky to have journalists of Rauch’s caliber. 

P.S. I was disappointed that Rauch didn’t talk to my old friend John Robb, who wrote a blog post on a similar theme in February. Robb takes a somewhat darker perspective on the near-term future of U.S. politics, and he often offers a useful corrective to consensus thinking.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.