Jonathan Rauch understands what makes the Tea Party powerful.
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.
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