Open-source activism

Reihan Salam has a typically insightful post up on the ‘keenly observant’ chronicling of the Tea Party movement by National Journal writer, Jonathan Rauch who, as it happens, I was listening to on NPR this morning talking about the Tea Parties. It was a good interview, and touched especially on the phenomenon of being a truly national yet still grassroots movement without any leadership. Indeed, the movement isn’t even a hydra yet – there are not even competing heads vying for leadership of the still very decentralized Tea Parties.

Reihan links to two essays by Rauch. The first, “The Tea Party Paradox” illustrates how the growth of the Tea Party movement may actually come at the expense of the Republican Party – something we’ve been witnessing for the past few primary elections, and a point driven home by the recent victory of Christine O’Donnell over the Republican ‘establishment’ candidate, Mike Castle.

Rauch calls the Tea Partiers who have left the Republican Party as ‘debranded Republicans’. Rauch has a host of fascinating data on these ‘debranded Republicans’ who, he says, tend to be less socially conservative and more focused on fiscal conservatism and shrinking government. The entire essay is well worth the read, and – for the chart-lovers among you – is well stocked with charts and graphs from the Pew Research Center. All in all, it’s not a pretty picture for Republicans.

The more interesting of the two articles, however, is Rauch’s “How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders.” There are a number of advantages to the radically decentralized model used by the Tea Parties, but some disadvantages, too. After reading about Christine O’Donnell all day, this passage in particular leapt out at me:

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.

Washington Examiner’s David Freddoso explained earlier how O’Donnell has been doing just this with her own candidacy, calling her “a grifter who understands conservative rhetoric.”

This is just the year for a candidate to win with a campaign based almost entirely on paranoid rhetoric about the party establishment trying to do her in. Expect to hear more, but also expect that more O’Donnell’s will mean fewer citizen-candidates in the future, because she will hurt the credibility of tea partiers.

I remain very skeptical of the Tea Party movement, myself. I’ve expressed doubts before that it will be able to sustain its own victories, that once the GOP is no longer the minority but the governing party, the Tea Parties will fizzle out. I am still mostly convinced that this is the case. But I could be wrong.

Reihan highlights this pasage from the Rauch piece:


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.

If the Tea Parties can exist beyond the Age of Obama, then good for them, but I remain dubious. If they can foment a cultural sea change on the right which truly moves the focus toward limited government and away from many of the very bad policies of the Bush administration, again – good for them. And if that cultural change also makes more Americans more involved in civics, this will be a huge victory for everyone, and a teachable moment for liberals as well whose own ability to organize in the 2008 elections seemed to quickly sputter out after victory.

2010 will be an interesting election year, but the real test of the Tea Parties will be the next time a Republican takes up residence in the White House.

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