The tea party as leaderless network

National Journal has an interesting piece on the Tea Party (whoa, hold on, this isn’t going to be a political screed) and their organization, or rather, their lack of it.

Strange though it may seem, this is a coordinated network, not a hierarchy. There is no chain of command. No group or person is subordinate to any other. The tea parties are jealously independent and suspicious of any efforts at central control, which they see as a sure path to domination by outside interests.

The article doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground since much of this has been covered previously in discussions about network-centric warfare but it does probably hit a different audience here.

Decentralized networks have a lot of advantages over hierarchical organizations yet also come with some substantial disadvantages (which may be why most networks strive to impose structure as soon as they can).

“What I see is, every three, four, five months about 10 to 20 percent of your active people trail off,” says Medina, the Dallas-based organizer. “Those numbers have to be replaced every few months. It’s a continual grind to keep the numbers up.”

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.

“This kind of tenuous balance” — between decentralized structure and national ambitions — “is hard to sustain,” Meyer says. “I would suspect the amount of influence they’re going to have is peaking right about now, in the current Republican primaries.”

I have to admit, the future of a decentralized Tea Party seems pretty unlikely.  The current hysteria (by your current author as well) seems unlikely to be warranted over the long term.  After all, the early ’90s were marked by a rapid rise in the existence of militias and separatist groups that advocated ‘leaderless resistance’.  After the economy improved and it became clear Bill Clinton was not going to bust into everyone’s home, kick their dog and make wild monkey love to their daughters on the constitution the movement kind of fizzled out.

How long can we expect the Tea Party to carry on, especially in the unlikely event that they they come to wield some sort of influence on the national stage.  After all,

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.

Is enthusiasm likely to be maintained over time when you don’t have much of a unifying ideology?  Our system of government is designed to drain the enthusiasm out of radical or original movements and so I don’t see how crowd-sourcing to get people elected to a body that can’t do much without a two-thirds majority is going to get anywhere.  In this regard, electoral success might be just as detrimental to the long term health of any burgeoning Tea Party movement as electoral defeat.

Answering the skeptics, tea partiers point out that bygone efforts at radical decentralization lacked Internet-age networking and communications technologies — without which, of course, the tea party movement could not have arisen in the first place.

Ah, the famous “Oh yeah, but this time it’s different!” rationale.  Given that has been used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the housing, financial and tech bubbles and who knows how many attempts at Middle  East peace, forgive me for being a bit skeptical that twitter will be the glue that holds together the Tea Party.   Ah, but perhaps I’m taking too superficial a view…

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.

Well, you can’t say they aren’t ambitious.  Change the entire culture (and perhaps even parts of human nature)?  Yeah, I think the communists might have some lessons learned in that department.  Maybe they can open up some time in their calendar…they’ve been pretty busy since 1989.

At some point a network that grows too large has to develop some sort of structure and leadership or it will disintegrate from its own momentum or become a watered down version of itself.  The internet is great for making connections but I see little evidence that it provides any real benefit to cohesion (which any movement needs in order to survive).  I just don’t see how this ends well for them over the long term…

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