The Tea Party Movement: Open-Source Politics

by on September 16, 2010 · 12 comments

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see in among the last several weeks’ dreck some Tweets skeptical of various themes about the Tea Party movement—chiefly that they’re significantly racist/xenophobic, or that they’re handmaidens of figures like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.

I may have been bending over backwards to resist attempts to define the Tea Party movement. In secret, I’ve thought about parallels to punk rock, which seemed at times to have as many strains as people. Part of being punk was not fitting into anyone else’s categories, and the Tea Party seems to have this quality—rejecting Washington, D.C.’s party labels and ideological affiliations.

Well, I’ve finally come across a careful assessment of the Tea Party movement. National Journal‘s Jonathan Rauch spent a good deal of time studying the Tea Party movement and came up with the article (and video), “How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders.”

The winner paragraph for me:

“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.”

I do believe there is something special about the Tea Party movement. Somewhat like the Internet regards censorship as damage and routes around it, the Tea Party routes around centralizers’ attempts to capture its mojo.

There are plenty working to capture its mojo: Right-wing and Republican leaders are using it to aggrandize themselves, marching in front of the Tea Party for TV cameras and newspapers. Left-wing groups and progressives are searching for—and finding—the racism and xenophobia that unfortunately does exist in any large collection of average Americans. The decentralized character of the Tea Party movement makes it easy for charlatans to claim its mantle and fund-raise deceptively on the “Tea Party” brand.

There are some bad people in the Tea Party movement, just like there are some bad users of the Internet. But overall a self-organizing political/cultural network will produce better things—and faster—than a hierarchical organization.

I’d love to have the Tea Party movement push for exquisitely libertarian outcomes, and I regret hearing Tea Party participants veer into anything resembling racism, fear of Islam, or anti-immigration rhetoric, but I don’t get to own the Tea Party either.

If there is a theme that doesn’t unfairly push the Tea Party movement into a box, I think it’s “self-government.” It seems like Tea Partiers are tired of being told how to do their politics, tired of being told how their government is going to run them. On the whole, I’ll stand up for a network of people who think like that—but don’t try to push me into a box either.

Update: David Boaz has written an excellent post at Cato@Liberty about the Tea Party movement’s relationships to libertarianism and social conservatism.

  • jrep

    “Crowd source” and “open source” are quite different things; which is it?

  • Steve R.

    Keep the posts coming, even if we don't always agree.

    Two things disturb me about the Tea Party Movement. While they recognize the problem they don't have a solution. Its a feel-good rally populist movement who's time has arrived.

    What astonishes me is the media coverage of the Tea Party movement. The media, the Washington Post and the New York Times anyway, seem intent on vilifying the movement through negative articles. Why vilify a movement when all you have to do is stick a microphone in front of a Tea Party advocate and ask the question “How will you balance the budget?” I don't believe the Tea party has an answer. Its a sad commentary on our media when they don't cover stories factually but instead use innuendo to discredit what could be a legitimate movement.

  • Richard Bennett

    I think it's good old fashioned mob rule.

  • Jim Harper

    @jrep – The two are related: Open source software allows crowd-sourced bug fixing, add-ons, etc. For me, the analogies work.

    @Steve R. – As Rauch notes in the article, the Tea Party movement is as much about cultural change as a political/policy program. The expectation that political leaders will adhere to the constitution, for example, will draw forth elected officials that have concrete solutions.

    @Richard Bennett – You'd prefer rule by experts? I'm as opposed to mob rule as anyone and place liberty above democracy in my personal list of values. A Constitution-waving mob does not seem as threatening as, say, a mob demanding I pay for their health care.

  • Richard

    Yes, I generally prefer experts over the Great Unwashed, and don't regard the Constitution as divenly-inspired. Populism generally leads to bad results.

  • Richard Bennett

    …and by “bad results”, I mean Christine O'Donnell.

  • Jim Harper

    You've raised imprecise ideological hand-waving to a high art form, Richard.

  • Richard Bennett

    That's Open Source politics for you.

  • quanticle

    The thing that worries me about the Tea Party is the inevitable backlash that'll occur when they elect some people and those elected representatives find that its a lot harder to freeze and roll back government spending than they thought it would be. How will they explain that to the activists that are supporting them now? How will they deal with the reaction of those activists? What will that reaction look like?

    For me, the Tea Party saga is just beginning.

    EDIT: I also think it'll be interesting to see how brittle the Tea Party is when they face electoral loss. Sure, its easy to look unbeatable when all you have are victories in primaries. Its quite another thing to sustain a movement in the face of repeated defeats in general elections.

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