By J.R. Dunn
American politics has never seen anything quite like the Tea Parties, though few appreciate the revolutionary organizational principle powering the movement. A major reason why the Tea Parties have been so successful, why the political establishment has found them so difficult to combat (and one that explains, among other things, why I've chosen to use the plural in referring to them), lies in their organization.
The Tea Parties comprise a distributed network -- a non-hierarchical system of autonomous nodes with no central control point, and with all nodes possessing the same value and freedom to act independently. A distributed network can be compared to a beehive. All the bees know their particular task and complete it autonomously, without directions from a central authority. If a threat appears, the bees overwhelm it not by direct confrontation, but by swarming, driving it away with sheer force of numbers.
Readers with a background in computer tech will recognize the distributed network as the preferred method of organizing computer networks, including the internet itself. Distributed networks are far less vulnerable to breakdowns and intrusions than hierarchical networks. In a hierarchical network, once the control nodes are knocked out, the system is kaput until they are replaced. In a distributed network, the damage is absorbed by the entire system, with the disabled nodes shut down and operations rerouted to working nodes. As we've seen with the net, this makes the system nearly invulnerable. (No surprise there -- DarpaNet was designed to withstand full-scale nuclear strikes.) Since the net went public, the concept has been adapted in other sectors of society, resulting in similar social and educational networks. It would not be going too far to say that it has become the representative form of organization of the millennial world. As such, it has inevitably found its way into the nation's political life.
Unlike the internet, the organization of the Tea Parties was generated not by design, but spontaneously. The movement began with a television commentary by Rick Santelli on his Chicago-based CNBC business program. Santelli was extremely critical of Obama administration business policies, and he utilized the 1773 Boston Tea Party as a metaphor in calling for resistance against the administration. Although Santelli was ridiculed in the legacy media, something in his commentary touched a chord with the public. Word of it spread among concerned citizens across the country through the net, Twitter, and Facebook. A video of the show went viral. The political establishment ignored it as yet another empty internet fad.
But it was no such thing. The anxiety and anger exposed by Santelli's words found an outlet in that summer's town hall meetings. Long reduced to a method of Rockwellizing an unsavory political establishment, town hall meetings provided an opportunity for politicians to strut in front of constituents, boasting of how many earmarks they'd obtained, how many deals they'd made, how much money was flowing in. The public was expected to listen in quiet gratitude.
But it didn't work that way in 2009. For the first time in years -- decades, in some cases -- the voters had real questions, involving the run-amok policies of Obama and his tame Congress. They wanted to know about the TARP bailouts, the payoffs to the banks, the GM expropriation, and particularly about the pending health-care takeover, possibly the most loathed political action of the past fifty years. But the politicians had no answers. Such an onslaught was totally unprecedented, leaving most representatives nonplussed and overwhelmed. The majority fled from the meetings pursued by waves of voter contempt.
The town hall uprising at last attracted media interest. In customary fashion, media figures were less inclined to learn the facts than to wax frivolous. Members of the new movement were dismissed as "teabaggers," a gay slur introduced by Anderson Cooper. (And a puzzling one -- surely, a "teabagger" is the one who performs the act on a submissive partner. Cooper must have known this. Was he making an indirect reference to the status of politicians vis-à-vis the voters?) The legacy media also attempted to tar the movement with accusations of racism, classism, and xenophobia, portraying the members as snaggle-toothed trailer trash manipulated by clever reactionaries. Nancy Pelosi denounced them as astroturfers.
None of it stuck. The Tea Parties continued organizing through early 2010, utilizing innovative infotech methodology. (Thank you, Al Gore!) Conservative media, both traditional and online, offered full support (with a few not unexpected Northeastern exceptions). Astute politicians -- Sarah Palin above all -- laid down their markers. The passage of ObamaCare in March served to supercharge the movement. The Tea Parties responded with an effort to recruit and support citizen politicians, for the express purpose of turning the American political structure inside-out. As this is being written, the despised and dismissed Tea Parties have become the major factor in the 2010 midterms. They have wrecked the careers of at least five notable GOP figures and threaten perhaps ten times as many Democrats.
All this has come about with no explicit organization, no leadership, no central committees, no manifesto, no charter, no written plan whatsoever. Santelli played no active role after his original exhortation launched the movement. Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and other media figures offered support and guidance but in no way acted as ringmasters. The same is true of Sarah Palin, who, while more than a simple figurehead, would likely be the first to admit that she did not act as a leader.
The organization of the Tea Parties, and the effects produced by that organization, are emergent properties, rising out of nowhere with no planning, forethought, or external input, coming into being solely as a result of the exploitation of the available technological substrate by individuals and small groups. And yet this movement has shaken American society and has gone a long way toward overthrowing the reigning political superstructure. This is an astonishing chain of events, one that deserves a lot more analysis than it has yet received.
Military strategists, particularly students of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency, will recognize the similarities between the Tea Parties and guerrilla forces along with (to be forthright) terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. The concept of the guerrilla force as distributed network was formalized by Mao Tse-Tung in the 1930s, when he sent small units of his Eighth Route Army to live in villages alongside the peasantry to serve as protectors and propagandists for the Maoist version of Marxism. The resulting network acted as a formidable basis for resistance against Nationalist forces. The concept was later adapted and bungled by Che Guevara. The jihadis have attempted to construct an equivalent structure with limited success -- you can do only so much with misfits and losers.
The difference is, of course, that the Tea Parties represent democracy in action. Motivation and goals make all the difference. Modern technology allows almost pure democratic activity on an informal basis. The results have been beneficial up until now. We must work to see that they remain so.
I will merely mention that distributed networks have a number of weaknesses, and they can be defeated. I will not go into detail on these matters here.
How will such an informal network convert to a formal political system to replace the innately corrupt kleptocracy that we have today? This, it seems to me, is a necessary evolution to assure that upcoming reforms are not simply shoved aside or undermined once the national political situation returns to normal. This may well turn out to be one of the most profound political questions of our era. It's not one that's going to be answered in a single essay.
Or is it conceivable that the distributed network embodied by the Tea Parties could become a political system in and of itself? This is a tantalizing possibility. In ancient Athens, the citizenry met as a whole to decide critical questions. Could such a system return in our day, with the net and Twitter and Facebook replacing the Athenian agora? How would this function in relation to established constitutional principles? How, under such circumstances, do we preserve the safeguards of representative government?
In an insightful scene in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo has an archdeacon look up from a copy of a printed Bible to the cathedral and think, "This will kill that." And so it happened -- mass literacy, cheap books, and the vernacular wrecked, both for good and ill, the closed, hierarchical, yet secure medieval world. Today we look up from our Blackberries and iPods to the Capital, and think the same thing.
And what will come of that?