So I just got done reading this fascinating piece on the upcoming Tea Party convention, and I had a bit of an epiphany. The author kept talking about waiting to see if the movement could be organized into a “political machine” with “influence” while pointing out the inherent challenges in organizing rather disparate groups, some of whom are characterized precisely by their resistance to being organized (herding cats came to mind more than once as I read). And the more I thought about what I’ve observed going on and how it’s been playing out, the more it seemed to me that any attempt to push these tea party folks into the conventional idea of a “political party” or framework of some sort is most likely doomed to failure at best and irrelevance at worst. Rather, the strength of the movement, if it proves out to have any at all over time, will be due to the disconnected but like-minded nature of the various participants and groups.
More specifically, I realized that what’s been happening in the software world for the past 10-20 years may be a useful and perhaps instructive analogy. You could substitute “Microsoft” for “Democrats”, “IBM and others” for “Republicans”, and “the Free/Open Source Software movement” for “the Tea Party movement”, and write a very, very similar analysis of the world of software maybe 10 years ago. The open source movement is very disparate, organic, passionate and apathetic by turn, lively, contentious, frequently at odds with itself, and above all wildly successful, with emphasis on “wildly”. It is not a company like Microsoft or IBM, does not enter into contracts or make business deals, does not have a spokesman or PR department, and does not in any way have a board or any other semblance of centralized control structure. It is comprised of folks from any and every demographic you can think of, and probably a few you can’t. Genders, ages, religions, philosophies political and moral, skills, geographies, economies, you name it, all are represented in the open source community. Its single defining characteristic is the emphasis on freedom — freedom to tinker, freedom to learn, freedom to create, and freedom to give that freedom to others. Anyone who wants to be involved doesn’t have to apply, doesn’t have to get permission, doesn’t have to go through volunteer training. You just jump in and do it. If you want to see how something works, pop open the hood. If you want to figure out why someone else’s open source program has a bug in it and see if you can fix it, knock yourself out. If you think you can do a better job than what someone else put out there, by all means roll up your sleeves and go for it.
So what’s the point here? The point is that open source’s very strength comes from the fact that it’s almost a free-for-all, a community of folks who have similar ideas but are free to put flesh around those ideas in any way they see fit. Any given project will naturally have its own control structure, with the creators and maintainers accepting or declining input from others and generally running the project as they like. But that has no bearing on what anyone else does with any other project, and shouldn’t — other projects have other goals, other considerations, other priorities. Sometimes mutual goals foster collaboration, other times there is direct competition or even confrontation, and that’s okay. It is a living, vibrant, active community, not a machine.
Which brings me back to the tea party folks. They may all agree on certain Libertarian-esque ideals, primarily freedom from as much government intervention in their lives as possible, but what that looks like in Florida may be entirely different than what that looks like in Montana or Indiana or New Hampshire, or for that matter Washington, DC. It certainly looked different between New York and Massachusetts recently. Tea partiers in this state may want the Republican, while those in that city may want the Democrat given the options available, while some other congressional district may support the Independent against both major parties or even write someone in. These folks are passionate about what they’re doing and individualistic by nature, and they’ve seen the power of getting involved.
The Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was ground-breaking in a number of ways, but one that has been analyzed and celebrated again and again was how well it gathered and harnessed the collective interests and passions of millions of supporters into a somewhat cohesive whole. A second and closely related way is how well it controlled its message and presentation. Everywhere you looked you saw the same images, logos, fonts (for those who notice such things), colors, and talking points. Everything was efficient, engineered, and expertly driven.
The answer to that is not a Republican copycat campaign, mimicking the methods and control of the original (though they may well try). The answer is the antithesis of all of that. It’s people saying what’s on their minds, not what they’ve been told to say. It’s voters supporting a candidate because they like her ideas, not because her name’s in the right column. It’s citizens expressing their views in any way, medium, and method they see fit with no concern for approval channels or whose interests they might offend. The Tea Party movement is open source politics. It’s we, the people, waking up.
Maybe my impressions are off. I haven’t met with any tea party groups or talked to an of its leaders or anything. But from what I see, trying to take what’s happening and stuff it into a well-formed political suit misses the point, and runs the risk of robbing it of the very thing that makes it alive: freedom.