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The Tea Party Is a Giant Political Starfish

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: Tea Party, Republican Party, Conservatism, Jonathan Rauch, Politics, National Journal, Will Wlizlo,


As a starfish blindly ambles across the sea floor, its five arms grope independently of each other. Instead of being controlled by a central brain, each limb has its own compartmentalized nervous system that can communicate with the others. Capturing food, escaping from predators, and locating a mate are processes that rely on a fine balance of collaboration and independence. On account of its decentralized biology, argues National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch, a starfish is a fitting analogy for the Tea Party.

What Rauch is alluding to is a political tack called radical decentralization. He contends:

In American politics, radical decentralization has never been tried on so large a scale. Tea party activists believe that their hivelike, ‘organized but not organized’ (as one calls it) structure is their signal innovation and secret weapon, the key to outlasting and outmaneuvering traditional political organizations and interest groups. They intend to rewrite the rule book for political organizing, turning decades of established practice upside down. If they succeed, or even half succeed, the tea party's most important legacy may be organizational, not political. 

One of the Tea Party’s greatest strengths is that it lacks a central figure who calls the shots for the entire movement. “The network is impervious to decapitation,” Rauch writes. 

No foolish or self-serving boss can wreck it, because it has no boss. Fragmentation, the bane of traditional organizations, actually makes the network stronger. It is like a starfish: Cut off an arm, and it grows (in some species) into a new starfish. Result: two starfish, where before there was just one. 

In the following video, Rauch elaborates on the starfish analogy—including how the Tea Party’s decentralized tactics may clash with the Republican Party’s traditional command structure. 

: National Journal 

Image by Ed Bierman, licensed under Creative Commons.