Is The Tea Party Like A Starfish, Like the Apache… Like al Qaeda?

-By Warner Todd Huston

Politico’s Kenneth Vogel has an interesting piece on a book that Tea Party activists are starting to glom onto as an administrative guidebook of sorts. The book, “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” is a book that explains how leaderless organizations work and can be effective. Of late tea partiers have accepted the tome as a way to explain the success of their movement as well as a way to legitimize their hold on a certain amount of power into the future.

The book, written by two lefty Stanford MBAs, has become what Vogel calls an “unlikely” guidebook for a conservative movement.

The principle of the book is in its title. The spider of the title is the typical top-down organization. Cut the spider’s head off and you have a dead spider and presumably, in the analogy, a dead organization. However, a starfish can regenerate itself if it loses an arm. Further that severed arm can also become a starfish that lives on because there is no “head” per se in a starfish. Cut up a starfish and you have many smaller starfish, not a dead one.

The thought is that the tea party movement is like a starfish. No head, no hierarchy, no way to “kill” it in the traditional sense.

Now, I must say one thing about Vogel’s piece. It will certainly destroy the left’s contention that the tea party movement is an “astroturf” effort. For the entire first year of its existence the left has tried to claim, falsely, that the tea party movement was invented by Fox News, or is a top-down creation by folks like Dick Army, former Congressman and top man for FreedomWorks.

But the truth is easy for anyone that isn’t blinded by partisan hatred to see. The tea party groups are not coordinated in any way whatever. Even within each state the tea party groups aren’t connected one to the other in any meaningful way. In fact, that is the Republican’s main problem. They have no idea how to get their hands around the tea party groups and turn tea party passion into success at the polls for machine politicians.

But I think Vogel’s piece and perhaps even the Spider/Starfish book misses some important factors in gauging the tea party movement. Now I, too, have struggled with trying to gauge whether or not the tea party movement will have long-term legs in the political world but I don’t think anyone can really know what sort of long-term power the movement will have.

Me, I tend to fear it won’t have much long-term power. The main problem we have for longevity is precisely what created the tea party in the first place: frustration. People were frustrated with the un-American, left-wing, Euroesque path down which the United States went and the reaction against this left turn was the rise of the tea party groups. People threw their hands up against the Democrats, sure, but also against the GOP that proved to be Dem. lite with its “compassionate conservatism” which was just an excuse to spend us into a hole just like Democrats do.

So what is the worry? The worry is that the cynicism and frustration that gave birth to the tea party movement will also weigh it down and kill it. If things don’t change fast enough politically, will the tea party have the stamina to stick in the game and keep applying what pressure they can for their ideological druthers? Or will the tea party folks get frustrated too quickly and abandon their activism? I worry that it will all peter out soon after the 2012 elections and will, in the end, be less an agent for change than it could be.

I certainly hope I’m wrong. I, for one, want the tea party movement to succeed.

Additionally I think the main premise of the Spider/Starfish book is one that can easily mislead tea party folks into thinking this is the perfect explanation for their power, one that will assure their long-term success. In one case the book uses the example of the Apache people and how for 200 years they prevented the Spanish from seeping up from Mexico and over taking what would become the United States of America (this is pre-English America we’re talking about here). The reason the Apache were successful against the Conquistadors, the book explains, is because there was no Apache nation per se for the Spanish to conquer. The Spaniards were stymied because the hit and run, loosely organized, rootless Apache ran roughshod over them and thwarted Spanish power.

Sounds like a wonderful tale of Samson vs Goliath, no? One problem. The Spaniards were never able to bring the full force of their power to bear on the Apache because Spanish power was based in Europe, not the Americas. After all, what happened once the U.S. finally turned its attention to defeating the Apache? It was able to do so because its unyielding power was here, based locally, and able to be brought to bear on the smaller, disparate Apache structure. As to a starfish, what happens when a big, giant human pulls it out of the ocean and casts it casually upon the shore? It dies. Great power can, indeed, crush the leaderless organization, to be sure. Just being leaderless is no surety of success.

Look at al Qaeda. The book also likens the tea party to the somewhat amorphous al Qaeda movement. But al Qaeda, while not defeated, has been materially hurt by the might of the United States of America.

There’s one other problem with the whole concept of the leaderless structure and the supposed power it wields as delineated in the book. In almost every case in the book the “power” that the leaderless organization has was acquired accidentally. The book uses the example of Napster nearly toppling the music industry because an almost spontaneous organization of music downloaders crushed the old top-down business model controlled by the studios and music producers.

But here is the thing; no one created Napster with intention to bring down the music industry. It just happened. It was a great, spontaneous, accident. No one created the Apache people’s lifestyle with the intent to beat the Spaniards. It was an accident of fate. It just happened.

I say this is a problem because a political ideology is not just a meandering accident. It is built on meaningful principles, history, and tradition. Further the sort of political change that tea party groups want to affect is based on American tradition, not some new, unheard of, amorphous set of ideas that have accidentally developed into a political power. We want to go back to tried and true American ideas, not remake things in some rush of creativity.

Worse, the book picks the abolition of slavery and the women’s suffrage movements as great examples of the starfish organization. This is also misleading for tea party folks. After all, abolition and universal suffrage had but one goal each. The tea party groups have all sorts of goals — some different from each other — so they don’t have a single, all consuming purpose to unite them as slavery abolitionists or women’s suffragists did.

Now, I almost hate to post this here. I have posted things like this before and invariably I get the outraged tea party guys wanting to claim that I want to see them defeated, ignored or marginalized. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want the tea party movement to succeed in push America back on the right track. But I’ll risk posing this here anyway because I know that this audience is smart enough to engage the ideas herein and approach it with logic and reason.

So, all this leads up to the main problem that the tea party folks have and that is how to affect political change. Politics, whether you like it or not, IS a top-down business. We elect a top man from our area and send him to the top headquarters in D.C. He acts the CEO for us while we act the board of directors and try to direct his actions. If we don’t like him, we fire him and elect a new CEO for our area. This is all as traditional as it gets.

The political arena is swayed by money and voting blocks. Unfortunately, the only way to bring those to bear is to organize a top-down effort. It cannot be affected by everyone looking around for someone else to take the lead. And this, I fear, is where the frustration will reoccur and the cynicism will deepen as the tea partiers throw up their hands in despair that our system can ever “work right” again.

And on top of all that, our system was created specifically to act slowly and to blunt the sometimes over reaction of “the mob,” so quick change is not really a feature of the American political system in the first place. Will the tea party movement understand that politics is for long haul? Will they “get” that they can’t just swoop in, make some sort of major changes, and then go home satisfied of a job well done finished with their activism?

This is what the left implicitly understands. They aren’t disgusted by the political process. They understand that this is a life-long project. The commies, for instance, always had a new five-year plan to topple the west. Alinsky understood that agitation was for the long haul. In fact, Alinsky rally didn’t have much else but agitation. He saw it as perpetual.

Will the tea partiers understand that they will have to gain the reins of old-fashioned power, will they “get” that this isn’t just a one or two election cycle project that will yield a return to the real America? Will they understand that this is not a single battle ahead of them but a multi-generational war that will never end?

Their enemy sure does.

If they don’t it won’t matter how many arms they can have cut off, they will still be ineffective and powerless. If the tea party groups don’t settle in for the boring, dirty, gritty world of politics, they simply won’t be able to push Washington back on the right track. Right now there is a lot of sound and fury in the tea party movement and the uprising has made politicians sit up and take notice. Certainly the pols are not yet too keen to anger the tea partiers. But unless some hard power is brought to bear, eventually politicians will realize that there isn’t any real power behind all the snarl of the tea partiers and they will start to ignore them.

Sooner or later the tea party groups will have to step up to the plate with real candidates who have real (and quite old-fashioned) political organizations, all powered by real money.

And if they all refuse to at least step a little bit in this direction, the tea parties will be a hollow clang of fury signifying nothing. It will result in these activists sullenly going back home and the cynicism of the American people will deepen. If that happens we’ll all be worse off for it.

Now, certainly there will be many of you that will rail against me and claim I “don’t understand” the tea party movement. Some may think I am saying that I hope the movement fails — a claim that is absurd on its face (I did say I hoped I was wrong, after all). But that aside perhaps the best way to look at this is to see it as a reminder that politics is for the long haul, not just for an election or two after which all will be well.

Anyway, I find the tea party movement to be the best thing that has happened to the American political scene for a long, long time. The last time something this good happened was the Goldwater clubs that morphed into the Reagan revolution that helped set back liberalism for decades.

We need the next anti-liberal movement to work its magic. I am hopeful that the tea parties are it.
“The only end of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
–Samuel Johnson

Warner Todd Huston is a Chicago based freelance writer. He has been writing opinion editorials and social criticism since early 2001 and before that he wrote articles on U.S. history for several small American magazines. His political columns are featured on many websites such as Andrew Breitbart’s,, and, as well as,,,, among many, many others. Mr. Huston is also endlessly amused that one of his articles formed the basis of an article in Germany’s Der Spiegel Magazine in 2008.

For a full bio, please CLICK HERE.

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