Next week marks the first anniversary of the Rant Heard Round the World: CNBC reporter Rick Santelli’s televised tirade about federal bailouts, including the statement, “We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July.”
The tea parties started well before July and spread far beyond Chicago. The Tea Party Patriots alone boast 1,000 affiliated groups, with more than 70 in Georgia. Another group held what it called the first National Tea Party Convention last weekend in Nashville.
It was the political phenomenon of 2009, and perhaps 2010. Yet questions still abound.
Who will lead the tea partiers? (Sarah Palin?) Isn’t this just a front for Republican organizers? Has the movement split, given that some tea party groups stayed away from the pricey Nashville confab?
All of which miss the point.
Tea partiers share some core themes: limited government, free markets, individual liberty and responsibility. But there’s more to them than that.
Listen to tea partiers and you’ll hear about “taking back our country” or maybe “taking back the Republican Party.”
But you’ll also find those who are following politics closely for the first time. These are people who weren’t politically engaged before; they aren’t taking back, they’re taking over.
And good for them. Engagement is what sets the tea parties apart from mere populism or a resurgence in conservative-to-libertarian politics.
But besides the ideas they represent, the tea parties — which have too many flavors to be one movement — are the evolution of what people for several years now have called Politics 2.0 or, in the manner of a similar development in software, “open-source politics.”
Wikipedia, which knows a thing or two about the open model, describes open source as a method of programming that “permits users to use, change and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner.”
Change “the software” to “the GOP” or “political power,” and that is the tea parties to a T.
A brief history of open-source politics might begin in 2004, when bloggers came to political prominence. That splash coincided with the rise of the Netroots, who turned Howard Dean into an unlikely, if fleeting, leader for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The social media of Web 2.0 gave activists a new way to force themselves upon party and candidate apparatuses. Barack Obama in 2008 rode Politics 2.0 to the White House.
But here is where the tea partiers depart from the Netroots — aside from agitating to shrink, not expand, government.
Democrats never had to worry that they wouldn’t be the beneficiaries of the Netroots, who were only concerned with promoting certain Democratic candidates and liberal issues. Republicans who think they are destined to reap where the tea parties sow are mistaken.
If new Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is the tea partiers’ first electoral victory, Republicans ought to be struck by how little Brown wrapped himself in their mantle. The party should be further struck that the same activists were willing to lose a special congressional election in New York to defeat a bad GOP candidate. Even Texas’ uber-libertarian Rep. Ron Paul faces (three!) tea party opponents in this year’s primary.
They are changing the framework, not working within it.
Getting back to software, Microsoft has long insisted on sticking to its closed model. And it should have every right to do so, even if that ends up being a mistake.
The GOP faces the same choice. It can agree to work with the new political programmers, or it can try to force them to accept what it’s offered all along. I doubt the tea partiers will go for the latter.