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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Can a movement lead without leaders?

Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?

The days of encyclopedia salesmen are long gone. They used to be a fixture across the country--super-cheerful invaders of living rooms everywhere, who camped out on the couch until parents signed up for a set of bookcase-bending books to help their kids through school. The salesman has been replaced by Wikipedia, where a few quick keystrokes can help users find out almost anything. It's the grassroots supply of research that has, since 2001, become an indispensable first source for tough questions. (How do I know the year? I looked it up in Wikipedia!)

The grassroots power of Wikipedia is the secret of the Tea Party. Take a large number of very alienated voters. Add in the worst recession since the Great Depression. Spice with super-heated rhetoric, and produce a game-changing political movement. Only the distributed leadership of thousands of truly angry individuals, building on each other, would have fueled so much action, moving so far and so fast. No leader could have done it, any more than a centrally directed online encyclopedia could tell us all we want to know about Lady Gaga (with a bibliography and 111 footnotes).

But a movement with power so broadly distributed can only go so far. Take Wikipedia. I was rooting around in Wikipedia this afternoon and came upon an editor's warning in an article: "This article needs additional citations for verification." The problem? The article had lots of assertions not backed up by any sources. The mother of all distributed information systems had to create a system to maintain standards of accuracy, and that in turn has required a handful of leaders with the power to step in and keep Wikipedia focused.

The same thing is happening now with the Tea Party. Its members want to shrink government, cut taxes and promote liberty. But how? (And, frankly, who doesn't want these things?) The trick is in bringing specific steps to the raw emotion. Post columnist E.J. Dionne got the quote of the campaign season from Delaware Republican Party chairman, Tom Ross. "I could buy a parrot and train it to say, 'tax cuts,' but at the end of the day, it's still a parrot, not a conservative," he said.

Just how far can a broadly distributed movement like the Tea Party go? Can a movement lead without leaders? We're about to find out. The Tea Partiers are in a horse race with election day. Emotions are rising and some things bubbling out of the movement are becoming more zany. Will the Tea Party produce a leader--or at least a strong, convincing voice--to give it enough direction to keep it going? Or will it stir up angry voters before spinning them off in a zillion different directions?

The answer to that question will determine whether the Tea Party will be a footnote in a very strange year or the beginning of a game-changing policy gambit. Left without a leader, and with power broadly distributed in its let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom way, it finds itself disintegrating just as it caroms off frightened Democrats and scrambling Republicans.

That's going to shape the November election. But it teaches a broader lesson. It's one thing to mobilize the troops. It's another to focus them on winning the war. Open-source organizations like the Tea Partiers are great at mobilizing but can't lead without leaders.

By Donald Kettl

 |  September 21, 2010; 4:54 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Can politics succeed without reason?
Can America work without taxes?
Can tea party day dreamers accept the consequences?

Ok, let's sell the US military to China, and go the last mile of globalization:
Outsourcing manufacturing - completed!
Outsourcing research & development - in progress.
Coming next: outsourcing the consumer ...

Posted by: theirllbelight | September 22, 2010 2:31 AM
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