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“Rules for Radicals,” the iconic liberal organizing manifesto by Saul Alinsky, was an unlikely bible for tea party activists as they tried to mobilize their movement last year. Now, as they struggle to demonstrate their impact and staying power, they have another unlikely book to live by — a kind of management guide written by a couple of Stanford MBAs that extols the virtues of decentralization.
“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” has a thesis with understandable attraction for tea partiers — that poorly funded groups and companies loosely organized around basic shared ideas can change society, often by outmaneuvering governments or mega-corporations.
The title is based on the contrasting biology of spiders, which die when their heads are chopped off, and starfish, which can multiply when any given part is severed — a trait the book’s authors posit is shared by decentralized entities ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to Al Qaeda to Wikipedia.
The book was first published in 2006 — three years before the tea party movement burst onto the scene with mass protests against what it regarded as President Barack Obama’s unchecked expansion of government. But the idea that scrappy starfish groups can beat imposing spider institutions resonates deeply with tea partiers, who have vigilantly enforced their occasionally chaotic structure against would-be leaders, an eager GOP, and conventional Washington wisdom questioning whether an infrastructureless group can succeed in Big Money electoral politics.
“This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge,” write the book's authors, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. “It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.”
The book has become something of a secret password for tea party activists seeking to weed out 'wannabe' tea party leaders or establishment types seeking to install a top-down structure on the movement, according to Jenny Beth Martin, a tea party patriots founder.
“When I ask people in D.C. whether they’ve read ‘The Starfish and the Spider,’ that is kind of a litmus test that I’ve found is very effective for whether they actually get what tea party patriots is doing,” said Martin, who heard about the book from Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the founder of a new tea party group of her own. “Some congressmen have read it, others haven’t, and you can really tell the difference between those who have read it and those who haven’t.”
The book is required reading for new hires at FreedomWorks, the nonprofit group that has emerged as a Washington bulkhead of sorts for tea party activists across the country.
“‘The Starfish and the Spider’ was almost written for this leaderless movement,” said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks. “You take the Dayton tea party, and you cut it in half, and it becomes two of them — and that’s what’s been happening. It’s a better model for the type of activism we want to do. So we talk about it a lot. We recommend it.”
In fact, FreedomWorks has included the book in an eclectic lecture series for grass-roots activists that also includes the writings of Friedrich August Hayek, Friedrich Nietzsche and Alinsky, author of 1971’s “Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals.” Brandon explained, “One of the last books that we were kind of hot on was ‘The Tipping Point,’ and a lot of our activists read it to understand how you get to this mass, this point, and then — bam — all of a sudden you become a movement. Well, that happened. Now, we’re in this movement, and it is kind of uncomfortable when there is no coordination. So when you read [Starfish], it makes you more at ease and comfortable with the way this movement is growing.”
But the book also seems to encapsulate some of the central dilemmas facing tea party activists as they struggle to transition from a protest movement to one that flexes its muscles through lobbying and electing representatives who share their small-government principles.
A faithful application of the starfish theory would seem to hold that, in order to perpetuate the tea party’s grass-roots momentum, tea partiers should reject the compromises often necessary to unite behind candidates and resist the temptation to raise the money and build the centralized infrastructure traditionally used to elect them.
“The tea party is encountering a very spidery political system where it is about power and it is about money and it is about getting someone into office,” Brafman told POLITICO. “It can be easier to unite around shared values if you’re not trying to elect people into office.”
“If the tea party starts bringing money and power into the equation, that makes some people more equal than others, and they will start losing the advantages of being adaptable and starfish-like,” Brafman said. “That’s the biggest challenge the tea party movement is facing.”
And while the book celebrates the splintering of starfish-like groups, those splits can translate into the kind of bitter internal disputes that have sometimes beset tea party groups.
Brafman, 35, sounded tickled by tea partiers’ embrace of his book. “You write a book,” he said, “and you don’t know where it’s going to end up.”
But he said the tea party does precisely follow the pattern of a starfish group: It emerged mostly organically and without headquarters or funding as decentralized cells that began networking with one another on an equal footing.
Members have rejected what some activists have interpreted as efforts to impose more centralized leadership, such as the National Tea Party Federation, or to anoint leaders, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who chairs FreedomWorks.
“If you think about systems and organizations as creatures, they sometimes want to introduce a little bit of hierarchy, and you need to actually be very cognizant of hierarchy seeping in,” Brafman said. He predicted that if the tea party is able to maintain a predominately starfish structure, it will continue to draw grass-roots energy and could be a major force in American politics.
“The model is very, very empowering, so that although they may have entered it by accident, you find out that it is actually a really powerful way of organizing, and it kind of turns politics on its head,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had a movement like this in recent [political] history, and I don’t know whether the two major parties have fully realized this power of the tea party.”
As for the long-term impact of the tea parties, he said he thinks it “really depends on how you define political change. If it’s electing candidates, I frankly don’t know one way or the other whether it can be successful. But if it’s changing political discourse, I think they’ve been very, very effective.”
Brafman wouldn’t discuss his own political ideology, asserting it would be inappropriate because he is doing consulting work with the U.S. Army trying to help it “become more starfish-like.”
His co-author, Beckstrom, served as the director of the National Cybersecurity Center at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush but has contributed about $26,000 to state and federal Democratic candidates and committees (compared with $500 in 2003 to then-GOP Sen. Arlen Specter).
Yet, even tea partiers who’ve labeled the pair as liberals have embraced their book.
In a blog post praising the book, New Jersey tea party activist Lon Hosford blasted Brafman and Beckstrom for asserting in an otherwise critical passage about the stifling rigidity of the federal bureaucracy — that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal “was able to save millions from starvation and reverse a crippling depression.” But he recommended the book, concluding “conservatives can learn from liberals as we are fighting them and the communist vulnerabilities they exude.”
Richard Viguerie, the GOP direct-mail pioneer who has repositioned himself as a tea-party elder statesman of sorts, was less equivocal in his praise, calling Starfish “one of the best books I've read in recent years,” asserting that it explains “why the tea party movement is surging while the Republican Party isn't.”
It’s a book, he says, that President Ronald Reagan would have liked.
“Reagan didn't read ‘The Starfish and the Spider,’ but he understood the principles outlined therein,” Viguerie wrote. “The successors to Reagan's GOP do not understand those principles, and they seem more beholden to staying in Washington than saving America. They are ‘spiders.’”
But according to Brafman, the tea party has more in common structurally with the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements — or even Al Qaeda — than with any recent movement in American electoral politics, including the conservatives of Viguerie’s generation who took over the Republican Party and laid the groundwork for the so-called “Reagan Revolution.”
“In traditional politics, there are a bunch of people and established protocols telling you which candidate you run, how you organize an assembly and other stuff, as opposed to tea parties, which can kind of invent it as they go,” Brafman said. “That makes them much more adaptable and much more able to innovate in the moment, and that ability gives them an advantage. It’s the same ability that gives Al Qaeda an advantage.”
But the Starfish analogy most often drawn by tea party activists — partly as an example to be aspired to and partly as a cautionary tale about how a decentralized organization can turn away from the qualities that made it a success — is that of the Apache Indians.
As Brafman and Beckstrom tell it, the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s laid waste to the highly developed Aztec and Incan empires, seizing their gold, killing their leaders and bringing much of Central America under Spanish control. But when the Spanish tried to expand northward into modern-day New Mexico, they were stymied by the Apache, whose near-constant raids not only prevented the Spanish from expanding, but actually captured parts of what is now Northern Mexico.
The difference, according to Brafman and Beckstrom, was that, “the traits of a decentralized society — flexibility, shared power, ambiguity — made the Apaches immune to attacks that would have destroyed a centralized society.”
Ultimately, the Apaches were done in during the 1900s when the U.S. government, seeking to settle the Apache controlled territory, gave the tribe cattle, which prompted infighting and compelled the Apaches to form tribal councils with powerful leaders to preside over their newfound material wealth.
“The power structure, once flat, became hierarchical, with power concentrated at the top,” according to Brafman and Beckstrom, who wrote “this broke down Apache society.”