Belmont Club

Pets Versus Swarms

When the New York Times pleaded with the public, in an editorial to reject the “wacky” Tea Party candidates, they must written it before they heard from Harry Reid. The Senate Majority Leader asked voters to cast their ballot for his “pet”, Chris Coons. Alternatively, the NYT may have a different definition of “wacky”. Coons is running against Palin-endorsed Christine O’Donnell for US Senator in Delaware. Reid said of his preferred candidate:

“I’m going to be very honest with you — Chris Coons, everybody knows him in the Democratic caucus. He’s my pet. He’s my favorite candidate,” Reid said.

“Let me tell you about him: A graduate of Yale Divinity School. Yale Law School. A two-time national debate champion. He represents two-thirds of the state now, in an elected capacity. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him or heard him speak, but he is a dynamic speaker. I don’t mean loud or long; he’s a communicator. So that’s how I feel about Delaware. I’ve always thought Chris Coons is going to win. I told him that and I tried to get him to run. I’m glad he’s running. I just think the world of him. He’s my pet.”

Reid’s supposed gravitas is in contrast to the “toxic” Tea Party candidates, who are the new barbarians at the gates. “Defeating this new crop of Tea Party nominees has become imperative to avoid the sense of national embarrassment from each divisive and offensive utterance, each wacky policy proposal.” The NYT wrote in scarcely concealed disgust that:

Take the new Republican nominee for United States senator from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell. She founded a group called the Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, with a curious focus on sexual purity, and claimed there was scientific evidence that God created the world in six 24-hour periods. She lied for years about being a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University, having earned a degree only in recent weeks, 17 years after she left campus. She has no steady source of income and has a substantial trail of unpaid bills, battles with the Internal Revenue Service and questionable use of campaign donations for personal expenses.

By contrast the political establishment seems perfectly content with statesmen the likes of Eleanor Holmes Norton, Charlie Rangel and Barney Frank, whose probity and competence have made the legislature a byword in the capital. Not, because Gallup found that Congress was the least trusted of major institutions. It is lower than whales**t,  rating even lower in public estimation than Big Business and Organized Labor. You have to be pretty low to be an embarrassment to Congress. But then you have to be pretty low these days to be a scribbler. Newspapers themselves fared fare lower in trust than Organized Religion and even the Police. Whatever embarrasses the political press probably lies far below the threshold of standards of ordinary life.

That doesn’t prevent them from thinking they are connoisseurs of something. The NYT argues the Republican leadership, in refusing to denounce the Tea Party, has “not fully grasped the stakes in November’s election”, but perhaps it is the Old Gray Lady that is missing the point. Johnathan Rauch at the National Journal believes that the real issue is whether the old gatekeeper political system can survive against the challenge of “radical decentralization”. The Tea Party movement, he believes, is an example of a self-organizing phenomenon.  A mass movement creates its own infrastructure by the simple act of doing something.

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. The tea party began as a network, not an organization, and that is what it mostly remains. …

In the very act of networking, they were printing the circuitry for a national jolt of electricity. … the networkers held a conference call and decided to stage protests in a few cities just a week later. No one was more astonished than the organizers when the network produced rallies in about 50 cities, organized virtually overnight by amateurs. Realizing that they had opened a vein, they launched a second round of rallies that April, this time turning out perhaps 600,000 people at more than 600 events. Experienced political operatives were blown away. “It was inconceivable in the past” to stage so many rallies so quickly, in so many places, without big budgets for organizers and entertainment …

Traditional thinking, the book contends, holds that hierarchies are most efficient at getting things done. … The rise of the Internet and other forms of instantaneous, interpersonal interaction, however, has broken the spider monopoly, Brafman and Beckstrom argue. Radically decentralized networks — everything from illicit music-sharing systems to Wikipedia — can direct resources and adapt (“mutate”) far faster than corporations can.

Getting rid of O’Donnell will do nothing to help the Democrats or the New York Times while the network remains and the issues which provide it with energy persist. Non-hierarchies are resistant to decapitation. Neither the NYT nor traditional politicians appear to have met such a life-form before. Nancy Pelosi when confronted with the opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque was intuitively convinced that someone was “ginning” it up. She could not conceive of the possibility that she was fighting a leaderless network instead of astro-turf, because in her universe only artificial grass grows beneath the political sun.  And in Reid’s world, the sun is someone like himself beneath whose beneficent gaze “pets” grow and thrive and he the Gatekeeper is letting him out into the pastures of Delaware.

In the past, such an endorsement would have been final. But perhaps now it is pointless. The Tea Party candidates are as disposable as al-Qaeda commanders. Rauch writes, that “centerless swarms [may be] bad at transactional politics. But they may be pretty good at cultural reform.” What is really at stake in the November elections is whether the Gatekeepers can continue to own the narrative; whether they can continue to mint the stories,or whether the new Open Source Rules for Radicals has is generating a tidal wave of memes supplant them. “In any case,” as Rauch wrote, “the experiment begins.”

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