The Starfish and the Tea Party

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Rick Cohen

Watching their protests and town hall meeting performances on cable television, the Tea Party seems bumptious, messy, fractious, intentionally disorganized, headless and leaderless—a potpourri of motley gatherings united in a primal fear of government and a love for Sarah Palin. Yet, it also seems like there’s a Tea Party organization around the corner wherever you go, a Tea Party protest of taxes generating a few sign-wielding true believers here, or a Tea Party-affiliated campaign operation lifting some obscure politician into the limelight to unseat incumbent residents there.

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What is the organizational structure of the Tea Party movement?  Is it a conglomeration of nonprofits?  Has this movement embraced the nonprofit model as the basic building block of its constituent components?  Or is there some other principal of organizational structure at work, perhaps unfamiliar and confounding but powerful in ability to round up Tea Party candidates for nomination as Republicans—sometimes against the Republican Party establishment:  Sharron Angle to oppose Harry Reid for Senator from Nevada; Libertarian Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, to run for senator (as Republican) from Kentucky; Nikki Haley to run—with Palin’s highly publicized endorsement—for Governor of South Carolina; Paul LePage to run as the Republican candidate for governor in Maine; and others.

This Cohen Report series explores the organizational structure of the Tea Party movement for evidence of 501(c) and other tax exempt organizational forms among the hundreds, maybe thousands of groups with Tea Party affiliations.  Why?  Two reasons:  When the press talks about local Tea Party groups, it will sometimes refer to them as “nonprofit” organizations, without ever checking to see even if they are incorporated, much less that they have received federal tax exempt designation.  Just because they are conducting rallies, protesting, and waving signs, that doesn’t make the Tea Party organizations automatically eligible for the shorthand nonprofit appellation. 

The other reason is more social movement-oriented.  Whether or not one agrees with the conservative and sometimes libertarian political ideologies of some of the Tea Party members, it is undeniable that the Tea Party movement has changed the landscape of American politics.  As a Slate columnist noted, this movement didn’t start with the “town hall” meetings held by members of Congress from both parties about the health reform legislation, but actually from an on-air rant from CNBC Business News personality Rick Santelli who complained about the Obama Administration’s plans to refinance mortgages, suggesting it promoted and rewarded homeowners’ “bad behavior,” and calling for a tea party to dump derivatives in the Chicago River.  The Tea Party movement exploded across the nation and despite bumps, internecine fights, embarrassments, intemperate public statements, and expulsions, the Tea Party movement soldiers on—and grows. 

Just how does this movement move along?

The Echinodermal Political Movement

There is no leader of the Tea Party.  There is no central or national headquarters of the Tea Party where one might find the official Tea Party position, because there is no official Tea Party position.  Tea Party groups and backers come and go, seemingly disappearing and then being regenerated as the times and the challenges demand.  One would swear that these activists had all spent hours studying Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” to design a movement based on the tapeworm-like cell structure of the National Liberation Front.

Less a consciously designed revolutionary cell structure meant to thwart colonial French paratroopers, the Tea Party might have more in common with Napster, Craigslist, and various wiki groups, emblematic of the “starfish” organizational structure described in The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.  As they put it, the “absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset.” 

According to a report on Politico, The Starfish and the Spider is the new bible of the Tea Party.  With no one in charge, no official hierarchy, limited funding for individual groups, and sometimes occasionally fuzzy notions of what holds them together, the Tea Party groups have proven nimbler than the Republican Party recently and even the Democrats have responded recently with a more respectful Tea Party narrative, courtesy of Vice President Joe Biden, compared to the Democrats earlier dismissals of them as “Astroturf” advocacy. 

On July 21st, Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (R-MN) convened the first meeting of the Tea Party Caucus, with an initial roster of 49 members of the House of Representatives, all Republican–24 in attendance that day. Republican/Tea Party senate candidate Rand Paul said he would create a Tea Party caucus on the Senate side, though the rules might require him to establish it as a nonprofit.  

For a new organization named after the high profile movement that has captured the attention of Fox News, the NAACP, and the White House, Bachmann made a point of ensuring that the Caucus would support rather than dominate its namesake: “We are not the mouthpiece of the tea party. We are not taking the Tea Party and controlling it from Washington, D.C. I am not the head of the tea party. We are also not here to vouch for the Tea Party, or to vouch for any Tea Party organizations . . . we are here to listen and to be a receptacle."

To Shelby Blakely of the Tea Party Patriots leadership council, the Caucus is just one more Tea Party member: "We went from 2,350 groups to 2,351 groups nationwide.” Creating formal national bodies sounds like the Tea Party might be going mainstream, losing its grassroots bona fides, or even becoming a political party—with the possibility of taking orders from Washington politicians—according to one of the co-founders of the Abilene Tea Party Coalition.

No one wants to be seen as giving the Tea Party orders. Michelle Bachmann makes it clear that she isn’t the leader of the Tea Party.  Governor Sarah Palin gets some solid speaking fees for showing up at their events, but takes pains to distinguish her solo operation from the Tea Party.  Others, like former Congressman Dick Armey who plays a role in supporting local Tea Party events, rallies, and protests, may be a financial intermediary and technical assistance provider for elements of the Tea Party, but he isn’t working for the Tea Party—and many Tea Partiers are ill at ease with the appearance of the former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee being seen as pulling Tea Party strings.

Headless Horsemen

Cut off the head of a spider, and the creature is dead.  Cut a starfish into two pieces, and two starfish grow back.  They’re like the pod people in the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” they just keep coming.  But what does their cell structure look like? 

The 501(c)(3) public charity model does not appear to be the preferred structure of Tea Party organizational affiliates—even though the press routinely refers to them as nonprofits.  Our review of this political movement suggests that when Tea Party organizations formally establish themselves, they prefer to create 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations or even Political Action Committees (PACs) rather than the more typical 501(c)(3)s, because most are actively engaged in the electoral process.  Many do not appear to have incorporated at all, but operate with formal names but informal organizational structures. 

Like most nonprofit subsectors, the Tea Party movement has access to a network of infrastructure organizations possessing their own (c)(3) or (c)(4) statuses, perhaps alleviating them of the need to incorporate and apply to the Internal Revenue Service for tax exempt status.  Maybe, but we think there is a different dynamic at work, related to the starfish structural metaphor. 

As a generally libertarian, anti-government movement, though in many cases viscerally rather than intellectually anti-government, the Tea Party movement, broadly generalized, doesn’t really care whether the groups possess or lack IRS determination letters.  Some, perhaps, don’t know that they can’t really solicit tax deductible contributions without that (c)(3) status, but their anti-government beliefs take them toward eschewing anything implying that they need government approval to say or do something. 

One can imagine a Tea Party organization telling IRS or Federal Elections Commission field investigators to “bring it on,” daring the government to go after them and their colleagues, and thereby transforming the tiny Tea Party groups into political martyrs.  Going after any one or more of these self-identified Tea Party groups may mean that the individual components could go under.  But they would likely be replaced by others, reformed from the ashes of those that fail, insulating them from a potential IRS or FEC legal attack. 

With this analysis, we examine the nonprofit architecture of the Tea Party movement, such as it is, and disaggregate them into 501(c)(3)s, (c)(4)s, PACs, and 527 organizations.  Repeated attempts to speak to people at American Liberty Alliance, Freedom Works, the Tea Party Patriots, and the National Tea Party Federation, among others, provided unsuccessful, either because of no response after repeated tries, or no response from people who could answer our questions. 

In Part II, we will discuss the parts of the Tea Party starfish—the national nonprofit intermediaries (and who funds them), the increasing number of Tea Party networks, the Political Action Committees more or less formally tied to Tea Party operations, and the grassroots structure of the Tea Party, including local or regional 501(c) groups.  They may look like an unruly mob at times, but we think that there is a method to the madness as they pass around copies of The Starfish and the Spider the way 1960s leftists poured over Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

  • CLBaker

    In sustaining a healthy society, the 3 “legs” – public, private and social – would be relatively equal in power and influence. They balance each other and add much needed diversity of thinking.

    Historically in the US, the private sector has always been much, much larger, and now – as Cohen points out – when the government privatizes schools and housing – but more importantly, emulates the private sector philosophy; they fail to appreciate the critical role of the public sector as a watchdog. We can predict that many private sector apologists will faintly praise the social sector – for feeding the hungry, etc. – but they don’t really appreciate the value of either of the other sectors.

    Given the current recession, brought on by the excesses of private sector thinking, we need to remember some under-appreciated benefits of the 3rd sector to society. Just think, for example, what a good non-profit does for the local economy. For one thing, it creates good jobs, often with decent benefits, and treats employees like real human beings, not replaceable “personnel” to be considered as a begrudged expense. And, even a small non-profit buys from local merchants, pays bills on time, etc. All of this benefits the community before we even begin to count the work towards our primary mission(s).

    Board members from the private sector have often failed to fully appreciate this role of the non-profits they serve. It’s time we began to think of ourselves again as leaders and role-models for the other sectors and critical to the health of society, particularly in regard to ethical behavior.

  • rick cohen

    Dear CLBaker: thanks for the very thoughtful comment. I hope readers of NPQ see and think about the issues you’ve raised.

    Rick Cohen