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Why The Tea Party Is Like A Starfish, Not A Spider

What do Wikipedia and Craigslist have in common with the Tea Party movement? They succeed by being decentralized, says Rod Beckstrom, co-author of the management book The Starfish and the Spider.

Beckstrom says he was surprised to learn his 2006 book was a hit with Tea Partiers -- but that it made sense.

The Starfish and the Spider "is really a guidebook for people, to help organize decentralized movements and organizations of any type," Beckstrom tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

The book's premise is drawn from biology, Beckstrom says. He points to the fact that a spider can survive without an arm, but it would die without its head.

"That's how we've looked at organizations in the West for the last several hundred years," Beckstrom says, "top-down, spider-like -- there's a CEO, or there's someone in control.

"But the world is seeing a profusion of new organizations that are a lot more like a starfish."

The starfish model, he says, is decentralized. And if one of a starfish's arms is cut off, it can be regenerated.

"In some species of starfish, like the blue linkia," Beckstrom says, "if you cut off all five arms, you get five new starfish. That's possible because it's a completely decentralized organism."

Asked about what role the brain plays in that process -- and where it might be located -- Beckstrom says that decentralized organisms have intelligence, but that it's distributed through each arm.

"When those communicate with each other, they're even more intelligent as a group. But each arm has its own intelligence in it," he says.

In the book, Beckstrom and his co-author, Ori Brafman, identify several groups of humans who organized themselves according to the starfish model. Among them are the Apache Indians, who withstood Spanish incursions for hundreds of years.

As for the Tea Party, Beckstrom says the group fits the starfish mold by not having a leader and by not relying on a single unit for momentum.

"The cohesion is around the very term 'Tea Party,' " Beckstrom says. "And the cohesion is held through the values -- and it is values that hold large, decentralized networks together."

Asked if he thinks it's possible that the Tea Party was generated the way many opposition movements have been generated in the past -- by people with money and connections -- Beckstrom says it's not likely.

"I think there's way too much energy behind this" to have been the work of one group, he says, adding that concerns over both the economic crisis and the government's response to it helped give the Tea Party its initial momentum.

"Are there some parties that may have come in and funded it, and helped to shape it or steer it? Absolutely," Beckstrom says. "Is that what gave rise to it? No."

But even decentralized groups tend to evolve, and face challenges.

The Tea Party's core values of wanting to pay less in taxes and have a smaller government are broad themes, he says. But when factions start to try to funnel the group's energy, Beckstrom says that there will likely be less camaraderie.

Many in the Tea Party believe in its broad themes, Beckstrom says. "But the more you get down into the details, then you start getting into fighting lines, or debate lines. And so, it's going to be very interesting to watch this, to see how it develops.

"And I don't think this movement is going away for a while," he says. "It'll be with us for quite some years."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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