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The first true open source political organization

Mark Meckler, co-founder and a national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION in February 2010 at CPAC. He talked about the origins of the movement and its organization.  Meckler highlighted the three core principles of the Tea Party Patriots: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.  Tea Party Patriots excludes social issues, because, Meckler said, "Politicians have used those issues to divide us for decades."  He said Tea Party Patriots aims to be a watchdog.  "This is no intent to be a third party.  Our intent is to push the existing political parties in the correct direction," he stated.

Democracy in Action: What is Tea Party Patriots?

Meckler: Tea Party Patriots is a grassroots organization, and we formed back in April of last year out of the Tea Party movement.

I was just an individual Tea Party coordinator.  On February 27th I held one of the first events.  There were actually 48 of us around the country that held events.  About 35,000 people came out around the country on that day.

Democracy in Action: How many people came to your event?

Meckler: My event?  Well we knew we would have six because there was myself and my two kids and my wife and my parents.  Ultimately we had 150 people at the State Capitol in Sacramento.  It was pretty exciting to have 150 people show up.  More exciting to me were the kind of people that showed up...they weren't people who had come out before.  They were all people like me who'd never been politically active.  I don't belong to a political party.  I vote.  That's the extent of my political involvement.  And so to get out there with people who were like me, and then people from all different sides of the issues.  We had pro-life and pro-choice people, we had gay rights activists, we had—in California Proposition 8 was a hot issue and the marriage and family act.  People on opposite sides of the issues standing on the street together holding signs all complaining about the same thing which was government run amuck, government they felt no longer represented them, that was completely out of control.  And so to see people like that from all walks of life, all slices of the political spectrum standing together talking about the same thing, to me that's when I saw the magic.  That was unbelievable to see.

Democracy in Action: Have you personally been involved in politics in any way before?  Making contributions or...?

Meckler: Not at all.  Other than voting.  Not even a single contribution ever in my life.  I was a voter and I was a regular voter.

Democracy in Action: ...gone to a candidate rally?

Meckler: Never been to a single rally, never been to protests, nothing; never worked for a campaign.  Totally uninvolved.

Democracy in Action: How is the Tea Party Patriots organized?  Do you have a board of directors or...?

Meckler: We do. It's a very bottom up organization.  What we have is we have over 12,000 chapters around the nation right now, and those are organizations, all different names—9-12 groups, Tea Party groups—and they affiliate under the Tea Party Patriots umbrella to have a national presence.

And the way we work is every one of our local coordinators—there are over 1,500 of those people—is party of our national leadership council.  And we have an e-mail list and we have calls every Monday night, and those people participate and they create the direction for the organization.

So in answer to your question, yes we have a ten-member board made up of grassroots individuals from around the nation, but that board takes its direction from the folks on the streets all around the nation.  And so literally what we do is we wait for the great ideas to bubble up and we start to hear, for example, people are organizing at the neighborhood level—they're doing that in Texas, we're hearing it in Connecticut and we're hearing it in Florida, and we get those people to start talking to each other and that idea develops, fleshes out, becomes solid, and then we'll spread that out around the nation.  So it's this giant proving ground. 

You might be familiar with open source software development.  This is the first true open source political organization.  The initial code was developed literally back on February 20th, and 22 people got on the phone and they said let's hold tea parties and the only thing in the code base was let's organize them on Facebook, and that's how the first round of tea parties happened; that was the original code base.

Then people started inputting different ideas into that code base from all over the country.  Now we have a massive code base; it's constantly being developed. And that code base involves software; we have a big website with all kinds of tools.  It involves free conference calling services, people with broadband, Twitter, Facebook.  It involves ways of organizing at the neighborhood level, state level, the federal level.  So now all of those incredible ideas that come from the grassroots—there's nobody that sits at the top that comes up with these ideas and tells people what they should do.  It all filters from the bottom up.

Democracy in Action: Are these ideas, any of them, "national Tea Party approved" ideas or do you have a platform?

Meckler: To call it a platform, I think—  We call it our core values or our core principles and we have three of those: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.  And we specifically exclude the social issues.  Politicians have used those issues to divide us for decades.  Social issues, race issues, class issues—they've used partisanship to divide the people because when they divide the people they maintain their own power.  Because then we don't pay attention to what the politicians are doing in DC and the state houses.  If they can make Democrats hate Republicans and liberals had conservatives and social progressives hate social conservatives, we don't pay attention to what the politicians are doing.  So our goal is to unite around those common issues.  Most Americans feel that the country should be fiscally responsible.

Democracy in Action: Are those from the beginning, from February [2009]?

Meckler: Those were developed early on through consensus, through the organization, working with the grassroots, having people develop them.  They were actually developed from the grassroots up.  They were not my ideas; they came out of the grassroots; a committee of people voluntarily associated to develop those.  They were put out there for refinement and approval and ultimately approved by our grassroots organization. 

Democracy in Action: Now there's the Tea Party Convention [Feb. 6]. Are you guys behind that?

Meckler: No, we didn't participate in that convention.  That was put on by an individual who felt there was a need for that, so he put that on.

Democracy in Action: Looking ahead to the 2010 mid-term elections, are you guys doing any kind of organizing towards that; will you endorse candidates?

Meckler: No, we don't specifically endorse candidates.  We're a 501(c)(4) so we're unable to specifically endorse candidates.  Our job is to educate the electorate so that people understand constitutional principles and foundational principles. We believe they're going to go out and make the right decisions of the candidates to support when they follow those principles.

Democracy in Action: What would be your organization's objectives for calendar year 2010? Do you have some specific things you want to accomplish?

Meckler: Absolutely.  Our specific plans are we have a calendar of events that goes through 2010 leading up to the elections of course.  Next week we have February 27th which is the anniversary of the movement.  The first protests were February 27th. We had 48 last year; we expect thousands this year across the country.  April 15th we'll be revisiting Tax Day tea parties again.  Last year we had 850 with 1.2 million people participating; we expect it to be bigger this year.  And then we'll go into August recess.  We expect it to get hot for the representatives out there again having those town hall meetings.  And then we'll lead up to 9-12.  We're going to do the march on DC again, which we were one of the sponsors of.  So we'll be here again for 9-12.  We expect a lot of people to come back to DC again.  A lot of people couldn't make it last year, and didn't know what it was going to be.  Now that people know what it's going to be, we expect larger participation this year.  And then obviously that leads people into the November elections hopefully educated and fired up and ready to do the right thing when they walk into the ballot box.

Democracy in Action: Any new organization or relatively new organization goes through some growing pains.  Have there been growing pains or what have been some of the major challenges?

Meckler: I think the biggest challenge is that everybody expects us to operate within the current political paradigm.  In other words what they're really looking for is a top down organization and they're trying to impose leadership on the Tea Party.  And people talk about herding cats or schisms within the movement, and the reality is it's a different paradigm.  So I think they misinterpret.  The reality of the movement is there are thousands of paths to the same end goal, and the goal is to return the country to its founding principles.  It really doesn't matter what path people take.  In fact if we have a thousand paths to that end goal, it's much more difficult to defeat people on a thousand paths than it is peopl on one path.  So I think the hardest thing is changing people's perception about what a movement means.  It does not require a single charismatic leader leading a movement.  In fact this movement has thousands and thousands of leaders.

Democracy in Action: Looking back on American history or recent American history do you see other movements that you would compare yourselves to or that you've learned from?  One that occurs to me is Reform Party.

Meckler: So but then that's a party movement.  This is no intent to be a third party.  Our intent is to push the existing political parties in the correct direction.  We belive that any candidate who's fiscally responsible, who supports a free market economy, and who wants to return the country to its constitutional foundations is a good candidate.  And so those are the things we're looking for.  The history of third party movements in this country is very bad.  There's not a lot of success there.  And so that's not our intent.  We're not going to walk down a path that we believe just leads to party destruction.  What we're looking for is to be the watchdog for all political parties and all politicians. 

November 2nd is an important date and we think we're going to see significant change in the country.  The more important date is November 3rd.  Because in the past what's happened is people have pushed reform, reform-minded candidates have taken office, and then people have gone back to their lives and not paid attention.  And then those candidates, eight, ten years down the road now they're in office, now they've got all the perks of office.  They come to Washington and everybody talks about how Washington's a cesspool, and somehow years later they seem to think it's a jacuzzi and they never want to get out.  And so our intent is to keep their feet to the fire, to hold them to their campaign promises, give people the tools and the education to make sure they keep watching and that the reform really happens.

Democracy in Action: We have to learn from history.  Are there or have there been other movements that you guys would look back to and say this is something we're going to avoid or this is something we'd like to emulate?

Meckler: Honestly I look back to the American Revolution, and I don't think there's anything since then that matches what the Tea Party has done to cross party lines, to cross ideological lines, to cross social lines in the way that the Tea Party movement has done.  The majority of movements in this country are devolved along those lines I just described—they're a party movement, they're a social movement along a segment of society that are organized around a particular type of industry.  And this movement is not that.

We recently did a poll trying to determine what is our demographic?  And our demographic was everybody, literally from young people to really old people, and it was evenly spread across the board.  There was no significant demographic shift in age range.  And so that's unique.  You won't see other movements that do that.  And so I don't think we necessarily have a parallel.  I think we're in uncharted territory, and I think that's good.  I also think there are dangers there because it's hard to learn from the past, and so we're reading everything, I am reading everything I can about past social movements from the anti-war movement of the 1960s to the long history of the progressive movement.  There are all kinds of movements we can study and I think there are things to learn from each of those movements, little slices that might apply, but overall I don't think there's a good parallel.

Democracy in Action: ...do you have a paid staff and a headquarters?

Meckler: No. No headquarters; no paid staff. If you want to understand our organization, there's one book that describes it the best. It's called The Starfish and the Spider. And there are two analogies in this book.

If you think about the geometric structure of the stafish and the spider, they're very similar, but they're incredibly different creatures.  And one of the things that makes them so different is if you have a spider and you chop off one of its legs it stumbles and it's going to have a little bit of difficulty.  You take another leg and it's probably going to die because it can't get around. You take a starfish and you chop off a leg, generally speaking that leg is going to grow into a starfish.  The starfish will continue.  Now you have two starfish, and they're both the same species and doing the same thing, but you haven't destroyed the starfish. And at the extreme end of biological evolution, there are starfish, if you cut off a small slice off of them, they grow into a new starfish.  And so we're like the starfish.  There is no head, there is no leader of the organizatoin.  There are thousands of starfish out there and they are self-replicating in that way. 

And the other analogy that comes out of that book is that of the Apache Indians.  When the conquistadors came to the Americas and they faced the Aztecs and the Mayans, they were able to understand those societies.  They came to those societies and they found there was a king and there was a central location and there was wealth.  So they came in, killed the king, stole the gold and within a couple of years destroyed each of those societies.  It's amazing—societies that existed for hundreds of years.

And as they moved northward into North America, into what we know know as New Mexico, they ran into the Apache Indians.  And the Apaches covered a wide territory., and they had no king and they had no central city.  And so the conquistadors had trouble understanding the structure.  What they found is each individual tribe had what they called a Nant'an.  And the Nant'an was a leader in a sense, but not in the way they understood it.  He had no power.  In fact there is no word for should or you should in the Apache language.  So these people had no power to tell anybody to do anything.  But what happened is people would watch them and say you know that guy seems successful.  His family is well fed and he seems to know where to hunt and so they would start to do what he did and emulate what the Nant'an did.  And so the Spanish figured this out and said okay well that's the leader.  Well what happened is they would come in there an they would kill the Nant'an and then the people would just gravitate to somebody elese, find another guy who was successful, and would start to follow him.  And so they were unable in 200 years of attempting to defeat the Apache Nation.  And so we're a lot more like the Apaches.  They can go after us all they want. 

In fact right now, I don't know if you heard, Clinton and Carville are supposedly looking for six to eight Tea Party leaders to target and destroy.  This was on Breitbart's Big Government two days ago.  We think it's funny because they can target 600 of us; it doesn't matter.  In fact we just started a website called IamtheTeaPartyleader.com.  We have hundreds of people right now uploading videos just saying "I am the Tea Party leader."  And you remember the movie "Spartacus"?  Great scene.  The story is Spartacus who led the slave rebellion in the Roman empire.  And there's a great scene, not historically correct, but a great scene where the slave rebellion has been wiped out, and there are thousands of corpses on the battlefield, and there are a few thousand slaves left.  And the Roman general says, the Emperor has decided to spare you the horrible death of crucifixion on one condition: you identify the body or the living person of Spartacus.  And they pan in.  You can see Spartacus standing there alive, dejected, and all the slaves are out there.  And all of the sudden a slave stands up and says, "I am Spartacus."  And it's not Spartacus.  And then another and another.  And pretty soon thousands of slaves are standing and saying "I am Spartacus."  And that's the concept and we have that video on the IamtheTeaPartyleader website along with now hundreds of videos from tea party leaders around the country.