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A New Public Order: Network Politics and the Tea Party Movement

Charles Pearson, Doctoral Candidate, University of California - Davis

This project addresses the production of a libertarian-conservative network politics by way of the Tea Party movement in the United States. The advent of social media and participatory networks has been heralded by a wide range of academic and popular critics as challenging and disrupting modernist logics and forms. Accordingly, a distinctive, multi-disciplinary body of work has emerged detailing new technosocial forms, subjectivities, and ethical imaginations which deconstruct doctrines of natural rights, subjectivities, and territories to emphasize the networked relationality of subjects and objects. Yet, propelled by a profound sense of estrangement and ambivalence toward emerging global forms and logics, Tea Party activists experimented with a participatory, if exclusionary, network politics emphasizing absolutist doctrines of nation and individual. It is a project, as one activist told me, "to create a new public order". 

It appears increasingly crucial in contemporary political engagement that political movements not only utilize the Internet, but that a movement's own understandings of the media apparatus begin to help form the content of its message. In this sense, linking form and ideology, the social network became the means through which Tea Party activists both effectively organized as well as articulated and demonstrated their vision for re-constituting politics and society. While some have argued that Tea Party organizational forms are rational responses to changing media and political environments, this project conceives the success of Tea Party strategies as being dependent on an ability to evoke or appear to embody absolutist individualist values and ethical judgments in their organizational structures. This experimentation with new social and political forms and subjectivities has resulted in the development of alternative network imaginaries, unsettling popular notions of social media and social networks. 

Further, Tea Party de-centralized politics has presented problems for more traditionally centralized conservative politics and political parties. However, threatened establishment leaders and institutions have re-organized to an extent and are building, in one leader's terms, a "de-centralized machine". New strategies and technologies are being developed to encourage, yet manage, interactivity and emergence in open-system environments, and institutions and activists are increasingly linked in more collaborative information networks, with numerous and immediate feedback loops. This project examines these efforts to control the creative capacity of distributed political activists and networks, offering a new dimension into how we think about  power and control in networked environments.

This project relied on participant-observation fieldwork methods. Ethnography was conducted at varying intensity from 2007-2011 in California, in Washington DC, and in a multitude of virtual sites with geographically-distributed activists, bloggers, pundits and more establishment-oriented political operatives.