At his Global Guerillas site, John Robb (right) calls the conservative Tea Party open source.
He compares it, in this context, to open source warfare. I don't think that's a compliment, because by that definition Al Qaeda is open source. But let's continue.
Robb says that Tea Party activists swarm, that their movement has no barriers to entry, and that it consists of a lot of small groups, even individuals, with a variety of different motives for their actions.
This is the point where I, personally, have to say we've extended the open source metaphor a little far.
There are a host of American political movements from the past that emerged similarly. The Netroots early in the last decade. The Far Left of the late 1960s. The Populists of the 1890s. Even the Know Nothings in the 1850s.
I don't think Millard Fillmore was open source. Do you?
New political movements are seldom tied directly to political parties. Absorption takes place slowly. And it tends to be a mutual thing.
Tea Party activists are running primaries against regular Republicans all around the country -- they're trying to take the party over.
The Netroots are still not happy Democrats. They stand on certain political principles, like the Tea Party people. They organize online, like the Tea Party people. They were, when they began, all about grievances and the stupidity of government, just like the Tea Party people.
What has happened, in our time, is that the Internet has given people the opportunity to self-organize, and to act on that self-organization. The Internet lets political movements of all types rise quickly from the bottom-up. This is in contrast to the way government must act, which is from the top-down.
This President came to power through a great bottom-up movement, some of which he organized, some of which he co-opted, some of which was drawn to him by the times, and all of which moved as one thanks to the expert use of Internet tools.
But once this President achieved power, his attempt to turn the movement into a tool for governing quickly fell apart. Government is a sausage factory, and one tour was enough for most activists to go screaming back to where they came from.
John Robb has a way of making everything the Internet is capable of seem like a threat. Violence is a threat to order, and to the extent that the Internet allows those with violent intent to self-organize there is danger there.
But the Internet can also organize anger into something useful. That's what open source is. It's something useful.
As open source has evolved, bottom-up tools like Sourceforge have mostly given way to top-down tools like custom forges, and to company-specific sites like Google Code and CodePlex.
Successful political movements marry bottom-up activism with some top-town structure. They have this in common with big open source projects like Linux itself.
This tends to be organic, a market process. Which I think is my real objection to Robb's analogy.
Because at its heart, open source is a market process. It's about building, about saying yes to something, even if that something is merely an alternative to something that already exists, like Windows or Microsoft Office.
Open source is about saying yes we can, not no you can't. And about proving it.