The difference between the 15 million Obama voters who voted the first time in 2008 and the tea party members is the system construct. Both could be considered Complex Systems. The difference lies in what motivates the members of the system and how the systems are connected.
In the Dems case, it is a centralized motivation surrounding one man. Think of that as a hub and spoke system. Such a system is not particularly robust because it rises and falls on the success or failure of one man. This goes to the second point. The system is primarily centralized, which weakens it, because it’s focus is on an individual.
In contrast, the tea party members are motivated by personal conviction. Specifically, fear and anger. Fear for the financial future of the country – especially for their children. Anger at elected officials who have violated the sacred trust of representative government. These convictions are tightly and individually held and are not easily moved. In fact, the attacks on the tea party only strengthen them. The system itself is extremely decentralized with thousands of small pockets across the country. That makes it resilient, robust and powerful.
From a computer system stand point, the Dems are client/server and the tea party is peer to peer.
As with any Complex Adaptive System, there are emergent properties that develop that cannot be observed at the scale of individual members. We have seen such emergent behaviors in the tea party movement in the growth of participants in marches. On April 15, 2009, 3,000 march in DC. On 9/12/2009, 1 million marched. That is exponential growth. We also see emergent behaviors in the “unexpected” election results in VA, NJ and MA.
I have seen a lot of people try to describe the tea party in linear terms. They try to understand it but they are using incorrect system descriptions. For example, Ed Rendell says that it is weak because it doesn’t have a national infrastructure, not realizing that the decentralized nature of the movement gives it tremendous power.
The differences can also be described as CI (Creativity and Information) versus CIC (Creativity, Information and Communication). Both are power-generators but CI is a power collector while CIC is a power distributor. More on that at http://29thday.org.