Saturday, October 01, 2011

Will the Media Ever Get That a Movement Might Not Have a Leader?

I didn't want to put "Tahrir Square" and "Occupy Wall Street" into the same headline, because I didn't want anyone to think I was saying there's much equivalent about them. There isn't. But they, along with the Tea Party, are examples of movements that don't have individual leaders. And in each case, the U.S. media has had an outright fit about it.

Start with the Tea Party, which the media have not been able to get enough of. Demonstrations with just a few dozen people often bring waves of reporters. And the accomplishments of the Tea Party are indeed huge: literally dozens of new radical members of congress, a change in Republican politics and indeed a fairly dramatic influence on domestic policy. The movement doesn't have a leader. Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck may be heroes, but even their role is frequently overplayed.

But when the Washington Post did a big look at the Tea Party in 2010, it simply could not get over the lack of a leader: "a new Washington Post canvass of hundreds of local tea party groups reveals a different sort of organization, one that is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process. ... As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general."

That the movement had accomplished so much without an individual leader could have been a lesson about the potential of movements without leaders. The article, like just about every other one, went the other direction: the lack of a leader was a sign of something wrong.

The story in Egypt, and in other movements in the Middle East, has been similar. For various reasons, these movements have been largely decentralized. And, suffice to say, often successful.

But even articles that reported on the decentralized nature of the movement sometimes led with an individual. And a lot of media were giddy about ElBaradei, and the possibility that he would be the 'leader' they were looking for.

Again, the lesson could have been that movements without an individual leader can be enormously effective. But few outlets considered that thinking, instead insisting that the decentralized nature was a hurdle to be overcome.

Look, there are two parts of this. One is just that stories about individuals are in high demand, particularly in certain forms of media, like magazines (have you read the New York Times Magazine in the last decade?). So there's a bias toward that sort of story. But the second is just this continued refusal to look at the successes of decentralized movements as evidence that leaderless movements can be effective.

Which brings us back to Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. It's decentralized, which is often reported as a weakness. But as always, the leaderless system actually has many advantages and disadvantages. Everyone can have their opinion on which are greater. But the historical record shows that centralized and decentralized each guarantee neither success nor failure.


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