As “Occupy Wall Street” spreads around the world – now in more than 185 locales, and counting – everyone from politicians to media pundits is scrambling to identify the protest movement’s leadership.
On NBC’s “The Chris Matthews Show” former CBS anchor Dan Rather – now with HDnet – tagged Priscilla Grim – a woman who launched a Tumblr page online – as “the real moving force behind this,” only to have the website mediate.com tartly observe that “Dan Rather probably has no idea what Tumblr is.”
At the same time, everyone from President Obama to several US senators to the Federal reserve chairman have tipped their hats to the power of the movement, which Monday staged demonstration from Washington to New York and Jacksonville, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and Portland, Ore.
But, say media and political pundits, efforts to locate the leader or leaders of this movement begs the ever more pressing questions: Does it have any? If it doesn’t will it fizzle? Who speaks for these vocal masses and do they have a unified voice? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the leaderless approach? What does “leadership” even mean in the social media era?
“The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and related movements represent a resurgence of direct democracy – not really known since ancient times,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media. “The danger is always that such groups can degenerate into a mob. But the advantage is that their decisions can more truly represent the will of the people, and be more satisfying to the participants than decisions made by elected leaders.”
Folks in the Los Angeles chapter are quite proud of the leaderless approach as more evenhanded. “If an idea comes up and the majority don’t like it, it gets tabled,” says Joe Briones, a 29-year-old film student camping on the lawn of Los Angeles City Hall with about 300 others.
“Small working groups are now forming, each devoted to some particular policy matter or task,” says Cornell Law School professor Robert Hockett, who lives around the corner from the New York encampments. He cites for example “finance or economic policy” and “state and federal constitutional law.”
Academics and those who study grassroots social movements are searching for historical examples of leaderless movements even as both major political parties contemplate how to embrace or distance themselves from the protesters.
“Mainstream media won’t ‘get’ Occupy Wall Street unless they do some historical and theoretical reading in these anti-authoritarian-but-socialist sources, traditions and movements,” says Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington, Sociology Department. At the time of the Russian Revolution, “Karl Marx’s so-called dictatorship of the proletariat quickly became a dictatorship over the proletariat,” Agger says, triggering the Kronstadt rebellion, what he calls “an early progenitor of Occupy Wall Street.”
“Recall that Ross Perot’s Reform Party while initially powerful and impactful eventually collapsed and suffered after his exit,” says Rosenberg. “Today the Reform Party, while still present, has basically faded away as a “personalistic party” party of Ross Perot.”
Several others say it’s important to redefine certain key terms.
She says there have been many leaderless movements in the past 30 years of American activism, and some have been successful and well-organized.
“‘Leaderless’ doesn't mean ‘unorganized.’ It's the opposite,” Eliasoph says. “If a leaderless movement is going to survive, it has to be tightly organized, but just in a non-hierarchical way. There are pretty firm guidelines for running a leaderless organization. Leaderless-ness isn't the problem.”
Vince Schiavone, founder and CEO of ListenLogic, a firm that analyzes social media, says, “this is amorphous, without clear leadership, and this benefits its growth because it spreads virally, not from one central authority…. But it can also be negative as things start to get out of hand, because there is not one Martin Luther King to call for calm or to rally troops behind one single response.”
One should not assume that because some group doesn't have a visible leader or leaders it's not still being led, says Phil Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute in Oklahoma.
“It's common practice for professional organizers, particularly union organizers to agitate and manipulate people into action in ways that make it all seem ‘grassroots’ and thus more valid or authentic,” Mr. Wilson says. “As an added bonus, without a visible leader there is no one to examine more closely or attack.”
Atlanta based Republican strategist David Johnson suggests that there is a larger guiding hand behind this strategy. “The leadership in this case is behind the scenes and are close to the Democratic Party and other progressive organizations. I base this on the timing of the movement from when President Obama began his so-called populist theme related to his reelection campaign," he says via email, adding "the timing of Occupy Wall Street in relation to this” is “highly suspect."
For news media to be able to identify leadership, meanwhile, it will have to emerge from the protest movement itself, says Richard Levick, CEO of Levick Communications, an international media consulting firm.
“For Occupy Wall Street to find a leader, the culture of the movement must change in some ways,” he says. “The led must be open to being led, and the leaders must not be afraid to assume a leadership role, which, by the way, includes actually using your own last name. One is hard pressed to see history changed by a young Carl, Walter, Martin, or Mohandas.”