The conditions which surround us best justify our co-operation; we meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box.... The people are demoralized;... public opinion silenced.... homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages... The fruits of the toils of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.... From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes: tramps and millionaires.I've been trying to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement for awhile now, wondering where it fits historically.
The quotation above helped place it for me. It's an American political platform, but not from today's protests. It's from 1892.
Given that we've now had several years of relatively high unemployment, something like the Occupy protests is not at all surprising. When people feel this kind of frustration, when they feel their votes don't matter because the political system seems totally dysfunctional, they take to the streets.
It's happened here before.
During the depression of the 1890s, there was Coxey's Army, a group of unemployed Americans led by Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey. People came to Washington from all over the country (many of them marching on foot) demanding a jobs program. They called it a "petition with boots." Estimates are that at various points many thousands were headed for DC, but only about 500 reached the Capitol. Before the protest could even get under way, Coxey was arrested for trespassing and not allowed to give his planned speech.
Even more relevant would be the 1932 Bonus March. At the depths of the depression, thousands of World War I veterans went to Washington, DC and camped out, demanding that Congress pay out immediately the bonus they were eventually entitled to by law. They spent weeks camped out before they were forcibly removed, first by Washington police and then Army troops under the command of Douglas MacArthur. The spectacle of current soldiers forcibly evicting former soldiers further tarnished President Hoover's reputation only months before the 1932 election.
In both cases, dire economic circumstances prompted demonstrations demanding action by Washington. What strikes me as most interesting about what is happening today is that the focus is not on Washington, but on what the protesters consider to be the true source of our problems: Wall Street. That suggests, I think, a desire to focus not on a specific political solution, but to change the public's perception of the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves. They see the problem as the growing power of an unaccountable economic elite. (Though I also suspect that they doubt the answer is in Washington.)
I find the use of the word "occupy" interesting as well. It invokes the military metaphors of Coxey's Army and the Bonus Army, while also emulating the sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement. Despite efforts by some commentators to dismiss the protests, I suspect there is something rather significant going on today, something that has been building not just over the last three years of hard times, but the last thirty years of growing income disparity.
In the words of the old Buffalo Springfield song, "There's something happening here, what is, ain't exactly clear."
But I think it is becoming clearer.
It was easy, and tempting, to dismiss the initial protest. As the movement in New York has grown, and more importantly, has spread, it has become much harder. Those who wanted to stereotype it as a bunch of lazy hippies have had to deal with the sheer growing diversity of it, exemplified by things such as this past week's stirring impromptu lecture to the police by a Marine Sergeant named Shamar Thomas, a veteran of Iraq whose parents have also served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the emergence of a group called OccupyMarines.
|James Sinclair's diagram from his blog|
The more I think about this historical moment, the more it reminds me of the emergence of the Populists in the late 1880s and early 1890s. They too could be both radically left and radically right. The quotation above is from their 1892 platform, in which they called for nationalizing the railroads (the biggest businesses of the day) and limiting immigration; they wanted a graduated income tax and fiscally conservative government finances; they supported "the efforts of organized workingmen to shorten the hours of labor" and opposed bailouts or "any subsidy or national aid to any private corporation for any purpose."
Perhaps the biggest thing the Populists had going for them was the sense that neither political party was addressing the most pressing issues of the day--the crushing debt of farmers, the pressures of massive immigration, the growth of the corporate trusts. Their 1892 platform stated:
Controlling influences dominating both ... parties have permitted the existing dreadful conditions to develop without serious effort to prevent or restrain them. Neither do they now promise any substantial reform ... They propose to sacrifice our homes, lives, and children on the alter of mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires.But then they were co-opted by the Democratic Party in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan stole their signature issue, silver coinage, and the Populist Party went out of existence.
But it did not end there. In many ways, the Populists were the John the Baptist of the Progressive Era. By the early 20th century, there was a bipartisan consensus that the nation needed meaningful reform, many of which the Populists had first called for 10 and 20 years earlier. Under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Republicans instituted their variety of Progressive reform. Then Woodrow Wilson presided over 8 years of Democratic Progressive reform. Together, they created the regulatory state: the idea that the federal government had to play a role in limiting the power of corporations in the economic and political interests of the public.
The Progressives of both parties created the regulatory state because they came to a common, central understanding: that the industrial revolution had created a new form of power--private economic power--that the Founders never anticipated. That power was unchecked. A democracy, to survive, needed to find a way to check that power. For a time, they did.
When the inevitable backlash came and laissez-faire made its return in the 1920s, and the president crowed that "the business of America is business," taxes were cut, regulators became the creatures of the regulated, and the depression came. Then FDR came in, and with the help of progressive Republicans, triumphed over the "economic royalists," and established reforms that prevented another depression for over 60 years--because both Republicans and Democrats supported the regulatory regime.
I would like to think that eventually the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could together create a similar bipartisan commitment to reform on the part of both major parties. Maybe they will. But I am bothered by that diagram. Sinclair focuses on the overlap in the center.
I keep seeing the dichotomy.
The Populists of the 1890s saw business (Wall Street) as an enemy, and politics (Washington) as the solution. There is no such unity today. The Tea Party blames Washington, the Occupy movement blames Wall Street.
Ever since Ronald Reagan demonized the federal government in this inaugural address ("Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem"), the disaffected in America have had competing targets for their rage: both Wall Street (primarily Democrats) and Washington (primarily Republicans).
For thirty years, Republicans have claimed the federal government can do little well, and when they have controlled it, they have done their best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have diminished not the size of government, but its efficacy. They have reduced taxes to the lowest level in 50 years, all while convincing voters that they are intolerably overtaxed. They have used government to empower and enrich the wealthiest, they have dismantled as much of the regulatory state as they could. And when the lack of regulation led to the economic crash, they of course blamed the very government that their ideology had disarmed. When a Democratic president tried to use government to solve the problem, they obstructed every step of the way and claimed that the continuing poor economy showed government cannot work. For them, government is always the problem, its reduction always the solution.
So it was not surprising last week to hear the new Tea Party favorite, Herman Cain, say both that the poor and jobless have no one but themselves to blame, and that they should blame Washington. We were supposed to have a regulatory system to prevent the financial obscenities Wall Street engaged in, but most Americans probably have no idea that safeguards that worked for decades had been dismantled. So they blame Washington.
And Washington does deserve some blame. For thirty years, both parties have bowed and scraped before the new robber barons, competing with each other to cut their taxes, ease their way, and enhance their riches--Republicans because they believed in it; Democrats because they'd been cowed by Reagan into thinking they had to go along to survive politically. Washington ended the bipartisan consensus that protected the average person. And so some, like members of the Tea Party, therefore see Washington as the problem.
In the current situation, however, the Tea Party has it wrong, and Occupy Wall Street has it right. The Progressives knew that the only way to check organized economic power is through the democratic political process. They knew that more democracy was the answer. The referendum, recall, and primary, were all attempts to break the stranglehold of corporations on the political system. So was the the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of Senators. (These were all also first proposed by the Populists.)
The Tea Party today argues for the repeal of the 17th Amendment. It supports the union-busting efforts of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. It supports the disenfranchisement of voters via these so-called "voter ID" laws that have suddenly sprouted nearly everywhere. In a variety of ways, even if sometimes unknowingly, the Tea Party serves the interests of Wall Street, and undermines the only real hope for lasting change: a government truly responsive to the many, not the few.
Occupy Wall Street has succeeded in changing the political conversation. Changing our politics will be a lot harder.