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Opinion

Occupy Wall Street: an American tradition since 1776

The 'Occupy Wall Street' protesters aren't extremists on the fringe. They reflect the frustrations of large swaths of American society. By taking aim at corporate greed and corruption, they embody a venerable tradition of American populism with roots back to Jefferson.

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Five years later, when Theodore Roosevelt entered the White House, populism entered mainstream American politics as well. From the Republican side of the aisle, Roosevelt blasted “malefactors of great wealth” – especially financiers on Wall Street – for corrupting American politics. So did Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic standard-bearer, who worried that “all of our activities are in the hands of a few men.”

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But the angriest attacks came from Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office amid the worst financial crisis in American history. And FDR had no doubt about who was responsible for it: the financiers themselves.

“The fundamental trouble with this whole Stock Exchange Crowd is.... their inability to understand the country or the public or their obligations to their fellow men,” Roosevelt told an aide. In his first “fireside chat” on national radio, President Roosevelt flatly declared that “fewer than three dozen private banking houses” controlled “the flow of American capital.”

In its darker corners, to be sure, populism could slide easily into paranoia and hatred – especially toward Jews. The “Jewish banker” became a stock figure for anti-Semites such as Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin (the “radio priest”), and Henry Adams, the eminent novelist and historian.

Adams wrote in 1893 that “in a society of Jews and brokers, a world made-up of maniacs wild for gold, I have no place.” His brother Brooks Adams, also a prominent author, felt the same way. “Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews,” Brooks Adams told Henry, “represented by J.P. Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating our economy...”

Franklin Roosevelt was able to parlay the country’s fears of Wall Street into bank and securities regulation, establishing the federal government as a bulwark against financial skullduggery. But his New Deal also marked the crest of anti-corporate populism, which dissipated in the relative prosperity of the 1940s and 1950s.

Meanwhile, a different form of populism was taking root. Spurred by conservatives in the West, it blasted “big government” rather than big banks. In 1980, Ronald Reagan would ride this right-wing populism into the White House. Like earlier leaders, Reagan railed against a distant, faceless force that beggared the common man. But this alien force was “Washington, D.C.,” which replaced “Wall Street” as populism’s bête noire.

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