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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Who can reverse that formula, re-connecting populism to its anti-corporate history? Probably not Barack Obama, who has proven to be a good liberal but a lousy populist. Liberals want many of the same things as the old populists – especially a strong regulatory state – but they also prize dialogue and compromise, Obama’s two favorite idioms. Populism, by contrast, is a language of righteousness and anger: rather than seeking common ground, it rallies Americans to defend their birthright against tyrants and usurpers. And that simply has not been Mr. Obama’s style since taking office.Skip to next paragraph
In recent years, in fact, only the tea party has tapped successfully into the populist tradition. But it has trained its fire almost exclusively on government – and, most of all, on Obama himself. Millions of Americans still think that Obama wasn’t born in America, rendering him ineligible for the White House. Talk about a usurper!
You’ll hear some equally absurd claims down at the Wall Street protests, where a “Declaration of Occupation” charges American corporations with poisoning the food supply and perpetuating “colonialism.” But don’t let the most extreme statements stand in for the whole, or discount the demonstrators as oddballs.
ANOTHER VIEW: 'Occupy Wall Street' out of touch with reality
In a survey taken last January by Public Policy Polling, Americans were asked which statement best described their opinion on the current economic situation: “corporate greed helped lead to the current crisis and these practices need to be reined in to fix our economy” or “now is not the time to constrict corporations while we are trying to get our economy back on track.” You might be surprised to learn that 59 percent of respondents selected the first statement, while only 33 percent chose the second one.
Such polls indicate that the Wall Street protestors reflect the frustrations of large swaths of American society. They’re speaking a language as old as America, calling on a struggling citizenry to liberate itself from private hands. The only real question is whether our leaders will listen.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”