Most of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters in New York and their imitators around the country seem decidedly scruffy – which is just how you would look if you slept in a city park for several days. Some of them have even dressed up as “corporate zombies” in white face paint, chanting “I smell money!” So it may be tempting to think of them off-kilter extremists at the edge of society.
Think again. Taking aim at corporate greed and corruption, the demonstrators embody a venerable tradition of American populism. From the dawn of the republic until the recent past, Americans celebrated hard-working folk and denounced financial titans who preyed upon them. However intemperate or excessive, their protest language fueled some of our most important social reforms – including the regulation and control of the financial sector itself.
Start with the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, who feared that a “moneyed aristocracy” would bind the young nation into a new set of chains. “And I sincerely believe...that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies,” Jefferson warned. He reserved special disdain for financial speculation, which he labeled “a species of gambling destructive of morality.”
Several decades later, Andrew Jackson denounced the Second Bank of the United States as essentially a scam to enrich the wealthy at the workingman’s expense. He also helped sweep away property requirements for voting and office holding, rendering every white male the political equal of the “stock-jobbers, brokers, and gamblers” he despised.
By the late 1800s, as massive financial corporations clustered in lower Manhattan, the populist animus found a new target: Wall Street. “A name more thoroughly detested is not to be found in the vocabulary of American politics,” thundered Georgia’s Tom Watson, vice-presidential nominee for the upstart “People’s Party” in 1896. “Here is Wall Street: we see the actual rulers of the Republic.... The Government itself lies prone in the dust with the iron heel of Wall Street upon its neck.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”