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
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. …