Will the Wall Street Occupiers morph into a
movement that has as much impact on the Democratic Party as the Tea
Party has had on the GOP? Maybe. But there are reasons for doubting it.
Tea Partiers have been a mixed blessing for the GOP establishment -- a
source of new ground troops and energy but also a pain in the assets
with regard to attracting independent voters. As Rick Perry and Mitt
Romney square off, that pain will become more evident.
So far the Wall Street Occupiers have helped the Democratic Party.
Their inchoate demand that the rich pay their fair share is tailor-made
for the Democrats' new plan for a 5.6 percent tax on millionaires, as
well as the President's push to end the Bush tax cut for people with
incomes over $250,000 and to limit deductions at the top.
And the Occupiers give the President a potential campaign theme.
"These days, a lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren't
rewarded and a lot of folks who aren't doing the right thing are
rewarded," he said at his news conference this week, predicting that the
frustration fueling the Occupiers will "express itself politically in
2012 and beyond until people feel like once again we're getting back to
some old-fashioned American values."
But if Occupy Wall Street coalesces into something like a real
movement, the Democratic Party may have more difficulty digesting it
than the GOP has had with the Tea Party.
After all, a big share of both parties' campaign funds comes from the
Street and corporate board rooms. The Street and corporate America also
have hordes of public-relations flacks and armies of lobbyists to do
their bidding -- not to mention the unfathomably deep pockets of the Koch
Brothers and Dick Armey's and Karl Rove's SuperPACs. Even if the
Occupiers have access to some union money, it's hardly a match.
Yet the real difficulty lies deeper. A little history is helpful here.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party
had no trouble embracing economic populism. It charged the large
industrial concentrations of the era -- the trusts -- with stifling the
economy and poisoning democracy. In the 1912 campaign Woodrow Wilson
promised to wage "a crusade against powers that have governed us " that
have limited our development ... that have determined our lives ... that
have set us in a straightjacket to so as they please." The struggle to
break up the trusts would be, in Wilson's words, nothing less than a
"second struggle for emancipation."
Wilson lived up to his words -- signing into law the Clayton Antitrust
Act (which not only strengthened antitrust laws but also exempted
unions from their reach), establishing the Federal Trade Commission (to
root out "unfair acts and practices in commerce"), and creating the
first national income tax.
Years later Franklin D. Roosevelt attacked corporate and financial
power by giving workers the right to unionize, the 40-hour workweek,
unemployment insurance, and Social Security. FDR also instituted a high
marginal income tax on the wealthy.
Not surprisingly, Wall Street and big business went on the attack. In
the 1936 campaign, Roosevelt warned against the "economic royalists"
who had impressed the whole of society into service. "The hours men and
women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor ...
these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by
this new industrial dictatorship," he warned. What was at stake,
Roosevelt thundered, was nothing less than the "survival of democracy."
He told the American people that big business and finance were
determined to unseat him. "Never before, in all our history, have these
forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They
are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!"
By the 1960s, though, the Democratic Party had given up on populism.
Gone from presidential campaigns were tales of greedy businessmen and
unscrupulous financiers. This was partly because the economy had changed
profoundly. Postwar prosperity grew the middle class and reduced the
gap between rich and poor. By the mid-1950s, a third of all
private-sector employees were unionized, and blue-collar workers got
generous wage and benefit increases.
By then Keynesianism had become a widely-accepted antidote to
economic downturns -- substituting the management of aggregate demand for
class antagonism. Even Richard Nixon purportedly claimed "we're all
Keynesians now." Who needed economic populism when fiscal and monetary
policy could even out the business cycle, and the rewards of growth were
so widely distributed?
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But there was another reason for the Democrats' increasing unease
with populism. The Vietnam War spawned an anti-establishment and
anti-authoritarian New Left that distrusted government as much if not
more than it distrusted Wall Street and big business. Richard Nixon's
electoral victory in 1968 was accompanied by a deep rift between liberal
Democrats and the New Left, which continued for decades.
Enter Ronald Reagan, master storyteller, who jumped into the populist
breach. If Reagan didn't invent right-wing populism in America he at
least gave it full-throated voice. "Government is the problem, not the
solution," he intoned, over and over again. In Reagan's view, Washington
insiders and arrogant bureaucrats stifled the economy and hobbled
The Democratic Party never regained its populist footing. To be sure,
Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 promising to "fight for the
forgotten middle class" against the forces of "greed," but Clinton
inherited such a huge budget deficit from Reagan and George H.W. Bush
that he couldn't put up much of a fight. And after losing his bid for
universal health care, Clinton himself announced that the "era of big
government" was over -- and he proved it by ending welfare.