Since the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, Democrats have viewed the rise of the angry, grass-roots, conservative tea party movement with alarm. Now many liberals and some Democrats see the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators as a liberal counterweight to the tea party types. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider called the tea party movement "Goldwater 2.0" -- in short, a substantial portion of middle America angered by high taxes and big spending.
How does the Occupy movement rate? Will it help or hurt the Democrats? The key question should be: Are the protesters more similar to the progressives, who had so much success a century ago with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, or to the ultra-liberal activists, who nominated William Jennings Bryan and George McGovern? (Both of whom ran for president three times and lost).
My preliminary take is that the Occupy movement is stylistically similar to the left-wing movements of the 1960s, but has a much stronger substantive case. The broad center of American public opinion, not just the angry left, is legitimately upset at the financial misdeeds and mistakes that have driven the economy into the longest recession since World War II. If the occupiers can put together a coherent set of reforms that benefit the vast working and middle classes, they could have a legacy just as impressive as the 20th century progressives.
To recap briefly, the rise of industrial capitalism during the Civil War era produced vast amounts of new wealth -- but also numerous unintended consequences: exploitation of workers, pollution and often successful attempts by the newly rich to manipulate the political process by buying U.S. Senate seats (which were mostly appointed then) with massive cash contributions.
This period of American history was called the Gilded Age. In 1896, the Democrats nominated Bryan, who ran on a platform of pumping up the economy by tying the printing of money to the supply of silver, support for agriculture and labor, voting rights for women and opposition to imperialism. (Bryan also supported Prohibition and teaching creationism.) A dynamic orator and vigorous campaigner, the "Great Commoner" was probably ahead until the final week of the campaign, when factory managers told their workers they would be fired if Bryan won. William McKinley defeated Bryan with 51 percent amid allegations of vote fraud. Bryan would go on to lose again in 1900 and 1908.
Bryan suffered from defections among Northern Catholic Democrats because they were turned off by his outspoken, Protestant fundamentalism. That was fatal to his hopes of carrying big states like New York, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan. (Business also succeeded in pinning the "radical" tag on him). But if his candidacy was rejected, Bryan's ideas lived on and were soon picked up by a group of middle-class intellectuals calling themselves the progressive movement. They supported breaking up business monopolies, women's suffrage, health and safety regulations, labor rights, taxing the rich, civil service protections for government workers and direct election of U.S. senators.
Virtually all of the measures advocated by Bryan, except for the free coinage of silver, were eventually enacted by former New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt (who ascended to the presidency after McKinley's assassination in 1901) and former New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, who defeated Roosevelt and President William Taft in 1912. Roosevelt and Wilson were known as "the progressive presidents" and Roosevelt, especially, was quite popular. And their reforms, from the Food and Drug Act, to the National Park System, to the income tax, to the minimum wage, to the Senate elections, live on a century later.
Who are the occupiers? I recently visited demonstrations in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. One could see the usual causes espoused at any liberal/left protest since the '60s: ending American military operations in the Third World, women's rights, gay rights, a guaranteed income, higher taxes on the wealthy, national health insurance, campaign finance reform, legalization of marijuana, etc.
One young man at McPherson Square in Washington was promoting the idea that machines could do 95 percent of the nation's work, thus leaving most of us to do "creative" work, such as writing poetry, painting or creating new video games! Obviously, the Occupy movement will need a more realistic and practical program to gain the support of middle America. As McGovern himself learned the hard way, it's tough to promote a positive vision for the future while running a chronically complaining campaign.
One other lesson from the '60s that cannot be overemphasized is that when demonstrators confront law enforcement, voters almost always side with the police. Some of the demonstrations on the West Coast have recently turned violent. If that were to continue, the chances of Occupy Wall Street promoting positive economic reforms would be severely damaged.
Back in the '60s, the broad American mainstream was ambivalent about the anti-Vietnam War Movement and thoroughly opposed to the White Radical and Black Power movements -- especially when they turned violent. I had a history professor named P.F. Palermo who believed that a turning point of American politics came in the late 1960s and early '70s when Richard Nixon was able to tar the Democrats with the brush of social radicalism -- i.e., more interested in criminal rights than criminal victims, more into promoting welfare than work, etc. Polls showed voters moving sharply to the right on crime, law and order, welfare and taxes. Not surprisingly, McGovern lost the 1972 election by the greatest margin ever.
Some conservatives view the Occupy demonstrations as a chance to rehash the '60s strategy: just nail them as hippies and radicals and wait for the inevitable backlash from middle America to benefit Republicans. Republican candidate Herman Cain called Occupy Wall Street "anti-American," while Charles Gasparino of the New York Post dubbed the Manhattan protests "New York's Marxist epicenter." Rep. Paul Ryan accused President Obama of using "class warfare, envy, resentment and fear" to divide Americans. And Mark Steyn in National Review labeled the protesters "anarchists for big government."
When Obama expressed some sympathy for the economic frustrations of Occupy Wall Street, some demonstrators burned him in effigy in New York -- a rather odd response to the most liberal president since the '60s. Even some moderate-to-liberal Democrats are concerned. Both Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute and New Republic magazine worried that the movement would end up hurting liberalism by scaring off the moderate independents Democrats will need to win in 2012.
By contrast, large majorities of Americans agree with the occupiers' goals -- particularly a fairer distribution of wealth from the ultra-rich to the middle classes and tighter regulation of abusive financial practices.
Census data backs up the case: the 2010 Census showed that adjusting for increased living costs, the income of the richest 1 percent grew by 275 percent since 1980, while the middle income groups gained a much smaller 39 percent -- and the income of the bottom quarter essentially stagnated, growing by a paltry 18 percent. That's a 7-to-1 advantage for the rich over the middle class and an astonishing 15-to-1 advantage over the poor. It's little wonder that by a margin of 66 percent to 26 percent in the CBS News/New York Times poll, Americans said that "the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people."
What does the public think of Occupy Wall Street? The latest polls by Gallup and various news organizations show that most Americans are undecided. About 30 percent support its goals, roughly a quarter are opposed and the rest are still considering their options. One datum of good news for the movement is that the CBS poll reported that 46 percent of all respondents believe that the "views of Occupy Wall Street generally reflect the views of most Americans."
So if there is support for the movement's broad goals, what specifics might also attract bipartisan support? A progressive platform updated for the 21st century might include stricter regulation of banks, mortgage loans, hedge funds and derivatives, which did so much to drive the financial crisis, protecting the "safety net" of Social Security and Medicare from excessive cuts, limits on credit card interest rates, universal health care and a Consumers' Bill of Rights.
The key to long-term success for any reform movement is taming its more extreme elements and providing tangible benefits to the majority of Americans. Protests without a legitimate and workable program eventually just become noise, and then voters change the station. We'll see in the next year if Occupy Wall Street can make the transition from simple protest to real change.