The homepage of occupywallst.org is somewhat plaintive. Under the heading “Mail,” the organizers of the populist economic movement advise supporters to send what they can to a UPS Store in downtown Manhattan. But all donations are not created equal: “Money orders only please, cannot cash checks yet. Non-perishable goods only. We can accept packages of any size. We’re currently low on food.”
Judging from the reaction of the broad American establishment, however, they are not low on energy or impact. The mayor of New York City has said such protests against economic inequality and banking excesses will cost the city jobs; I have heard Wall Street satraps in recent days take a dismissive tone about the “crazies” that suggest the powers that be are not entirely dismissive. For they know in their hearts — or at least in their guts — that this backlash is long overdue.
From the 1820s to the 1960s, the major engine of the politics of the few versus the many was more about money and power than it was about symbols and power. From Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan to Harry Truman, leaders rallied in support in of “the little guy who has no pull,” in Truman’s phrase.
Then came the mid-1960s. Roughly put, the white backlash against civil rights and an increasingly expensive government enabled politicians such as Richard Nixon — who is really the architect of the kind of populism still practiced by figures like Sarah Palin — to change the conversation from economics to culture. For decades now, Republicans have successfully urged Truman’s “little guy” to think more about cultural elites than financial ones. (George Wallace’s “pointy-headed professors,” for instance, or Roger Ailes’s “liberal media.”) Democrats who talked about economic justice were marginalized or defeated outright. And so cultural populism displaced economic populism as a political force in American life.
The Occupy Wall Street protests at last suggest that America’s wealth gap is once again becoming an organizing political principle in the country. Mobs rarely have good answers to problems, and there is no doubt much to be skeptical about in the crowds making all the noise. But the noise they’re making deserves a place in the broad arena of contending forces. They may not be eating much, but what they’re saying is important. The rest of us owe them a hearing.