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Can 'Occupy' protests galvanize Obama?

In the Depression, FDR won re-election over populist insurgencies by running on a strong jobs and fairness platform. Obama, slower to respond, still might do the same, helped by the fading of the Tea Party. Here are some lessons from American history.

An Occupy Seattle protester holds up her sign.

An Occupy Seattle protester holds up her sign. f8stop/Crosscut Flickr User Group

Tea Party protesters marching in Philadelphia in 2009.

Tea Party protesters marching in Philadelphia in 2009. Surfsupusa/via Wikimedia Commons

If it has done nothing else, Occupy Wall Street has pushed the Tea Party from the front page of American political coverage. There are similarities between the insurgent movements — the lack of identifiable leaders perhaps foremost  —but the Occupiers are a long way from forming a political opposition within one of the major parties, as the Tea Party has done within the Republican Party.

For President Barack Obama, beleaguered these days on all sides, the specter of such a rump movement contesting Democratic candidates in 2012 must be taken seriously, because it has precedent in the history of America’s last great economic meltdown, the Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to surmount insurgencies with very identifiable leaders and win re-election in 1936. Like Obama, FDR came to office on the heels of great enthusiasm amongst supporters and inherited a many-faceted economic and social mess from his predecessor. Unlike Obama, he had solid, dependable majorities in both House and Senate, although, like Obama, he faced a Supreme Court with a conservative majority and no love for him in its collective heart.

Roosevelt overpowered his opposition and won a landslide victory in 1936. The Republicans nominated an obscure Kansas governor; FDR in the run-up to the campaign unveiled what would later become known as the Second New Deal. Within it were the building blocks of modern American society.

Roosevelt reacted to the protests and played on his immense personal popularity and ability to use radio to reach millions. Occupy Wall Street is the first sign that not all of Obama’s troubles come from the Right; he ignores this incipient movement at his peril. His new jobs program and tax-the-rich plan are a sign he knows of the danger, but his chances of successful legislative action are almost nil because he cannot call on Congress to do his will, as Roosevelt did in 1935-36.

Occupy Wall Street is frequently compared to the various protest movements of the 1960-70 era, largely because of the similarly youthful protestors. Most of the protestors in 1968 were either in school or the offspring of employed middle-class parents. The economy was doing just fine and seldom figured into the protests. The Vietnam War and civil rights were the galvanizing issues in the 1960s.

In 1935 the nation was mired in the Great Depression and as much as a quarter of the workforce was without work. Protests overwhelmingly involved the economy.

The most effective forces employed the latest in media technology: instead of social media they used radio, which was also Roosevelt’s medium. Leaders of the protest movement developed radio audiences in the millions: Father Charles Coughlin, “The Radio Priest,” was known for his denunciations of FDR and calls for sharing the wealth. Huey Long, “The Kingfish,” governor and (many claimed) dictator of Louisiana, was now in the U.S. Senate and when he took to the radio, millions listened.

Their messages mirrored Long’s title for his movement: “Share Our Wealth.” It was totally focused on Wall Street, big finance, and inequities that were the worst since the dawn of the Industrial Era and the greatest since that time until today’s disparities.

Anger was raw and palpable, whether expressed in roiling ovations when Long or Coughlin addressed rallies of tens of thousands or in the sometimes-illiterate letters to the White House pleading for FDR to support the protest movement.

Long and Coughlin hated Roosevelt, as did Dr. Francis E. Townsend, the retired California doctor whose “Townsend Plan” promised every unemployed American over age 65 a payment of $200 a month, provided he or she promised to spend it within 30 days. Townsend would finance it with a 2 percent national sales tax; in the days before Social Security it gained an enormous following and politicians had to at least give it lip service in many districts.

All of these movements had two common denominators: they placed the blame for the Depression on the shoulders of Wall Street, bankers and financiers and wealthy investors; and they wanted to solve the problem with vigorous, expensive and centralized governmental programs and actions.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Flea Partiers are protesting Obama's corporatist policies. But what are they for other than 'We Want The Rich To Give Us Stuff."

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article.

The "Occupy Wall Street" has the wrong target. "Wall Street" has only taken advantage of what "Washington" has enabled. And unless "Occupy" decamps to the south and becomes "Occupy Washington" with a real "agenda," even if loosely defined, it will be remembered as an assembly of scruffy anarchists with come lately to the party labor support. Too bad, because it is more than that.

The question is can it be transformed into something different and would that be effective? I think the transformation would require leadership, apparently anathema to "Occupy Wall Street." But if it can get past that, put a few "million man marches" together with semblance of an agenda - like "jobs now, fund infrastructure" - and pack the Congressional offices with constituents who are willing to stay until something happens - then there is a chance.

But for now the "Occupiers" are only a lot of angry people.

Guess what: I am angry too and I do not use the word anger lightly or often. I am anger at the lack of leadership from the President and Congress - Republican and Democrat - in the same way that Tom Friedman described in his September 24, 2011 column "Help Wanted: Leadership"

Friedman sums it all up:

".... the more I read the papers the more I’m convinced that “we the people” are having an economic crisis and “you the politicians” are having an election — and there is frighteningly little overlap between the two.

What’s worse — both parties seem to have concluded lately that no compromise is possible and therefore their differences will just have to be settled by the 2012 election"

Our democracy works well enough when there is no crisis or if in a crisis one party has control of the Presidency and the Congress. In current circumstances, I long for a Parliamentary form of government where decisions actually get made.

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

I do hope President Obama pays attention the "Occupy Wall Street." I am disappointed in the president on a number of issues, mainly that he was too cautious with his agenda. Even when the president was negotiating with the Republicans on the debt ceiling being raised, he seemed to occupy one thought only and that was "I can strike a deal with the House on this matter." While I don't fault the president for wanting to negotiate, he had NO plan B when the Republicans backed away. I get upset and angry about what the president has NOT done until I see the current crop of Republican candidates and know that the nominee will have a HUGE financial war chest dedicated to electing that person. In addition, progressives should worry about a number of midwestern states, like Wisconsin and Ohio and some southern states, like Florida, which are enacting or have enacted legislation to "prove you are a citizen and a valid registered voter." This will greatly affect the outcome of votes for the House, Senate and Presidency. I don't expect or want even progressive politicians to always appear at OWS, I just want to make sure that these politicians FULLY understand what will happen if President Obama loses, and the same goes for the OWS demonstrators. If Republicans and reactionairies get ahold of the federal government, what has been started will only be continued on a greater effect: tax cuts for the wealthy, union busting, continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, less ability for people to hold Wall Street accountable for their gambling, more difficulties in sending their children to college, FURTHER cuts in education at all levels. Oh, and a continued economic downspiral being supported by an electorate that believes in 18th century governing prinicples. This just will not do!!....

fastryder

Posted Thu, Oct 13, noon Inappropriate

The socialism and tax policies hatched under FDR continue to exhaust, haunt, and ruin the lives of millions of Americans having to pay the freight for those merely riding in the wagon...just look at the expansive mission creep in the social security scheme and how the tax amounts and rates have soared over the 75 year history of the program (from 1% on $3,000 earned income to $12.5% on $108,000 earned income). And, the Tea Party is not fading; comparisons to the 'occupy whatevers' will surely favor the Tea Party when factoring in electoral success, arrest rates, lifetime success rates, clarity, and personal cleanliness.

animalal

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

yeah al, there has been quite a difference in the cost of living over the past 75 years. I also know that middle class families have greatly improved over the past 75 years, both in income, home ownership and education for their children, in addition to business opportunities. The past 30 years have NOT been so good to the middle class but GREAT for the wealthy, corporate executives and Wall Street. Why is it that along with a very generous salary, corporate executives believe they are entitled to a bonus? This bonus often comes at the expense of workers, job outsourcing, closing of plants, etc. Why is the CEO of Boeing getting a bonus when the 787 is 3 years behind schedule? Why in this severe recession, are ANY CEO's getting bonuses? Is it because they have a new suit they are wearing to work, or they arrive sober? This corporate clowns don't mind signing for their bonus and taking the money, but they seem a bit sensative that corporate bonuses are an inssue that won't go away.

fastryder

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I see no chance for President Obama to grow a spine. The man sold himself out to Wall Street and will run on a campaign of "that other guy is nuts!"

I also suspect that he'll go down to defeat because the core of his voters from the last election won't see any reason to bother to come out and vote.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

There is also the possibility that, thanks to the "Occupy Wall Street" types, the 2012 Democratic convention in Chicago may come to resemble the one 44 years earlier.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, the 2012 convention will be in Charlotte, N.C.; if you read the New Yorker's Oct. 10 issue, Jane Mayer tells us that a billionaire named Art Pope has basically bought North Carolina for the GOP, so you wonder the value of a Dem convention in the state. I was in Chicago in 1968 covering for an Oregon newspaper; I doubt we will be looking at the same situation regardless of where the convention is held. Afghanistan isn't (yet) Vietnam.

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 5:01 p.m. Inappropriate

What this first local in-depth analysis worthy of that word misses is Seattle's place at the beginning of the public outcry's first leg. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keli_Carender

As to the outcry's third leg yet to be addressed—your link to Bill McKibben is broken—the much slower to dawn public awareness of the full extent of our squandering lacks ANY history to serve us in that nature does not write histories at least not in words.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 7:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. McKay, I'm not suggesting that violence will break out because of the war in Afghanistan, I'm suggesting that it will break out as part of the protesters' war on "Wall Street", whatever that is (besides an address).

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

We're on the same page; my point is that foreign wars won't trigger anything of the nature of Chicago 1968; in part because we now have a volunteer military, but also because the economy,, in particular the loss of hope by many young people and long-term unemployed. Yet, despite this, I don't see the accumulated anger of 1968, or the leaders to put such an action together. But, of course, time will tell, won't it?

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 9:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Bigger movements have started with less. The seed has been planted. Will it become violent? I think that's the question. If and when it does, Washington and Wall Street might look out. We have a ways to go before we're massively desperate but getting closer daily.

Benson

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately, I think violence is a given. Should have just said it.

Benson

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Fastryder states:

"If Republicans and reactionaries get a hold of the federal government, what has been started will only be continued on a greater effect."

Really? The implication here is that mainstream democrats, like Obama, are actually significantly less tied into corporate interests, oil interests, big bank interests, insurance interests etc. than Republicans. Looking at 'token' bills like the wall street reform bill or on continued military involvement in the Middle East, it seems that there is rather little that separates these two parties. Indeed, Democrats may give lip service to their base, but rarely deliver much on their promises. This is because progressives, in continuing to reluctantly vote for mediocre have failed to effectively mobilize against the democratic establishment and force those politicians to deliver more in return for votes.

It is for this reason that it is a necessary risk to place pressure on Democratic politicians because while the risk of losing is not that big, settling will just leave America with the same terrible choices in the next election.

As for Occupy I'd suggest that the most pressing concern is the anarchism issue. From what I've seen, it is a fundamental tenet of the movement to be leaderless. I don't necessarily believe that this belief is incompatible with successful policy action (as mobilized voters are mobilized voters regardless of who is leading them), but the movement will have to be assertive in making real, tangible policy demands as opposed to failing to take assertive steps in the name of stubbornness and or (meaningless) compromise.

Posted Thu, Oct 13, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. McKay, while I appreciate the attempt to draw parallels with the past, I must disagree. I would argue that politics is not a unitary thing that persists through time with simply different players repeating strategies and getting similar outcomes, or not. Too much violence is done to the differences to make this actually pan out in practice or understanding. One must go to such a level of abstraction that it becomes, well, meaningless. I know it's comforting to plug Obama into a model of FDR, but really there's no credible way to make this stick, given all the changes and differences that have made this time different than that time. Radio is not simply the earlier version of Facebook and Twitter, even though they are called "technology" and use electricity. I would suggest we ought to resist the temptation to make the new comforting, and, rather, grapple with its newness and differences. I don't think anyone really knows what this movement portends.

By the way, the self-organization that you refer to (and admirably demonstrated so far by the protesters) is the definition of true anarchy, not the slide into your assumption that it is the "unruly mob."

bkochis

Posted Fri, Oct 14, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I do understand that President Obama is no FDR, many Democrats said that President Clinton is more conservative on a number of domestic issues then the progressive or liberal base wanted. President Obama is a centrist, who avoides, dislikes or is uncomfortable with pushing through many of his policies and falling back to negotiation. I have no doubt that many Democrats are in Wall Street and Big Oil's pockets. President Obama strikes me as a man who would have made a very good federal judge; he doesn't really have the stomach for a good fight and greatly underestimated the Republicans and Tea Party's hatred for him. Even President Clinton wasn't this hated. The reactionaries and counter revolutionaries don't even regard him as American. 40% of those who call themselves Republican or conservative, or who identify with that label still believe President Ogama was born in Kenya and his birth certificate is false. I am sure some conservatives say that to keep the lie going but many actually believe it. Presidents, like other individuals, come in many varities and they don't always please their base. President Reagan called government the enemy, but raised taxes anyways. President Obama, to me, is not the political messiah that many progressives and those on the left want and he has had difficulty growing a spine. But do NOT kid yourselves what the Tea Party Republicans want and WILL do if they get elected. Their agenda is clear to all but the indifferent or unbelieving person. I would rather deal with the devil I know then the one I don't know. I have no doubt that if President Obama could get a deal raising taxes, he would also resume negotiating spending cuts, I am not ignorant of this. But I also know the Republicans will raise taxes on the middle class, cut spending to social security and medicare and any kind of entitlement spending and there will STILL be a deficit. I do not want to take my chances with Wall Street or the current Republican Tea Party. They would steal the lord's last supper if they could.

fastryder

Posted Mon, Oct 17, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

I suspect that the Administration or, at least, Democratic operatives are behind the first occupy wall street effort. This is what happens when you elect a community organizer who is an inept leader with no experience or knowledge in economics. Obama's only path out of the economic problems, he and his policies have drastically worsened, is public demonstrations. This is a dangerous path and could lead to violence. But when this is the only thing you know, it is what you do.
I hope America has the strength to live through these dismal times.

Skeptical

Posted Tue, Oct 18, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Community organizer? I thought we had moved beyond that red herring. That gives away your dependence on extreme right-wing media.

Benson

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