Best of 2011: 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

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of the Occupy movement and the intersection of national and local politics. This story first appeared in October.

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.


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