The obvious is not easily seen when you don't want to see it. The Occupy Wall Street protests were suddenly discovered by the mainstream press last weekend (against its own inclinations, it seems, since the uprising of "Indignation" -- "los indignados" in Spain where it all started -- has been going on in Spain, Portugal, France, and Israel since the beginning of summer).
The Wall Street affair was initially ignored for two reasons. First, Americans tend to assume that the their country is the best, and if it is bad there, it must be worse everywhere else. Thus the mainstream media's habit of ignoring "left wing" issues in Europe, and their tendency to report only on what Washington political players do and say -- that is, the president, his administration, presidential candidates, Congress, and K street.
Second, if political news is not related to the presidential race and Barack Obama's war with Congress, it's not important. Wall Street sitdowns are not considered news but rather distractions caused by troublemakers, cranks, radicals, college students, junior professors, and other powerless people. The serious men and women who run the country appear on Sunday morning TV and write newspaper columns. They look on such movements as background noise.
The only popular movements of modern times that made any difference to the United States were the civil-rights campaign and the anti-Vietnam-War demonstrations of the 1960s. While neither of them had overwhelming popular support, both succeeded in morally blackmailing the Johnson administration (which then left Richard Nixon with the unwinnable war).
Not even the Great Depression produced a popular protest that changed anything. The unemployed begged on street corners; families had to move in together; farms and small businesses were foreclosed; and the Dust Bowl confirmed that something like a Biblical curse had struck the country.
People loaded up and started out for California, the "promised land," or for the towns and cities where rumor said there might be jobs. People didn't hang any politicians before they started out (although Sen. Huey Long got shot, but that was a personal matter). They didn't shoot any bankers along the way (although John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and Pretty Boy Floyd did, to a certain popular satisfaction).
Fatalism was not the only reason the country failed to revolt. They had Franklin Delano Roosevelt talking to them on the radio and telling them that the government was doing something. And it was. The WPA, CCC, NRA, and Tennessee Valley Authority paved roads, ensured rural mail delivery, and delivered electricity to farm country. But the Depression went on. FDR seemed reassuring. He was a good talker -- like Barack Obama. The bankers hated FDR too. Then then the war came along. The Great Depression, from the Crash to the beginnings of industrial recovery from European war orders, lasted only a decade. Today's depression has lasted for half that, but there are no European arms orders coming, and the American defense industry is already running at full speed.
An earlier American crisis did produce action. The Populist movement at the end of the nineteenth century, inspired by agrarian distress, produced popular uproar in the South and West, political organization ("Produce less corn and more hell!"), a national convention in Omaha, and an unsuccessful presidential challenge by William Jennings Bryan in 1896 (the first of three). But the movement faded and Bryan became Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State, resigning in 1916 to protest intervention in the World War.
In short, Americans are not very good at popular protest movements. Most of them think that's what Europeans do. In America, "the system works." Today, the trouble is that it is working less and less because the machinery of politics is now all but completely controlled by business interests, thanks largely to the Supreme Court and lobbyists. The Reagan administration killed equal time for opposing political messages on TV and radio. The Supreme Court ruled that even under the American system of paid political advertising, spending money on ads is protected speech, so the millionaire has a million times more free speech than the ordinary citizen. And now citizenship has been bestowed on business corporations, which can spend as much money as they want to elect a political candidate who will effectively be on the corporation payroll.
Can the Wall Street occupiers inspire a national movement to throw out today's banksters? I doubt it. The bankers and brokers will continue stepping over the camped-out rabble on their way to making even more money -- at least until the protesters get too bored or too cold. Winter is coming. It could be a long one.
(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
Related: Pivot Point, by E. J. Dionne Jr.
About the Author
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).