'Moneycrats,' 'Devil Fish' And More Wall Street Protests

Protests against big banks and Wall Street are nothing new in American history. Host Scott Simon talks to Professor Steven Fraser of Columbia University about how the Occupy Wall Street protests fit into that history.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests against big banks and the men of Wall Street are not new in U.S. history. Jeffersonian Democrats warned about the moneycrats. When President Andrew Jackson vetoed the second bank of the United States, he warned of what he called rich men's attempts to gratify their desires in a way that threatens the foundations of our Union. In the late 19th century, there were the Populists, who called the Wall Street types devil fish. To try to learn a bit more about how the Occupy Wall Street protests may fit into that history, we called Steven Fraser who teaches at Columbia University. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

PROFESSOR STEVEN FRASER: You've very welcome.

SIMON: Is this something deeply rooted in American politics?

FRASER: Yeah. What's going on in Zuccotti Park is indeed deeply rooted in a long tradition of resistance and rebellion really against Wall Street and Wall Street in particular. It goes back all the way, in fact, to the nation's founding. The first Wall Street panic happened in 1792 just after the birth of the nation. It was set off by an insider trading scheme engineered by a small circle of aristocratic bankers. And when their scheme collapsed and the local economy collapsed along with it, an enraged mob of New York citizens actually chased the leader of this scheme through the streets of New York, probably would have hung him had the sheriff not arrived just in the nick of time and carted him off to debtor's prison, where he died several years later. And from that moment on, protests directed against the Street particularly has been a recurring feature of American history.

SIMON: Do we hear some of the same themes and slogans?

FRASER: We do indeed. People have been periodically very concerned with the enormous, both economic and political power, the disproportionate economic and political power wielded by the great financial institutions of the country. And also, the power of the Street to subvert, at least in the eyes of those who were protesting, the democratic process because their money bought them so much political influence.

SIMON: So, why do you think we're tempted to see this as a resurgence of that kind of rhetoric?

FRASER: Well, I think we do because we spent a long generation - the last 30 years or so - seeing very little resistance, despite the growing disparities and the distribution of incoming wealth and despite the obvious power of the Street in our political system over the last 20 or 30 years. There was very, very little opposition to that, a somewhat mysterious kind of quiescence. But now, shockingly and yet not so shockingly, given the extreme difficult conditions that people face today, that resistance has, so to speak, risen from the ashes and renewed its links to this long live tradition.

SIMON: And do you see it as being at the left or the right or what?

FRASER: You know, I see it as both. After all, the Tea Party, some of the Tea Party, partisans began by denouncing the bailout of Wall Street banks. And I know that in Zuccotti Park there are kinds of people, including Libertarians who resent the fact that the losses of the big banks are being socialized and paid for by American taxpayers while they make off like gangbusters with the profits. So, I think it's mainly something that's originating on the left but I think there are some sort of sympathetic echoes in certain circles of the Tea Party movement on the right.

SIMON: And to what degree have these movements recognizing everyone and every generation as different, to what degree have they succeeded, if not outright changing the government but changing policy?

FRASER: Well, that's a very variable story. Sometimes they have succeeded quite considerably and other times not at all. For example, the Populist movement of the late 19th century, which was a huge political movement that covered much of the Midwest and the South and elected governors and senators and other local officials all across the country, nonetheless had no success in actually weakening the power of Wall Street over the economic and political life of the country. On the other hand, the protests that emerged during the 1930s during the Great Depression had enormous success in reforming our laws so as to reign in the power of the Street. So, the record of success and failure is a spotty one. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

SIMON: Steven Fraser teaches history at Columbia University in New York. Thank you, professor.

FRASER: Thank you very much.

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