Tapping into the deep-seated American tradition of protest, the Occupy movement has wrestled control of the political discourse, refocusing politicians from tax cutting and national debt to student loans, corporate encroachment on the political sphere, and income inequality, igniting activists from Berkeley to Boise. Occupy’s protests, a tradition as old as the Boston Tea Party, would win support from the Founders for avoiding partisan politics and fighting against injustice and aristocracy.
Occupy has been criticized as un-American because of the tenor of their protests and disregard for private property, but the Founders would surely support their right to protest and to destroy private property when necessary.
Thomas Jefferson was an ardent supporter of protest. Of Shay’s Rebellion, Jefferson famously wrote, “I like a little rebellion now and then…God forbid we should have 20 years without such a rebellion.” But those views were not just Jefferson’s. When the Founders saw their sense of fair play violated by the British, they took the matter into their own hands.
The Boston Tea Party, which the modern Tea Party claims to champion, was a riot. It was not a peaceful sit-in or a hunger strike. It was anarchy, a sucker punch to the establishment, an emotional reaction to the injustices suffered by the colonies. Think setting up tents in a public/private park is disruptive? Rioters costumed in Native American outfits threw British tea into the ocean to protest being disenfranchised. Business was disrupted as pounds of British tea found its way into the Atlantic.
The Occupy movement sees similar present-day injustices as the Boston Tea Party participants did. Instead of disenfranchisement form the British, our rights have been diluted by corporate “speech,” which drowns out their voices in elections. In the wake of Citizens United, seemingly limitless corporate money has been funneled into SuperPACs. Politicians seem beholden to the corporations and banks that fund them, bailing out the very institutions that caused the unrest.
While students have suffered under the burden of student loans and near double digit unemployment, banks and auto makers have been bailed out and Wall Street-funded lobbyists have whittled away at financial regulations aimed at preventing another crisis. The Occupy protests have responded to this injustice in the spirit of the Founders’ revolt, seeking to fight the injustice.
Occupy has not resorted to petty partisanship to fight for their problems, instead they have followed the Founders’ advice and shaped the political discourse by making both parties nervous.
Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 9 and James Madison in Federalist No. 10 warned of the pox that partisanship would bring to the Union and offered solutions. The Tea Party, however, disregarded their sage advice, running the country into the ground during the highly-partisan debt negotiations last summer.
Occupy, though viewed as a left-wing phenomenon, has held no punches when criticizing Democrats. Occupy protesters halted a recent speech by President Barack Obama and have remained critical of Democrats.
Occupy’s harshest critics call the movement un-American for its emphasis on equality. But Occupy’s call for equality finds support from a man considered by some to be the champion of small government conservatism, Jefferson.
Jefferson was known as a consistent supporter of democracy and hatred of corporations. While Adams and Hamilton may have thought the people incapable of choosing a ruler, Jefferson trusted in the intelligence of the people to govern themselves. Of his hatred for corporations Jefferson proclaimed, “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.”
Jefferson would be appalled at the influence corporate money has had in diluting the democratic rights that he and the other Founders fought for.
In the inequality protested by the Occupy movement and supported by the Tea Party’s tax plans, Jefferson would have seen vestiges of the old monarchies and aristocracies which he loathed.
Jefferson was famous for his support of the French Revolution’s assault on class and aristocracy. Even as Robespierre and the Jacobin Reign of Terror submerged Paris in a sea of blood and anarchy, Jefferson remained sympathetic to the revolution’s causes of liberty, equality, and fraternity — many of the same causes fought for by the Occupy movement.
The Tea Party, in contrast, has fought to lower taxes on the richest and to raise taxes and the poor, further entrenching class distinctions and eviscerating hopes of Jefferson’s egalitarianism. The effects of the Tea Party’s activism have cut away at the very ideals that the Founders fought for.
Though maligned as un-American, the Occupy movement’s fight against injustice is steeped in the American tradition of protest. Its cry for equality from both parties has galvanized a new group of leaders, continuing in the footsteps of the Founders’ revolutionary path.
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