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Occupy Wall Street Could Be The New Bull Moose

Matt Pressberg |
November 1, 2011 | 9:18 a.m. PDT

Staff Columnist

The Occupy Wall Street movement has come a long way from its humble beginnings as an easy target for self-righteous commentary. It has effectively franchised itself across this country, entered the public consciousness, and become a political development of note.  

The Theodore Roosevelt memorial on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River between Arlington, Virginia and Washington, DC (Kevin Harber, via Creative Commons)
The Theodore Roosevelt memorial on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River between Arlington, Virginia and Washington, DC (Kevin Harber, via Creative Commons)

However, this success has brought on a dual-faceted criticism common to many populist movements: a lack of both defined leadership and unified messaging. Last week, two Tahrir Square veterans (who know a thing or two about pushing billionaires around) visited Lower Manhattan and echoed these same concerns.

What many people don’t realize is that Occupy Wall Street actually has an eminently reasonable, well-articulated platform and a charismatic leader with broad public respect.

There’s just one small problem: said leader died in 1919 and the platform becomes an antique next summer.

Teddy Roosevelt was succeeded as president by fellow Republican William Howard Taft in 1908. Disillusioned with Taft’s tack toward more conservative policies, a rift emerged in the Republican party (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), and Roosevelt ended up running for president in 1912 under the banner of the Progressive Party, splitting votes with Taft, and handing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, an easy victory.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party became known as the Bull Moose Party, in homage to a speech he gave immediately after being shot in the chest.  I recommend reading the speech in its entirety, but the line that gave the party its nickname stands alone in its unadulterated alpha-maleness: 

“I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” 

President Tupac Roosevelt obviously did “not care a rap about being shot” (yes, he actually said that), but he did care multiple raps about those who were not getting a Square Deal.  

The Progressive Party Platform of 1912, as can be expected from a century-old work, covers plenty of issues that are no longer timely or relevant.  “Governmental action to encourage the distribution of immigrants away from the congested cities” seems like something Lou Dobbs and Sheriff Joe would support, not Occupy Wall Street.

However, Teddy and the Bull Meese did give us what looks a lot like a coherent Occupy Wall Street mission statement. I hate to include such a long direct quote, but I can make an exception in this case for pro bono marketing advice benefiting the public interest.

We therefore demand a strong national regulation of interstate corporations. The corporation is an essential part of modern business. The concentration of modern business, in some degree, is both inevitable and necessary for national and international business efficiency, but the existing concentration of vast wealth under a corporate system, unguarded and uncontrolled by the nation, has placed in the hands of a few men enormous, secret, irresponsible power over the daily life of the citizen--a power insufferable in a free government and certain of abuse.

This power has been abused, in monopoly of national resources, in stock watering, in unfair competition and unfair privileges, and finally in sinister influences on the public agencies of state and nation. We do not fear commercial power, but we insist that it shall be exercised openly, under publicity, supervision and regulation of the most efficient sort, which will preserve its good while eradicating and preventing its evils.

The beauty of this language makes it so there is nothing to clarify. Critics of the Occupy movement like to throw out a straw man that the protesters are some kind of extremists that hate prosperity and business (and freedom and liberty and God and America!), or worse, but my experience with Occupy protests in the Southland tells a different story.

The protesters are against corporate impropriety and financial shenanigans, not business in general. They don’t (all) want to go back to bartering wampum and singing kumbaya around the communal bread oven. They just want good jobs, a sense of accountability and, most of all, the benefit of the doubt. It’s a protest based on a sense of injustice, not one of jealousy.

Roosevelt did not fear commercial power (or apparently anything else), and Occupy Wall Street should not fear financial innovation. The answer is not that the financial system needs to undergo a drastic primitivization so that non-finance people can understand the intricacies of Wall Street; it’s that we need common-sense regulation by those who do have high-level knowledge and expertise in order to have a more stable and less corruptible system.

The Occupiers would be wise to further assert that they are not against the financial services industry as a matter of principle. Rather, they are protesting specific instances of what they consider unethical acts by certain banks.  

An old document seems more useful to a contemporary movement than a dead person, but Roosevelt’s brand of progressivism would be a welcome addition to the Occupy movement.  

Airing personal grievances about the economy, while a way to humanize the story, can be willfully interpreted by critics as self-centered whining. This is a recurring problem for liberals, and the root of the unfortunate “bleeding-heart” moniker. Teddy’s blend of alpha-maleness and magnanimity gave a certain weight to his progressive views that (Eliot Spitzer and Alan Grayson aside) has been somewhat lacking from Occupy Wall Street and its support base. Teddy considered himself a “steward of the people”, and famously walked softly, carrying his big stick in their defense.

The real damage in slandering the Occupiers as hippies is not the association with drugs or poor hygiene, but in implying that they are weak and passive; that when confronted by a big boy CEO in a suit who peppers his language with references to “the real world”, that they will back down and defer to his implied institutional authority. The desk jockeys of Wall Street have an unearned implied monopoly on “the adult in the room,” which the Occupiers might find it useful to challenge. Teddy did.

Teddy concluded his Bull Moose speech as follows: “I ask you to look at our declaration and hear and read our platform about social and industrial justice and then, friends, vote for the Progressive ticket without regard to me, without regard to my personality, for only by voting for that platform can you be true to the cause of progress throughout this Union.”

Although they are somewhat unfairly maligned by pantsuit America, it does appear that Occupy Wall Street might be well served to disassociate themselves from their message. Andrew Sullivan noted how “their cultural signifiers distract from their message” before “learn[ing] to love the goddamn hippies.” Americans are largely sympathetic to the message when articulated in a piecemeal fashion independent of the messengers. 

Occupy Wall Street deserves a tremendous amount of credit for raising needed awareness of fundamental injustices in the financial system. Their next challenge is to harness the disparate energy of the movement and try to achieve some tangible policy changes. As every advocacy group ever would say, the best way to do this is through consistent messaging and inspirational leadership. No bullshit, only Bull Moose.

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