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Government Protects the Little Guy

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Friday, September 03, 2010

Over a century ago, William Jennings Bryan presided over mass rallies of mostly middle-class Americans angry about economic inequities. The tea party activists gathered in Washington last weekend for Glenn Beck's event shared similar concerns. Both leaders framed their populist mission in Christian terms.

But Bryan's people knew the source of their insecurity. Beck's don't.

Bryan's populists blamed unregulated banks and industrial mammoths for oppressing the middle class on down. They wanted government to protect them from marauding monopolies.

Beck's populists see government as the marauder. Government, in his rhetoric, is the bully harassing individuals and business alike.

Populist sentiment against the business elite helped get Republican Theodore Roosevelt elected president in 1904. (He had moved up from the vice presidency with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.) But Beck slams Roosevelt for his reformer vision. He froths over Roosevelt's belief that the pursuit of great wealth should benefit the wider community as well as rich people as "the cancer that is eating at America."

It's always dangerous to compare periods separated by more than 100 years. Back in the late 1890s, the government was tiny, and the big corporate powers were free to trample workers and small businesses. Standard Oil and the future U.S. Steel had bigger budgets than the U.S. government. (By the way, Standard Oil et al. did not (SET ITAL) really (END ITAL) favor "free enterprise." They favored their continuation as competition-killing monopolies.)

In sharp contrast, today's populists don't see the recent economic meltdown as the product of the financial industry allowed to run amok. The same folk agonize over growing deficits and see the widening gap between the super rich and everyone else -- yet still oppose a modest tax hike on the top few percent.

In one breath, the tea partiers rail against the bank bailouts. In the next, they object to efforts in Washington to re-regulate the banks and make future bailouts unnecessary. And they see their political home in a Republican Party that tirelessly serves the interests of the Wall Street princes and the industries that dine on taxpayer dollars -- for instance, health care.

It's hard to remember that Wall Street was rather sympathetic to the surging Democrats only two years ago. During the presidential campaign, the party took in 70 percent of Wall Street's political contributions. Republicans are now receiving 68 percent. (Always cynical Wall Street is betting on a GOP win.)

The financiers turned on Democrats as the Obama administration sought to re-regulate the financial industry. They denounce a proposed return to the top marginal rates of the Clinton-era as a gross injustice. They indignantly defend the ludicrous loophole that lets hedge and private-equity-fund managers pay taxes at a lower rate than the police who guard their mansions.

Private-equity tycoon Stephen A. Schwarzman recently likened the administration's attempt to close the loophole to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hedge-fund manager Daniel S. Loeb angrily wrote his investors that "this country's core founding principles included non-punitive taxation, constitutionally guaranteed protections against persecution of the minority and an inexorable right of self-determination." Who's arguing with that?

These guys are not necessarily "conservative.'' They generally don't care a fig about the social issues. Some, like Loeb, are registered Democrats.

But the name of their game is to amass the highest number of billions. Nothing is every enough. Anyone who slows the play is their enemy. And these days, it's the Republican Party that can best help them rack up their scores. (What's good for the country is generally not item No. 1 on the priority list.)

The plutocracy hated and feared Bryan, especially after he won his first (of three) Democratic presidential nominations. In 1896, Republican operative Mark Hanna went directly to John D. Rockefeller and said, "We need money to defeat Bryan." Rockefeller wrote a check.

One would think that the populists who lament the alleged decline of their economic status -- and America's real economic decline -- might want to stop the big players from repeating their excesses. Amazingly, they don't.

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