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The Occupy Movement: At Least One Founding Father Would Support Protests
Herman Cain and other conservative politicians are calling the Occupy movement "extremist" and "un-American." But with its message of concern about wealth inequality in the U.S. and the corruption of government by special interests, Occupy is a movement that definitely would have been supported by the Founding Fathers. Perhaps not necessarily by the ones most of us are familiar with, but with the group known as the Anti-Federalists and, in particular, their spokesman, Robert Yates.
Robert Yates was a New York lawyer who organized against the British for American independence and then was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Unlike the Schoolhouse Rock image of the Founding, not all Americans were unified and in favor of adopting the Constitution. Yates wrote several articles for newspapers under the name "Brutus" -- the Roman senator who participated in murdering Julius Caesar because he feared the rise of a dictatorship. Brutus/Yates put forth several views that are in line with the positions of the Occupy movement today.
First, Yates believed that the proposed federal government would become too big to represent its citizens well. The result would be citizens feeling their government as distant and disconnected from their lives, and they would have little knowledge or understanding of how it works. In a Newsweek survey earlier this year, almost one in three Americans couldn't name the vice president, and almost 45 percent failed to define the Bill of Rights. The Occupy movement captures the imagination today because of its experiment with direct democracy in the General Assemblies -- gatherings of ordinary people in the movement, trying to make decisions together based on the principle that each person represents himself and himself only. The emphasis here is on local decision making and learning how to cooperate without leaders who speak in the name of others. This is an emphasis that Yates thought essential to liberty and something he worried Americans would lose over time unless they had regular practice in their own communities.
Yates also predicted that a distant and powerful federal government would soon be overrun by the wealthiest individuals. Brutus did not despise the rich, he merely thought they would have more resources to organize and to get themselves elected. This would be a bad result, he believed, because once so many rich people are in power, they will start to work for their own interests and not for the public good.
Today, millionaires represent about one percent of the population. Yet, millionaires make up about 47 percent of the House of Representatives and 56 percent of senators. The Congressional Budget Office reported earlier this year that the wealthiest 1 percent saw their incomes grow by 275 percent over the past 30 years, while that of the middle class rose only about 40 percent. This gap is altering the way our communities look. A new study by Stanford University reveals that many major American cities are being re-segregated, but this time by differences in wealth rather than race. In short, the richest citizens are moving out and away from the rest of the 99 percent, and yet, they control a disproportional share of political power over everyone.
To the extent that the Occupy movement keeps these issues of direct decision making and power inequality on the front burner, it is acting in the spirit of the Anti-Federalist founding fathers. The first time the nation took the Anti-Federalists seriously, all Americans won; their agitation did not defeat the Constitution, but it did result in the creation of the Bill of Rights. We might do well to consider how the Occupy movement is calling us to revitalize American democracy for a new century.