Who Will Harness the Rage?

Ever since the economy crashed and the government paid hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the fat-cats who were responsible, a populist rage has been seething away across the country.

Home values have collapsed, more than two million homes have been foreclosed on, retirement nest eggs are decimated, seven million jobs have been lost. Hard-won feelings of financial security now seem like a distant memory. The economy is turning around, they say, but where are the jobs? And what about all the money that's been lost?

Meanwhile, not only have the bankers and Wall Street financiers who caused this mess avoided accountability, they've actually been rewarded -- the biggest among them being told that no matter what they do, they can buy their way out of trouble with a seemingly endless supply of taxpayer dollars.

This summer, we've seen one possible pathway for the nation's angry populism -- one that exhibits many of the worst behaviors of disgruntled Americans throughout history. The birthers, deathers, town hallers and tea-baggers are paranoid and irrational and more than a little racist. They're also being cynically used by corporate-funded demagogues who are lining their own pockets as well as those of their masters. As Tom Edsall reported for the Huffington Post this week, this is all giving the GOP high hopes for 2010.

But as the nation heads into a spirited debate over the proper role of financial regulation in the coming weeks, the formidable resentments of the American middle class -- for whom the crash was basically a big exclamation point after three decades of downward mobility -- could also be channeled in a more constructive and hopeful direction.

It's self-evident to pretty much everyone not on Wall Street or Capitol Hill that the nation's financial laws need some serious reform, particularly when it comes to corporate governance, reining in outrageous bonuses and salaries, adopting rules that stop fat-cats from taking dangerously overleveraged risks with the taxpayers as their backstop, and protecting the consumer from deceptive practices. The meting out of a little punishment to the irresponsibly greedy wouldn't hurt, either.

All of which makes the time ripe for a grassroots reform movement.

But one thing that's become abundantly clear during the health-care debate is that you can't count on President Obama to lead a populist revolt. His impulse is to find common ground, not grab a pitchfork, and that's especially true when it comes to his approach to people who make a lot of money. And even if he wanted to, his credibility to lead such a movement has been terribly undermined by his role in bailing out the banks and the big auto companies.

So who will lead? And how many people will join in?

When it comes to moving aggressive financial regulation through Capitol Hill, a pro-reform grassroots movement is going to have be enormously successful indeed to offset the extraordinary lobbying muscle of the banks who, as Senator Dick Durbin so famously said, own the place. Without hearing an awful lot of threats from constituents, swing votes -- particularly the so-called "moderate" Democrats -- are likely to find the possible loss of financial support from their banker bankrollers considerably more terrifying than a few angry voters.

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