Coxey's Army Marches Again

Tea Party and Occupy share one thing: anger that something is wrong with the country

When I was growing up my mother often used the expression "Coxey's Army" to refer to any large gathering that required feeding, or a ragtag group of any kind. I knew what she meant but it was a long time before I thought to look up the origin of the term.

The Panic of the 1893 was the worst depression in America until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Jacob Coxey led a protest march on Washington, starting in Ohio and going through Pennsylvania, picking up supporters. The group demanded public works projects to provide jobs and put greenbacks in circulation. Sound familiar? The movement failed, possibly because the word "infrastructure" had not been invented. Can you imagine the impact this movement in Ohio had in order for the term Coxey's Army to survive and still be in use by people growing up in the South during the Depression?

It's not like they had cable news coverage of the event.

There were other groups, including veterans, who marched on Washington during the 1930s. In times of great economic uncertainty, anger sweeps through the country and people take to the streets.

It probably angers both sides to suggest any commonality between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests. But that commonality is anger. Anger that results from feeling the country is in trouble and our leaders are being feckless and incompetent.

The Tea Party includes a lot of social conservatives, but its predominate theme has been the danger of big government, deficits, and high taxes. The underlying theme is that Congress and the president have allowed government to ally itself with big banks and Wall Street for bailouts and handouts. The Tea Party set to work, peacefully, to elect people to Congress to fix the problem.

So far the Occupy Wall Street movement and its various iterations around the country, including Nashville, haven't bothered to flesh out themes, organize, or try to elect candidates. They are content to just express a sentiment from a 1970s movie called Network when a news anchor starting yelling, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

We likely wouldn't have noticed the Occupy Nashville group at legislative plaza had the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam not arrested them—twice—in an action the Chattanooga Times called an abuse of police power and acting like "a petty Balkan dictator."

Washington politicians can play to their base, make distinctions among protesters if they like. But what they need to understand is that people on the right, left, and center are angry. And that anger will find expression. The times are dangerous enough for the emergence of a third party. It could happen even though the two parties have set things up to make it almost impossible for another competitor. But a populist with Internet organization and millions of small contributions could do it—with the proper political skills. No, we don't need Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, or any other millionaire, a la Ross Perot. But are you ready for Ron Paul?

By every historical measure Barack Obama ought to be a one-term president. It is a golden opportunity for the Republicans. Thus far they have offered Republican primary voters lying flip-floppers and graduates from Klown Kollege. If this is the best they can do, some conservatives may think it best to just keep Obama frozen in place and have four years of gridlock. I don't know if the country can survive.

But both political parties ought to think long and hard about the pent-up anger out here.

Obama's populist campaigning against Congress also contains criticism of big banks and Wall Street fat cats. Ironic, in that he has gotten more contributions from them than all the Republicans combined. But he is the incumbent president and a study this week reveals that Wall Street has made more money in the last two years than it did under eight years of George Bush.

Herman Cain made a good point about Occupy Wall Street. The protesters ought to be in Washington demanding reform.

And Congress should always shudder when the American people are mad as hell and decide not to take it anymore.