An Equal and Opposite Reaction: The Role of the U.S. Two-party System in the Rise of Occupy Wall Street

“The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.” —Thomas Paine, First Principles of Government, 1795. [1]

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” —Newton’s Third Law of Motion [2]

Soon after the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street action, critics were quick to whine about its participants as ungrateful for their “freedom,” which enabled OWS to exist in the first place. As those in the OWS movement understand, however, our system of representative government has been hijacked through an out-of-control system of campaign finance. [3] They further understand—now that only corporate presidential candidates show up on the ballot—that the only political choice remaining to the public is mass direct action in the streets.

The brand of “freedom” spoken of by the critics is a fraud. It encompasses the “freedom” of a few to enjoy lives of transcendent luxury while—in another part of town—an increasingly angry and desperate multitude are “free” to suffer unemployment, denial of medical care, homelessness, and a slow and lonely death within a system which has become indifferent to life or death outside the highest tax brackets.

OWS activists can be temporarily harassed by police officers intimidated by illegal orders from superiors who are accomplices to the Wall Street criminals, but a basic reading of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a clear understanding of the firm legal foundation on which the OWS action is based: “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” [4]

There is an increasing understanding, inside and outside of the OWS, that not only do U.S. citizens seek a less oppressive “freedom,” but they also have run out of patience with a system of “free” elections that—as Bill Moyers has noted—has “priced (them) out of any meaningful participation in democracy” through the dominance of the big-money campaign contributors. [5]

Our national history reveals that the problem Moyers describes is not unique to our current circumstances. A review of events following the Civil War up to the present illustrates the fact that our present situation is actually more representative of the norm than not. Most apparent during times of crisis but increasingly visible as our history is more closely examined, that norm is, as follows: a system of electoral “representation” which appears to provide a voice for working people when they are organized en masse, but which first and foremost represents—and is always vulnerable to manipulation by—the wealthiest and most powerful in our society. In other words, we’ve always had a political system in which there are two major parties: a “business” party and a “people’s” party, both dominated by members of the financial and business elite. The elite has worked tenaciously (1) to marginalize any movement that challenged the two-party “duopoly”, (2) to maintain the illusion that the “struggle” to serve the public interest was being furthered by the “people’s” party, and (3) to ensure that analyses of the system itself and of the ruling elite’s thorough control of both major parties and the disproportionate benefits the elite received through that control were never allowed widespread dissemination.

Economics professor and author Richard D. Wolff provides a description of how our present conditions represent one recurrent phase of the norm as he asserts that the status quo within the United States is supported by three kinds of oscillations, or back-and-forth swings, between the dominance of our system by private or state forms: (1) economic, (2) political, and (3) cultural. “The economic events that precipitate swings (in both directions) have been various mixes of recession and widening inequality. Political oscillations have paralleled the economic. Often the party or faction losing power is the one most closely associated with the kind of capitalism being displaced, while the ascendant party or faction champions the other kind. Cultural oscillations complete the interconnected tableau. For example, in the economic theorizing of the politicians, professors, and journalists, celebrations of private capitalism (variously named liberalism, neoliberalism, neoclassical economics, microeconomics, and so on) oscillate with celebrations of state capitalism (variously named welfare statism, Keynesianism, central planning, macroeconomics, and so on).”

“Abundant evidence suggests that these three sorts of oscillations—economic, political, and cultural—function simultaneously as causes and effects of one another. Together they comprise a web that serves sometimes to contain the contradictions of the system as a whole. In that sense, capitalism survives because it can resolve the crises of one kind of capitalism by a transition to the other kind rather than a transition out of capitalism. Yet the web of interdependence among its economic, political, and cultural oscillations may alternatively magnify a crisis of one kind of capitalism into a social demand for transition out of capitalism.” [6]

Global communications technology has speeded up exchange of information, however, to the extent that analyses of our system and its shortcomings now are much more widely understood. Occupy Wall Street represents two historical streams coming together—people’s access to global communications technology and global capital’s historically most egregious episode of over-reaching—to produce what Wolff describes: a mass movement that has the potential to become the greatest social demand for transition out of capitalism in human history.

As we consider the possibilities in the meeting of these forces, let’s look back to see how a predominantly two-party electoral system contributed to our getting to this point.

Howard Zinn reminds us, in his A People’s History of the United States, that the financial and business elite of the mid-1800s were no different from their present-day counterparts in putting profits before people in the case of farmers struggling to feed their families and to continue working the land. Zinn quotes from Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Democratic Promise: “Could the squeezed and desperate farmer turn to the government for help? …(A)fter the Civil War both parties now were controlled by capitalists…The government played its part in helping the bankers and hurting the farmers; it kept the amount of money—based on the gold supply—steady, while the population rose, so there was less and less money in circulation. The farmer had to pay off his debts in dollars that were harder to get.” Zinn further explains that merchants could easily get a lien on a farmer’s land in return for extension of credit because most farmers had little money to pay for necessities until the crop was harvested and sold. Threatened by depreciated currency, the ever-looming possibility of losing their land, and the indifference of the federal government, post-Civil War farmers in Texas organized the first “Farmer’s Alliance” for the same reason that today’s Occupy Wall Street arose: the failure of elected representatives—the same kind of failure that occurred during the Great Depression and that is occurring now—to provide legal means for working people to defend themselves against their own country’s economic system. [7]

James Green—in his Grass-Roots Socialism, an analysis of radical movements in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—demonstrates that the U.S. government pitted farmers seeking homesteads against speculators as it made western land available during that period. “(I)n the 1870s agents of northern and British capital acquired huge domains of rich timberland and ranchland,” and “32 million acres of land from public domain” were granted to twelve railroad corporations, according to Green. [8] Like Zinn, Green quotes Goodwyn in asserting that the two major U.S. political parties of that period ultimately served as a two-headed prop for the status quo, and that the failure of political representation was a catalyst in the rise of the Farmer’s Alliance: “Democrats, like Republicans, served the likes of Jay Gould (the railroad magnate), not the Knights of Labor or the Farmer’s Alliance.” [9]

These pressures on the farmer help to account for the mass exodus from the country to the city from 1920 to 1929 when 19,436,000 members of farm families relocated. [10] Powerful bankers contributed to those pressures according to an entry in the Congressional Record of April 29, 1913, which contains an alleged memo from the American Bankers Association detailing an 1891 plan by the bankers to refuse to renew loans to farmers in order to “take two-thirds of the farms west of the Mississippi and thousands of them east of the Mississippi as well, at our own price…” [11] The point of reviewing the pressures on farmers during the late 1800s and early 1900s is to help explain the rise, in both rural and urban areas, of the U.S. Socialist Party from 1901 to 1912 as working people desperately sought political refuge during a time when both the Republican and Democratic parties were too busy boosting capital to represent the interests of labor. [12]

The U.S. Democratic Party was finally forced to represent working people in 1936 as business contributions to Roosevelt declined due to hostility toward his administration’s New Deal initiatives, primary benefits of which went to workers instead of employers. Unions—with membership rolls expanded in 1935 by the influx of unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the CIO—“contributed three quarters of a million dollars toward his reelection.” [13] It had taken several years—since the great displacement of U.S. farmers to cities and factory jobs which began, as previously noted, around 1920—for the conservative and self-sufficiency oriented farmers’ suspicions of union organization to be lessened. [14]

Labor organizations remained as powerful players within the Democratic Party through the 1970s. The AFL-CIO began pushing in 1963 for a national economic planning process that would have subjected corporations’ major decisions to a public democratic approval process. Michael Harrington asserts that such a planning process had much in common with the AFL’s defeated socialist proposals of 1894. [15] The United Auto Workers called for similar measures in 1970. [16] Harrington quotes from Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1968 in illustrating the power of the AFL-CIO in its support of Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The union showed its muscle as it “registered 4.6 million voters, printed 55 million leaflets and pamphlets in Washington and another 60 million in the localities. It supplied 72,225 canvassers, and on election day, 94,457 volunteers.” [17] Harrington goes on to explain that the unions acted as class-based organizations in their support for the Democratic Party, not as interest groups. With labor interests reflecting such a large part of the voting public and, consequently, being represented solidly and eagerly by the Democratic Party, there was little interest in third or independent political parties and little success to be had by those who wished to label Democratic policies as “socialist.” Workers as a group, however, were soon to be dealt a lethal blow by a firmly pro-business president.

When the striking air traffic controllers’ firings were upheld by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, the clout of unions, both economic and political, was dramatically weakened. Reagan’s actions encouraged employers to threaten to fire any workers who went on strike and to act on those threats if labor refused to submit to management’s demands. The result was that in 2005, the number of work stoppages nationwide was ten times less than the average annual number of strikes that occurred from 1946 through 1981. [18]

With the unions in decline, the financial and business interests were prepared for the opening this provided to move the Democratic Party to the right. In fact, there is evidence that these interests had been working together behind the scenes since 1971, through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and through local networking, to establish a climate hospitable to business and hostile to public oversight of business. [19] The Democrat president Clinton contributed to the shrinking of the U.S. social safety net through his welfare reform initiative. He supported the North American Free Trade Agreement which hurt Mexican labor and started an influx of illegal immigration into the U.S. by Mexican workers. [20] He pushed a war on drugs which resulted in the U.S. prison population increasing from 1.4 million to 2 million. He supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act which caused the loss of millions of dollars in individuals’ pension funds due to the encouragement of speculative investing by commercial banks. Clinton also signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which legalized over-the-counter sale of derivative investment instruments, which in turn contributed to the creation of thousands of fraudulent home mortgages, leading finally to the financial crisis of 2008. [21]

The decline in the power of labor unions and Democratic leaders’ embrace of right-wing policies has meant the loss of a rallying point for the U.S. left/liberal/progressive movement. This trend has only worsened under President Obama, whose failure to defend Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid against an austerity-obsessed Republican Congress this past summer follows his earlier failure to end the Bush-era tax cuts and his caving-in on the public option in the health care debate. [22] Obama’s choices of advisors has done nothing to reassure his progressive critics. The taxpayer-funded bank bailouts engineered in part by Obama’s Wall Street-friendly treasury secretary Timothy Geithner [23] and the major role played by another Obama advisor, Lawrence Summers, in the deregulation of over-the-counter derivatives investments which led to the financial crisis of 2008, [24] have led to the uncomplimentary-in-the-current-context labeling of the president by many as “just another corporatist Wall Street Democrat.” There’s no doubt that many of the participants in Occupy Wall Street think of the president in these terms, and it’s understandable that Obama’s performance in office likely led them to the conclusion that the only choice they had left was to take to the streets.

The election of Barack Obama as president didn’t begin a new progressive era. Obama’s election laid the groundwork—as just noted—for continued deterioration of the political environment for the poor and the middle class, and Obama’s subsequent governance from the center-right appears to confirm—as Bill Moyers has charged—that our electoral system is dominated by big-money campaign contributors. Long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader was doing his best to get this message across on February 21, 2000 when he announced his candidacy for president on the Green Party ticket. He outlined the reasons for Occupy Wall Street eleven years ago in this speech. Among other warnings he issued on that date, Nader reminded us that the Democratic and Republican parties (are) “two apparently distinct political entities that feed at the same corporate trough. They are, in fact, simply the two heads of one political duopoly: the DemRep Party. This duopoly does everything it can to obstruct the beginnings of new parties, including raising ballot access barriers, entrenching winner-take-all voting systems, and thwarting participation in debates at election times.” [25]

Nader’s assertion about “obstructing the beginnings of new parties” proved all too prophetic in regard to the Democratic Party’s actions against him four years later. In the 2004 elections, although Nader ran as an independent due to division within the Green party, “the Democrats and allied 527 organizations (spent) an estimated $10 million to $20 million to keep Nader off state ballots through intimidation of volunteers and endless lawsuits.” These financial strong-arm tactics by the Democrats were called “the most concerted effort by a major party to deny ballot access to an independent or third-party candidate in U.S. history, surpassed only by the Democrats’ campaign in some states to deny ballot access to Earl Browder, the Communist candidate, in 1940.” [26]

Despite the consistent signals that the Democratic Party now represents and for many years has primarily represented financial and corporate interests against public interests, there are still some die-hard progressives who call for taking over “the Democratic (Party’s) infrastructure from the precinct level in order to influence the nomination and platform.” These loyal but myopic Democrats point to the precinct organizing carried out by the Tea Party during the 2010 mid-term elections as a model for progressive organizing. Such precinct-level efforts will not affect the Democratic Party’s policy platform, however, according to Howie Hawkins, who won 60,000 votes as the Green Party’s candidate for governor of New York in 2010. Hawkins contends that it is the winning candidates in the presidential primaries who will write their party’s policies, not delegates to the convention. Hawkins further notes that the precinct infrastructure has served to mobilize votes in general elections in the past but that now it is the candidates’ campaign organizations in most cases which have taken over the mobilization of votes previously carried out through the precinct organizations. [27]

The members of the original general assembly of Occupy Wall Street sent a clear message in their Call to Action document from this September. The message is that they see through the empty rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats and that they will not be distracted from fundamental goals, such as workplace democracy, election of federal officials responsive to community and regional councils AKA people’s assemblies, and the widespread awareness that the two major U.S. parties, the state, and the media are all complicit with Big Finance and Big Business in their war on the public, domestically and internationally.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has arisen, not because the U.S. two-party system has fundamentally changed, but because the awareness of a segment of unknown size of the U.S. electorate has changed in its expanded understanding of the nature of our party system. The people in OWS know what they’re doing. They’re using their first amendment rights to fight for the interests of working people. Many of them are young, but they’re mature enough to understand that they are in a war, a class war, one they didn’t start, but one that requires their participation and the best of themselves if they and a humane vision of what the United States can be is to survive.

Apparently entirely harmonious with such a humane vision and with the OWS Call to Action is the suggestion which was made by Richard D. Wolff, a veteran Marxian economic analyst, in his 2010 book, Capitalism Hits the Fan: “To make the most of this historical period’s opportunity would require the left to formulate a new concept of and vision for socialism. For example, if socialism were defined to include the following basic reorganization inside enterprises, no one would confuse it with anything done by Bush or advocated by Obama. Suppose socialism were defined in the following terms: (1) the workers in every enterprise must function collectively as their own board of directors and as the private owners of their enterprise; (2) democratically elected local, regional, and national political bodies would share with each enterprise’s workers the power to determine production methods and the disposition of outputs and revenues; and (3) democratically elected representatives of the workers in each enterprise would share with residentially elected political bodies the power to determine political issues. Defined in this way, socialism would entail a specific kind of interconnected democratization of the economy and the society. The residential community and the workforce, as stake holders, would share the power of deciding basic social issues.” [28] The Occupy Wall Street movement contains the potential for such a new, revitalized democratic socialism that could fulfill the hopes of millions, here and abroad—because changes here could mean the end of global U.S. military and economic aggression—hopes that have been held by generations of Americans back to the Texas farmers who joined the Farmer’s Alliance to protect themselves from capitalist economic aggression.


My father was born in 1916 and was raised by people born in the 1800s—my paternal grandparents—strong presences in the multi-generational family group within which my siblings and I grew up from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. As long as he was physically able to do so, until his last years, my father continued to work his garden with a horse-drawn plow. In my memories of my father, including these images of his plowing, it now seems as though I was being given the gift of a real-time view of what every growing-season day was like for the farmer of the 1800s. The farmer matched every step taken by the horse or mule, staggering so as not to disturb the furrowed rows left by the plow as it sliced through the soil. My father occasionally allowed me to relieve him, to take the reins and plow handles and to use the power of the harnessed animal in this physically-demanding task. I now believe part of the reason he involved me was that he wanted me to be able to step back figuratively into the 1800s and to come to an expanded physical understanding of the agricultural tradition within which our family developed.

In the understanding my father granted to me of the hard and constant physical labor required of the farmer of the 1800s, he gave the gift of physical experience which now couples with imagination to inspire empathy with the feelings of the farmers of the late 1800s—desperate for help from the Farmers’ Alliance—whom historian Lawrence Goodwyn describes in The Democratic Promise, cited by both Zinn and Green. There is no doubt in my mind about the determination of those farmers to fight to keep their way of life and about the frustration and outrage they must have felt toward the economic barriers erected in indifference to their struggles toward that goal. I have no doubt either about the feelings of working people of any historical period who did and still do struggle against such barriers and against those who construct and maintain them.

No one can predict with certainty what effect the Occupy Wall Street movement will have on the United States and our electoral system. What is clear, however, is that OWS is reflecting the feelings of millions that there is no choice left—if there is to be relief from current oppressive economic conditions—but to challenge the dominance of that system by Big Finance and Big Business. At the very least, this mass direct action appears likely to force the system into some form of accommodation. At best, the continued growth and influence of the OWS movement could mean that U.S. citizens will achieve an increasingly clear understanding of the economic, political, and cultural barriers that have been erected against our interests and that we citizens will begin to dismantle those barriers in favor of new, directly democratic structures throughout our public and private lives.

1. Nichols, John, The “S” Word, Verso, New York, 2011, p. 39; .
4. Nichols, p.41.
5. Moyers, Bill, Moyers on Democracy, Doubleday, New York, 2008, p. 197.
6. Wolff, Richard D., Capitalism Hits the Fan, Olive Branch Press, Northampton,
Massachusetts, 2010, p. 60.
7. Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Collins, New
York, 2010, pp. 284-285.
8. Green, James, Grass-Roots Socialism, Louisiana State University Press, Baton
Rouge, 1978, p. 1.
9. Ibid., p. xvi.
10. Harrington, Michael, Socialism, Saturday Review Press, New York, 1970, p.
(Chp. 19, p. 20);
12. Green, p. xviii; Harrington, p. 252.
13. Harrington, p. 259.
14. Ibid., p. 256.
15. Ibid., p. 264.
16. Ibid., p. 265.
17. Ibid., p. 267.
25. Nader, Ralph, The Ralph Nader Reader, Seven Stories Press, New York,
2000, p. 11;
26. Hawkins, Howie, Ed., Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate,
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2006, p. 39.
27. Ibid., p.58.
28. Wolff, p. 212.


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