Populist movements are exciting; they are quintessentially "American" moments that validate our national mythos. This sentiment appears on both sides of the ideological divide.
Although they are an AstroTurf organization funded by the Koch brothers, the Tea Party believes that they are "of the people," and in turn represent the authentic voice of a disaffected silent majority.
Occupy Wall Street, a spontaneous, unfocused, sit-in movement, speaks for an aggrieved and upset public who are disgusted by robber baron gangster capitalism, and an ineffective government that has abandoned the Common Good to the interests of the American kleptocracy.
The Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street, are united in a belief that their respective struggles are in keeping with the best traditions of American democracy and citizen activism. In all, they imagine themselves to be fulfilling the cornerstone values of American civil religion; moreover, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are (in their own eyes, and however problematic the assumption) ideal-typical examples of American exceptionalism in action.
While the former is more explicit in this regard (with their fetish-like worship of the Constitution and love of period regalia), both have embraced freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievance, as values which are central to their respective "movement cultures." Implicit here, is a belief that the framers of the Constitution would support their efforts and goals.
As it often does, and once more, history complicates matters.
The Constitution, while extremely radical for its era, is in many ways an anti-democratic document that is designed to subvert and prevent mass democracy. The framers represented a particular set of regional, economic, class, and racial interests. The Constitution was a compromise document that reflected those realities. For example:
1. The Constitution is an explicitly pro-slavery document which protected the interests of the Southern planters and those of the landed classes;
2. The Senate, founded as an American version of the House of Lords, was a representative body explicitly designed as a check on the House of Representatives. Senators would finally be subject to direct popular vote, as opposed to nomination, in 1913;
3. In order to exercise the franchise to vote, citizens had to be white, male, and own property, a requirement that would not be changed until the era of Jacksonian democracy. The practical effect of these rules was that a significant portion of the American public were ineligible to vote from the time of the founding through to the first decades of the 19th century (with white women being granted the right to vote in 1920);
4. James Madison and others expressed a deep anxiety about factions, the passions of a mass democratic public, and how infectious differences over property and wealth could usurp American democracy--and therefore ought to be protected against by the Constitution.
In total, the long arc of the American experience has been a broadening of rights, liberties, and freedoms, as well as the enfranchisement of whole categories of citizens originally left out of the Constitution's vision of democracy. Ultimately, mass democracy has meant working against the elite democracy imagined by the framers.
While certainly not possessed of a lockstep unity of belief on matters of public and social policy (this flattening of history and mythologizing of "the founding fathers" was a product of the 1950s and the Cold War), the framers were, in many ways, the "1 percent" of their era.
Of course, one needs to be cautious in reading back to a specific moment more than two hundred years ago and importing the framer's sensibilities to the present (What would they say about globalization? Would they be aghast that Corporations are now legal persons? How would they respond to an America that is extremely diverse and a global power?).
But, as Occupy Wall Street works in the best tradition of citizen-activism to reclaim the power of transformative, radical democratic action, it behooves us to ask just who the "1 percent" were in the past, and how their interests may (or may not) echo into the present.
Thus the question: What would James Madison, one of the most "elitist" of his peers, think about the 99 percent? What of the framers more generally? How would they respond to Occupy Wall Street?