Could all those populist pitchforks currently pointed at Washington be turned toward Wall Street instead?
That's the question that ought to worry Wall Street executives as they prepare to pay themselves nice bonuses this month, hard on the heels of a government bailout of the financial system, and amid continuing job losses around the rest of the country. Financial firms know they're in for heat on bonuses; they've already been chastised on national TV by President Barack Obama's chief economist.
The more searing heat, though, might come not from Washington's corridors of power but from the streets, where disjointed populist armies are starting to organize in the so-called tea-party movement.
It's a movement dominated for the moment by mistrust of big government and big government health-care plans. But it's also animated by mistrust of big institutions in general, and a tendency to see those institutions secretly working in tandem to the detriment of the little guy. So it's a short leap from anger at Washington's spending of taxpayer dollars to anger at Wall Street executives saved by those same taxpayer dollars -- and then taking home big bonus checks.
We won't have to wait long to find out how combustible this mixture might be. The tea-party movement is holding its first national convention Feb. 4 to 6, in Nashville, and organizers say it's already sold out. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin will be the star speaker; East Coast elites of all stripes might want to steer clear.
Judson Phillips, a Tennessee attorney and organizer of the convention, says the tea-party movement, disparate as it is, includes many people "who believe that Congress pays far too much attention to Wall Street and not enough attention to Main Street." Tea-party rallies, he says, draw a lot of small businessmen and women frustrated at their own inability to get capital while big banks prosper, and thus inclined to think the deck is stacked against them.
Asked specifically about Wall Street bonuses, Mr. Phillips replies: "I think the reaction of most people in the tea-party movement is going to be this: If a company is doing well, they don't have a problem with it. Most people in the tea-party movement are capitalists....If the company in question is one that received a government bailout -- totally different story. Most people in the tea-party movement don't believe in the concept of too big to fail."
Right now, Mr. Phillips notes, Wall Street bonuses aren't the top item in the broad tea-party tent. Most available oxygen is being sucked out by anger over health care. But talk of more economic-stimulus measures surely would revive anger over financial bailouts, he adds.
Indeed, anger over Wall Street bailouts was in many ways the spark that brought the tea-party movement to life. Joseph Farah, publisher of WorldNetDaily, a Web site popular among tea-party adherents, said the financial-industry rescue plan launched in the closing days of President George W. Bush's term "got this ball rolling. That's where the anger, where the frustration took root."
Since then, he notes, the movement has gone off in multiple different directions, and anger has mostly focused instead at Democrats running Washington. Yet there's a long history of populist ire being directed at Wall Street and Washington simultaneously.
If so, plenty of leaders in both places have reason to be worried. Already, grass-roots suspicion of the Federal Reserve Board is fueling the movement by Republican Rep. Ron Paul to pass legislation requiring that the Fed open its books for a public audit. Expect more populist-style Fed bashing before central-bank Chairman Ben Bernanke is confirmed for a second term in coming weeks.
Beyond that, bankers in London already have seen where popular anger at the financial industry can lead. The British government has just imposed a hefty tax on bank bonuses -- a tax the mayor of London is warning could drive thousands of bankers out of his city.
The U.S. isn't close to taxing bank bonuses, at least not yet. However the Obama administration is considering proposing something less drastic but thematically similar, a fee on banks to recover costs of the financial bailout.
Other hints of unrest can be seen on the political left and the right. On the left, Arianna Huffington, who runs one of the Internet's hottest political sites, has just suggested that people take their money out of the kinds of big financial institutions that benefited from Washington's rescue, and move it to community banks.
And on the right, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa has begun a crusade to figure out whether Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, while chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was part of a plan to hide from taxpayers the fact that rescue money doled out to insurance giant American International Group Inc. was simply going out the backdoor to rescue banks owed money by AIG.
It's easy in Washington and on Wall Street to dismiss the tea-party movement as a disorganized fringe force. It's worth remembering, though, that in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll late last year, the tea-party movement won a higher favorability rating among Americans than did either major party.