09/27/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

What We Can't Afford to Do Again

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from What's The Matter with White People by Joan Walsh. Copyright © 2012

A few days after the Occupy Wall Street movement began to stir in September 2011, I walked the narrow streets of the world's financial hub in a light rain, looking for a protest still too small to find. During the next few weeks, OWS would change the national conversation. The slogan "We are the 99 percent" did what years of complaint by economists and liberals could not: it focused attention on staggering income inequality and "the top 1 percent" who'd enriched themselves phenomenally during the past thirty years. "I am so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I'm frightened to death," Frank Luntz, the GOP's master of spin, told a private meeting of Republican governors at the end of 2011. "They're having an impact on the way Americans think about capitalism."

Suddenly, cable news shows that had been obsessing over the deficit "crisis" and President Obama's latest poll numbers were explaining how decades of tax cuts and deregulation unraveled the social contract established in the New Deal. It had been accepted by every American president for thirty years afterward, until Richard Nixon brilliantly divided the New Deal coalition, largely around race. In the early days, polls showed that the Occupy movement's grievances were broadly shared, even by the white working class, which Nixon and then Ronald Reagan had lured to the GOP. Yet how long before the 99 percent would cleave back into the 51 and the 48 percent? I couldn't know. For the moment, though, it was amazing to see such broadly shared political discontent surfacing at all.

As I headed down the dark canyon of Wall Street itself, I decided to climb the steps of Federal Hall to get a better view of blue-helmeted cops behind barricades, waiting for trouble that never came that day. With the famous statue of George Washington to keep me company--our first president gave his first inaugural address on the site--I found myself thinking, and not in a good way, about another historic gathering on those same steps, one that offered important lessons for any American political movement: the Hard Hat Riot of 1970. The violent but little known skirmish marked the ultimate fracture of the Democratic

Party of the twentieth century, a fracture still unhealed in the twenty-first. Would today's protesters be mindful of the sad lessons of protests past? Probably not, because nobody younger than sixty remembers the Hard Hat Riot today.

But I do, even though I was just a kid at the time. My father talked about it for years afterward. An unlikely corporate peacenik, my dad wandered from his office near Wall Street at lunchtime on May 8, 1970, to join a protest denouncing the killing of four antiwar Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard a few days earlier. Just as he got there, the peaceful gathering was interrupted by flag-wielding construction workers, marching over from the grounds of the World Trade Center they were building a few blocks away. Chanting "All the way, U.S.A." and "Love it or leave it," they broke up the Kent State protest, charging up the steps of Federal Hall to plant American flags on George Washington. Everyone else was rebelling; now the hard hats were, too, paradoxically trying to use disorder to restore social order to a country that had been torn apart by forces nobody entirely understood. Horrified, my father headed back to work, but as he left, he thought he saw one of his brothers, a steamfitter employed on the World Trade Center site, among the angry workers. A few used their iconic hard hats to beat up antiwar students, smashing the remnants of the New Deal coalition at the same time.

Later that month, the head of the rioters' union coalition, Building Trades Council chief Peter Brennan, presented President Richard Nixon with his own hard hat; in 1972, Brennan bolted the Democratic Party to endorse Nixon's reelection. He became Nixon's ineffectual labor secretary in 1973, the same year the

World Trade Center opened for business. Labor began a sharp decline that year, as did liberalism. You couldn't blame it all on the Hard Hat Riot--the Democratic Party had begun to unravel years before that event--but the clash further divided the party and the country, and my family, too. Mine wasn't the only working-class Irish Catholic family split that way. A year earlier, New York magazine writer Pete Hamill had written a long, anguished feature, "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class," about "the growing alienation and paranoia" of a group he claimed as "my people," even as he grappled with their misplaced rage and racism. Yet the violence of the Hard Hat Riot horrified Hamill, and he attacked it in the New York Post, writing with a kind of anger that is often borne of shame. I recognized it.

How strange, then, that American dissent began stirring again forty-one years later, at the exact same site, only blocks away from the World Trade Center. Or maybe not strange: terror brought the towers down ten years earlier; the banking crisis that cratered the economy in 2008 was centered there, too. Maybe George

Washington created a mysterious vortex of democracy when he addressed his young country at the site more than two centuries earlier. (Alexander Hamilton, the father of American banking, is buried in the Trinity Church yard down the street.) It seems as if we are continually having our attention drawn back to the same spot, trying to get democracy right, as we struggle over America's place in the world. Certainly, democracy seemed to come alive again there, as the movement to wrest control of the country from Wall Street and the wealthiest 1 percent spread to hundreds of American cities and into other Western countries. "We are the 99 percent" became an updated version of e pluribus unum, "out of many, one."

I think about the Hard Hat Riot all these years later because it symbolized the culmination of a Republican political strategy that has worked nearly flawlessly for almost my entire life. No matter what's going on in the world, the right can find a cultural issue that will get the left to fight itself, to atomize into little groups, and to give voice to factions that frighten Americans on the sidelines--often, the left-out white middle and working class--and the country winds up the worse for it. Thanks to my roots in that much maligned, misunderstood, and sometimes destructive demographic group, I'm haunted by the mistakes of political movements I barely remember.

In 2011, we began to honestly reckon with the political and social forces that had allowed the rich to sack the country while people in the once-great New Deal coalition fought among themselves.

Could we avoid those old battles and meanwhile reach out to attract the anxious folks on the sidelines, rather than repelling them this time? And could those anxious folks, many of them white people--my people--stop longing for a golden age that never was, and help invent a just, multiracial America?

I felt optimistic, yet I had grown up seeing all of the ways my team defeated itself, to the delight and the triumph of conservatives.

We can't afford to do that again.