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Time for the jobless to march on Washington

By Richard Striner, Special to CNN
  • Richard Striner: It's time the left turn the tables on the radical right and march on D.C. for jobs
  • He says tea party pushing austerity, but polls show people really worried about jobs
  • He cites a history of government job projects, from WPA to interstate highways
  • Striner: Demand tea party politicians come up with solution to unemployment

Editor's note: Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author of "Lincoln's Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power."

(CNN) -- It's time for the left to get off its duff and turn the tables on the radical right. And our history reveals that there's an excellent method for accomplishing precisely that: a great march of the unemployed on Washington.

Recent polls reveal that Americans are decisively more concerned about the crisis of unemployment than the issue of our national debt. But as many commentators have observed in recent weeks, the results of the midterm elections, with Republicans gaining control of the House, and the associated rise of the tea party have pushed an agenda of austerity in government spending ahead of using government resources to fight unemployment.

Extremists in the tea party movement have been able to yell at disproportionately high volume in our country because of the sub-rosa patronage of some wealthy sponsors, the Koch brothers, Charles and David, multibillionaires who inherited a powerful conglomerate.

But the left and the center have their billionaires, too: public-spirited people such as Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, George Soros and Michael Bloomberg. It's time for such people to fund a great protest march that would bring the unemployed right into the congressional offices of tea party representatives.

Once there, these unemployed people would deliver a simple demand: The government must act immediately to give them back employment. They could invoke quite a number of interesting historical precedents: the platform of the pre-Civil War Whig Party, whose leaders, including Henry Clay and young Abraham Lincoln, urged governmental "internal improvements" -- public works such as canal- and road-building projects -- to give work to the jobless during a ruinous depression that followed a financial panic in 1837.

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They would naturally invoke the great precedent of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration, an agency that under the leadership of Harry Hopkins created jobs for the jobless almost overnight, thus providing some desperate and innocent people with a way to save their families and homes.

They could also invoke the important but little-known Republican precedent of Dwight David Eisenhower, whose Interstate Highway System was created to do much more than just give the United States an up-to-date network of continental superhighways; Ike had the program designed to be speeded up or slowed down as necessary to adjust to economic conditions.

In 1952 he told American voters that if they made him the first Republican president since Herbert Hoover, there would never be "another 1929" on his watch. So in 1954, when a recession began, he started work on designing the Interstate System, which Congress created on a bipartisan basis two years later.

The tea party members of the House may want to close their ears and switch off their brains when these protesters confront them. But the point of this protest will be long-term, rather than short-term, in its strategy. The point will be to put the tea party representatives on the defensive for a change, in a manner that will soften them up for the coup de grace in the elections of 2012.

The left has been staggering and reeling since Ronald Reagan was elected. It has retained its ability to agitate residual issues from the 1960s, such as on race, gender and sexual preference, but has lost the ability to agitate fundamental issues of economics in a strong and populist manner.

To be sure, the left has tried to address economics: It has protested repeatedly on the issues of out-sourcing, deregulation of the financial sector, and so on. But in the midst of the worst economic contraction since the 1930s, it has somehow allowed the extremists of the right to run roughshod over them.

That needs to change. Even many sincere and committed centrists admit that there are times when a disproportionate influence in one direction will require some vigorous counter-pressure if a wholesome balance is to reign.

A march of the unemployed might be the way to do it. And there's historical precedent for this idea, too -- not only in the still-remembered marches on the nation's capital that occurred in the 1960s, but also in the largely forgotten marches of the unemployed that occurred both in 1894 and (more consequentially) 1932.

The preparations would have to start soon if such an exercise in grass-roots activism is to stand a real chance of affecting our political balance of power next year. Is the left prepared to rise to the occasion?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Striner.