FORTUNE — At first glance, protesters camping on Wall Street’s doorstep might not seem to be a sure recipe for reform. But Tea Party rallies initially didn’t seem to be a game changer either.
Both groups, worried about the future but in different ways, emerged as political and financial leaders failed to tackle the country’s battered financial situation.
The Tea Party plumped fiscal reform, but may have wound up simply solidifying political gridlock. The Occupy Wall Street protest — only a month old — is giving voice, and visibility, to serious inequalities, but has yet to arrive at a formula to upend the country’s increasingly stratified system.
The Occupy Wall Street protest “represents an explicit and clear defection from our leadership,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“They are looking for some way to grasp their futures,” he says. “In some ways, this period is worse than the 1930s when the country had production capabilities and enjoyed mass productivity. But now the system is not on a structurally sound basis.”
It’s too early to tell what will come of the Wall Street protests, but prior national reforms have sprung from such unscripted movements, says Rosemary Feurer, a history professor at Northern Illinois University, who studies labor and social movements.
The populism that began in the late 1890s, and aimed at powerful banks, railroad trusts and other financial elites, took decades to make a difference, she says. “It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that limits were put on Wall Street.”
“Movements don’t start with goals and demands,” Feurer says. “They always start with grievances. The key is people gathered in a sustained way.”
Like the Tea Party, which was nurtured — perhaps even launched — by like-minded Republicans, the Occupy Wall Street movement could find its footing without overt leadership.
Labor unions have expressed their solidarity with the 99 percenters — even bringing coffee and doughnuts to their Zuccotti Park encampment — but are wary of taking any focus away and diluting the protesters’ message, according to Damon Silver, a director at AFL-CIO.
By harnessing widely shared sentiments that the financial sector’s rescue seriously damaged the rest of the population, the protest has cast a national spotlight on the grim American jobs picture. It also shined a light on the failure, thus far, of politicians to take any steps to deal with the across-the-board upheaval in employment.
“It’s been so long since this country has had a serious conversation about jobs,” says Mike Davis, a University of California, Riverside professor who studies economic history and social movements. But, he says, there are no facile answers because “there is no policy that can bring back the 5.5 million manufacturing jobs that we lost in recent years.
“Much will depend on the ability of the protesters to extend their ideas into the fabric of the country’s life so it’s not seen as being confined to elite campuses and cities,” says Davis, who was a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1998.
Protest movements also can peter out without achieving meaningful change, he adds, pointing to the massive 2006 pro-immigration rights demonstration in Los Angeles. Now, just a few years later, he says, “there has been no progress and there are hardly any rights left.”
Labor historians and others compare Occupy Wall Street to a raft of past movements — back to the 1932 Bonus March for veterans cash benefits or the Civil Rights Movement as well as current phenomena like the Wisconsin rebellion against bargaining rights-stripping and Egypt’s Tahrir Square freedom demonstrators, which have had varied degrees of success.
But the Occupy Wall Street protest, which has been burgeoning in dozens of other American locales, may gain traction with its slogan, “We are the 99%,” says Lichtenstein.
“It echoes back to the 18th century,” he explains, referring to property-owner rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The white, male landed gentry could vote. The other 85% to 90% could not.
“It’s not just a question of income,” explains Lichtenstein. “There was a view that there was a small group of virtuous producers, like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett in today’s world,” he says, “and there was a parasitical 1% of the population, an idea that goes back to the time of the British.”
The “99 percenters” say they are rallying against the small sliver of people who control about one-third of the country’s wealth and about 20% of its income. Thus far, the anger against Wall Street and suspected wrongdoing has made little headway, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters have made an impact on the political discourse, contends William P. Jones, a 20th-century historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“Within a week after the protest started, there was talk of a tax surcharge on the wealthy. That helps to focus attention on the dramatic concentration of wealth,” he says.
No financial titans have been milling about Zuccotti Park, so Occupy Wall Street demonstrators last week took their message to the New York homes of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) chief executive Jamie Dimon and billionaire industrialist and conservative movement financier David Koch, taking a page from the post-2008 financial crash where some residences of highly remunerated bankers were picketed.
Citigroup (c) CEO Vikram Pandit went so far as to say he’d be willing to meet with protesters during an interview this week with Fortune’s managing editor Andy Serwer, but a time and place has yet to be set.
So far, it’s all been quite civil, but one of the flashpoints of discontent around the country, especially in the last two years, is about to recur. It’s the jaw-dropping billions of dollars in cash and stock bonuses awarded annually on Wall Street.
The award period typically arrives after the New Year, not too long after pink slips are likely to be arriving on the desks of lower-down financial workers at Goldman Sachs (gs), Citigroup and other major financial institutions whose revenues have dipped.
But even on the worst days, the bonus payouts — averaging around $400,000 to $500,000 per worker — are easily 99 times those of any protester’s paycheck.