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." More
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