It took a surprisingly long time for Americans to begin protesting the gross economic imbalance that has tilted the nation in favor of the very rich as tens of millions of others lose their jobs and their homes and spiral downward into the abyss of hopelessness.

But the reaction did come, with the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration that began in New York and has spread to other cities.

On the surface, the protest is about jobs and economic parity. But the many thousands who are defying police batons and pepper spray to hold their ground are in the vanguard of one side of an existential confrontation over the future of our great country, whether they know it or not.

The confrontation has been brewing for a long time but it is only now, when all of the Republican presidential candidates have clearly pledged allegiance to the wealthy class, that the battle lines have become sharply drawn. Until the Occupy Wall Street movement started, there was really no public, forceful challenge to them.

On the one side are those who are demanding the dismantling of the social safety net that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as all other programs that seek to give some succor to the poor. It is a legitimate philosophical position to press for the least possible involvement of government in the lives of the citizens. Presidential candidate Herman Cain summed it up by saying that those who are poor and those who do not have jobs have only themselves to blame.

But there is an equally legitimate argument on the other side – that government must be an intervening force on the side of those who, regardless of fault, find themselves in need of help. That argument insists that it is contrary to the best interests of the nation and the most noble instincts of human beings to leave the poor to fend for themselves. Whether they realize it or not, the demonstrators in the Occupy Wall Street movement have taken up the mantle of this side of the battle.

The soul of America is at stake and it must not be allowed to fall into the hands of those whose only purpose in life is to make the wealthy richer than they are.