August 8, 2009
“Protest is patriotic!” “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism!”
These battle-cries were heard often, in a simpler America of long ago — that is, before last November. Back then, protests — even if they were organized by the usual leftist apparatchik-groups like ANSWER or ACORN — were seen – at least in the media – as proof of popular discontent.
When handfuls of Code Pink ladies disrupted congressional hearings or speeches by Bush
administration officials, it was taken as evidence that the administration’s policies were unpopular, and that the thinking parts of the populace were rising up in true democratic fashion.
Even disruptive tactics aimed at blocking President Bush’s Social Security reform program were merely seen as evidence of boisterous high spirits and robust, wide-open debate. On May 23, 2005, the Savannah Morning News reported:
“By now, Jack Kingston is used to shouted questions, interruptions and boos. Republican congressmen expect such responses these days when they meet with constituents about President Bush’s proposal to overhaul Social Security.
“Tinkering with the system is always controversial. To make Bush’s plan even more so — political foes are sending people to Social Security forums armed with hostile questions.
By now, Kingston, a Savannah lawmaker and part of the GOP House leadership, has held 10 such sessions and plans at least seven more.”
On March 16, USA Today reported that Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum “was among dozens of members of Congress who ran gantlets of demonstrators and shouted over hecklers at Social Security events last month. Many who showed up to protest were alerted by e-mails and bused in by anti-Bush organizations such as MoveOn.org and USAction, a liberal advocacy group. They came with prepared questions and instructions on how to confront lawmakers.”
This was just good, boisterous politics: “Robust, wide-open debate.” But when it happens to Democrats, it’s something different: A threat to democracy, a sign of incipient fascism, and an opportunity to set up a (possibly illegal) White House “snitch line” where people are encouraged to report “fishy” statements to the authorities.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls the “Tea Party” protesters Nazis, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman –forgetting the events above — claims that left-leaning groups never engaged in disruptive tactics against Social Security reform, and various other administration-supporting pundits are trying to spin the whole thing as a deadly move toward “mob rule” and – somewhat contradictorily — as a phony “astroturf” movement.
Remember: When lefties do it, it’s called “community organizing.” When conservatives and libertarians do it, it’s “astroturf.” But some people are noticing the truth. As Mickey Kaus notes, “If an ‘astroturfing’ campaign gets real people to show up at events stating their real views, isn’t it … community organizing?” Why yes, yes it is.
As someone who’s been following the Tea Party campaign since the beginning, it seems to me to be the most genuine outbreak of grassroots popular involvement in my lifetime. People have been turning out, in the tens of thousands at times, because they feel that Obama pulled a bait-and-switch and is moving the country much farther to the left than he promised during the campaign.
More significantly, most of these people are turning out to protest for the first time in their lives, and they’re planning for future political involvement in years to come. Perhaps that’s what’s got the critics worried.
It’s true, of course, that conservative and libertarian organizations — ranging from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions to FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity — are getting involved and providing advice and support, just as numerous lefty groups have always done with left-leaning movements.
But, as I noted in an April 15 column in The Wall Street Journal, those groups were playing catch-up to a movement that was already rolling on its own.
The truth is that for my adult lifetime, “protest” has been a kind of Kabuki engaged in by organized groups on the Left with help from the press — as in the recent bus tour of AIG executives that was organized and paid for by an ACORN affiliate and in which the protesters were heavily outnumbered by the media, who nonetheless generally treated it as an “authentic” expression of populist discontent.
Things like that tour led President Obama to warn bankers that he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks, one of a number of thuggish statements he’s made along these lines.
Funny how fast the worm — or maybe it’s the pitchfork — has turned. Now that we’re seeing genuine expressions of populist discontent, not put together by establishment packagers on behalf of an Officially Sanctioned Aggrieved Group, we’re suddenly hearing complaints of “mob rule” and demands for civility.
Civility is fine, but those who demand it should show it. The Obama administration — and its corps of willing supporters in the press and the punditry — has set the tone, and they are now in a poor position to complain.
Whether they like it or not — and the evidence increasingly tends toward “not” — President Obama and his handlers need to accept that this is a free country, one where expressions of popular discontent take place outside the electoral process, and always have. (Remember Martin Luther King?)
What historians like Gordon Wood and Pauline Maier call “out-of-doors political activity” is an old American tradition, and in the past things have been far more “boisterous” than they are today.
Rather than demonizing today’s protesters, perhaps they might want to reflect on how flimflams and thuggishness have managed to squander Obama’s political capital in a few short months, and ponder what they might do to regain the trust of the millions of Americans who are no longer inclined to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt.