Shortly into former President Obama’s first term in office, the nation witnessed the rise of a fervent grassroots movement known as the Tea Party. Fiscal conservatives, concerned about the new president’s trillion-dollar stimulus package, corporate bailouts, and plans for a government-heavy health care overhaul, made their opposition heard loud and clear. They marched in local parades, in front of state capitols, and across Washington, protesting what they saw as unsustainable government overreach.
Neither of the major political parties initially knew what to make of the movement, but the size and tenacity of the crowds didn’t go unnoticed. Republican politicians (some reluctantly) attempted to harness the sentiment of the demonstrations, while Democrats and much of the mainstream media portrayed the protesters as anti-government nut-jobs who were deserving only of mockery.
To be fair, some members of the Tea Party invited the jokes upon themselves—arriving at rallies dressed as colonial patriots and town criers—and reading their declarations of opposition off of parchment scrolls. But as national polling going into the 2010 midterm election revealed some serious political momentum behind the discontent, the American Left took on a much sharper tone.
Media organizations worked hard to portray the movement as being motivated not by Obama’s policies and ideology, but by the color of his skin. The politically incorrect optics of prominently white crowds were presented as evidence of such.
Journalists made it a habit to wade through the peaceful protests to find an offensive sign or an unsavory individual for which to direct their cameras at. Some hard-news reporters even engaged in on-air shouting matches with protesters in an attempt discredit and marginalize their views.
Democratic politicians, who had been declaring dissent as the highest form of patriotism during the Bush years, were suddenly framing dissent as bigotry. Some even waged elaborate stunts (like guiding members of Congress through the protests) in hopes of generating news-clips from which to substantiate that narrative.
Meanwhile, the conservative movement (and the conservative media in particular) championed the Tea Party, declaring its members to be patriots who were exercising their freedom of speech and speaking truth to power.
Fast-forward almost eight years later to another grassroots resistance movement that began just this month, in the wake of the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump: The Women’s March.
Huge crowds of mostly women gathered in Washington and other major cities across the country on January 21 to voice concern over President Trump’s agenda. As was the case with the Tea Party, the protests were widely peaceful. Some protesters dressed ridiculously. Some protesters showed up with provocative signs. Most notably, the solidarity and size of the movement demonstrated some potential to turn into a true political force.
Reactions to the Women’s March, however, were pretty much reversed along partisan lines from eight years ago.
The mainstream media gave it largely glowing coverage, portraying the protests as a demonstration of patriotic dissent. The movement’s positivity was highlighted, and the unfortunate incidents didn’t receive a lot of attention. Democratic politicians and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders applauded the effort and offered messages of support.
The conservative media, on the other hand, largely ridiculed the Women’s March. Pundits on the Right mocked the participants as sore losers, and framed the protests as an unpatriotic undermining of the legitimacy of Trump’s November win. They seemed more concerned with the trash protesters left behind than the level of discontent felt toward Trump. Republican politicians largely stayed above the fray, but that will likely change if the Women’s March proves to have real staying power.
It’s amazing how quickly principles can change when the shoe is on the other foot.
Hypocrisy is certainly nothing new in politics, and the deep partisan divide that persists in this country only fuels it. While disagreement over the merits of protesting an issue is perfectly legitimate, the partisan impulse to disrespect and marginalize peaceful displays of resistance to those in power is not a healthy thing for our democratic process.
As the old saying goes, obedience is not patriotism. Citizens should make their voices heard, and those in power—politically or in the media—would be foolish to dismiss those voices. As we saw in 2008, 2010, and even in this past election, grassroots passion can turn political tides in a heartbeat.