The Obama Administration has been the occasion for numerous tea parties and town hall meetings, which are different species of the genus public assembly. How they are seen and understood depends a great deal on one's point of view.
As American government is based on the consent of the governed, it is perfectly appropriate and even necessary that public officials be chosen in periodic elections and that the people be free to express their views publicly. While the design of the Constitution is to avoid rule by the people in their collective capacity, relying rather on elected representatives, the First Amendment explicitly guarantees the right of the people to assemble peacefully for redress of grievances.
In our nation's history, not a few of those public assemblies have been considerably less than peaceful, whether they were in opposition to taxes on whiskey, Jay's treaty with Great Britain, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, abolition of slavery, the Civil War draft, industrial lockouts, World War I, racial segregation, the Vietnam War or the Iraq War.
Peaceful protest should always have the full protection of the law, and violent protests should be suppressed. The difficulty is that those rioting invariably see themselves as greater in authority than public officials, and the latter sometimes sympathize with the rioters' goals, if not their means.
It is not surprising that the widespread tea parties that protested the record levels of taxing and spending by the Obama Administration should be viewed favorably by Republicans and unfavorably by Democrats. By the same token, the town hall meetings called by the president and a number of Democratic congressmen and senators are looked upon by Republicans as stage-managed affairs, lacking legitimacy.
So some Democrats supportive of Obama showed up to put a damper on the tea parties, and evidently more people — of both parties — critical of the president, particularly his health care plan, have shown up at the town hall meetings. Both parties clearly seek to establish their viewpoint as the authentic voice of the American people and the opposing view as merely a minority faction.
Although I welcomed the tea parties and look upon Democrat town hall meetings with suspicion, I cannot say that I am pleased that more and more citizens are taking their grievances so noisily into public places and meeting halls. A major contributor to this development is the rise of big government, which treats opposition to its goals and methods as essentially illegitimate.
Fortunately, this year's protests lack the violence that characterized the radical left's opposition to the war in Vietnam, when both public officials and private citizens were targeted for bombs by the likes of the Weathermen.
It is always a challenge for politicians to deal with tumultuous assemblies with a combination of good humor and firmness, granting the legality of the protest but seeking to defuse its passion and restore civil discourse. Politicians slandering citizens angry over the government's less than candid explanation of its programs are pouring fuel on the fire.
This present situation is not unlike that of medieval Europe, ruled by monarchs and priests, in which ordinary people had no say and whose only form of protest was armed rebellion. It is only when citizens finally won the right to elect their leaders that the frequent resort to mob violence was no longer necessary.
But the longer that large, intrusive and costly bureaucratic structures dominate our lives, and render citizens powerless, the more those otherwise not inclined to angry outbursts will feel compelled to vent their spleen at the people they chose to make their laws.
Far better, though, that we take advantage of constitutional structures that enable the people to vote for or against those persons they believe do–or do not–have the best interests of the nation at heart.
While leading Democrats have attributed base motives to Republican protestors (special interests, Ku Klux Klan members and even Nazis), the latter have not gone beyond labeling Democrats (accurately) as big taxers and spenders, socialists and petty tyrants.
We have an opportunity to restore government by the people in the 2010 congressional elections and the 2012 presidential election. That's where the protests will really count.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.