op-ed

Protesting: An American tradition

John Feehery Contributor
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One of the great things about having a dog is that it gives you an opportunity to walk around the neighborhood and see what is going on with your neighbors. Since I live on Capitol Hill, I had a chance to see not only what was going on with my neighbors, but also who was out protesting today.

Yesterday, my dog and I had the chance to run into a few thousand folks who were in the neighborhood and these folks weren’t very happy. Indeed, they were there to send a very clear message to the Congress: You are not listening to me.

Today, my dog and I took another walk and ran into another couple of thousand people, and they didn’t seem as angry. But their message was the same: You are not listening to me.

Yesterday, it was the Tea Party folks who were angry at the imminent passage of a budget-busting health care bill. Today, it was the Pro-Immigration Caucus. The target of both protests was the Democrats in the Congress.

Quite obviously, the policy goals of the two protesting groups are often in conflict. One wants to limit the role of government (except when it comes to guarding the borders). The other wants a more activist role for government (except when it comes to guarding the borders).

Both the Tea Party activists and the immigration activists are participating in a uniquely American tradition. From the very beginning of our Republic, the protest has played a critical role in shaping our political debates. In 1913, 5,000 women marched for women’s suffrage. In the 1920’s, 35,000 marched in support of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1932, World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand a bonus for their service in the War. In 1963, 250,000 marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights and jobs for African-Americans. In 1969, close to 600,000 marched to end the War in Vietnam. In 1979, 6,000 farmers drove their tractors on behalf of behalf of family farmers. In 2000, a million mothers (or so they said) marched to stop gun violence.

Most protests came to Washington to demand Congressional action. They want Congress to grant more rights, to pull out of a war, to pass more laws to end gun violence, to allow women to vote. In that way, the pleas of the pro-immigration activists fit into the traditional role of a protest. They have come to Washington to ask for more help from the federal government.

It is more rare is for people to come to Congress to demand that they don’t do something. But that is exactly what the Tea Party protestors are doing. They want the Congress to stop their action. They want Congress to stop spending, to stop mandating, to stop interfering in their lives.

And it is very unusual for our system of government to pass legislation over such vehement, grassroots opposition. That is because, with our system of checks and balances, somebody usually listens to the people. The system is built to make action difficult. The system is built to encourage a broad examination by the people, through their elected representatives in the House and the Senate, of each proposed change in law. If a large group is vehemently opposed to that proposed change in law, passage is usually very difficult.

The health care bill that was just passed by the House of Representatives is unusual in that it is wildly unpopular, unpopular enough to encourage thousands of normal citizens to come to the Capitol and protest loudly and vehemently against its enactment.

These protests should not be taken lightly by the majority party in the Congress. Ignoring the will of a large swath of the American people is not only bad politics, it is bad for the future health of the country. As John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, put it tonight, “We break the tides of history in this chamber and we break our trust with the people of America,” when we flout the people’s will in such an insouciant way.

Luckily, those who cared so deeply about this legislation that they traveled to our nation’s capital to lodge their protests, have a safe outlet to channel their frustrations. They can go back home and organize. And they can take out their anger by voting out those who failed to listen to them tonight.

The best way to protest in America is to throw the bums out. I expect that is what the voters will to do this coming November.

John Feehery is President of the Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm dedicated to helping its clients achieve their legislative and communications objectives in Washington D.C. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a contributor to The Hill’s “Pundits Blog”