Huffpost Politics
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Josh Mull Headshot

5 Lessons The Tea Parties Can Learn From The Anti-War Movement

Posted: Updated:
Print

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

With all the controversy raging around the Tea Parties, the Republican party, and the recent terror attacks against members of congress, I thought it might be helpful if we extend a helping hand to the Tea Party folks, and show them what we've learned from the recent history of the anti-war movement. Although it's difficult to draw a comparison between the quest to end aggressive wars and...whatever it is the tea parties stand for (more on that later), the principal actors, such as the media and politicians, in their campaign are much the same. With that, here are five quick lessons to help guide them along their way.

1. The Media Is Not Your Friend

You already know the obvious problems with the media coverage of your movement. They show tight shots of your protest marches, under-report the turnout, show the craziest signs and paint your entire group as ridiculous and ignorant. If someone in a crowd shouts something that hurts their feelings, they'll warp it into the entire crowd shouting that. Maybe they report that the whole crowd was calling President Bush a "Nazi," or hurling racial epithets at congressmen. It doesn't matter, you know they want conflict, not facts. Like when you're invited on television, you'll face off against a hostile and aggressive host who'll shout you down and demand to know why you hate America so much. But the institutional hatred of your movement goes even farther, all the way to the top.

At the supposedly liberal/progressive MSNBC, Phil Donahue was fired because of his anti-war views, as this leaked internal memo shows:

That report--shared with me by an NBC news insider--gives an excruciatingly painful assessment of the channel and its programming... But the harshest criticism was leveled at Donahue, whom the authors of the study described as "a tired, left-wing liberal out of touch with the current marketplace."

The study went on to claim that Donahue presented a "difficult public face for NBC in a time of war......He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives." The report went on to outline a possible nightmare scenario where the show becomes "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

So much for the liberal answer to FOX News, right? And what about FOX, the network that has so far played a major role in the promotion of the Tea Party movement. They'll support you now, as long as you're accomplishing their corporate political agenda. But if you go too far, and start talking about real, serious issues, it's game over. Ask Bill O'Reilly. Glenn Greenwald wrote last year:

In essence, the chairman of General Electric (which owns MSNBC), Jeffrey Immelt, and the chairman of News Corporation (which owns Fox News), Rupert Murdoch, were brought into a room at a "summit meeting" for CEOs in May, where Charlie Rose tried to engineer an end to the "feud" between MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox's Bill O'Reilly. According to the NYT, both CEOs agreed that the dispute was bad for the interests of the corporate parents, and thus agreed to order their news employees to cease attacking each other's news organizations and employees.

Most notably, the deal wasn't engineered because of a perception that it was hurting either Olbermann or O'Reilly's show, or even that it was hurting MSNBC. To the contrary, as Olbermann himself has acknowledged, his battles with O'Reilly have substantially boosted his ratings. The agreement of the corporate CEOs to cease criticizing each other was motivated by the belief that such criticism was hurting the unrelated corporate interests of GE and News Corp.

What kind of corporate interests were they protecting? Only little things like selling sophisticated technology to Iran, nothing to be concerned about. The mainstream media is not your friend, they're not trying to help you. They will only support you and treat you "fairly" as long as you serve them, their financial interests and their political agenda. Do not expect any different treatment for your movement, no matter how righteous the cause.

2. The Opposition Won't Play Fair

Members of the anti-war movement were regularly lambasted as traitors, terrorist sympathizers, anti-soldier, all of the worst insults a citizen could think of to call another citizen. For the Tea Party movement, the opposition has decided that you're all racists, domestic terrorists, and radical seditionists. To confuse things though, they're going to have a lot of advice for you.

Anti-war folks were criticized for not ever mentioning the "good" parts of the war, which sounds reasonable at first, but it then puts the anti-war crowd in the awkward position of being against something that's "good." For the Tea Party folks, the opposition is asking you to "tone down the rhetoric," which is right now one of the only tools you have to compel your movement. But what about the explosive talking points, won't they think your movement is all domestic terrorists and militia men? Well, they already think that, and what's worse, there is violence coming from your movement.

People in your movement are making threats and in some cases carrying out terrorist attacks on members of congress who supported the health care reform law. Not all of you, but some. That's actually pretty common in the United States. Members of the anti-war movement carried out domestic terror attacks against military recruiting stations, and of course it was used to slander the entire anti-war movement as violent, anti-American terrorists. FOX reported:

Shattered windows and bomb scares are growing threats for recruiters working to find young men and women to join the U.S. military, according to a new report that claims attacks on military recruiting stations are on the rise.

The report, issued by a not-for-profit group that supports members of the military, calls the incidents -- including the spray-painting of graffiti -- "attacks," and claims there have been more than 50 since March 2003.

"The peace protesters are not peaceful," said Catherine Moy, executive director of Move America Forward, which released the report. "They are violent. They are causing havoc in an illegal manner on recruiting offices across the United States."

There were no significant anti-war groups, individuals, or leaders who were calling for anything remotely close to bombing. They were however, calling for a "revolution," or an "uprising," moderately provocative terms used to rile up their base. Unfortunately, those terms can sound downright frightening when inaccurately attached to the unrelated terror attacks. But the opponents of the anti-war movement weren't interested in trying to distinguish between a broad grassroots campaign and the illegal acts of a select few. The opponents of the Tea Party will be the same, refusing to see any nuance between your movement and the racist, lunatic fringe. They're supposed to do that, they're the opposition. You don't need to spend effort trying to change their outlook, they're out to destroy you, not do you any favors.

3. The Public Is Scared By Your Stunts

The anti-war crowds could sometimes get a little out of control. There were hanging, or sometimes burning, effigies of Bush and Cheney, crazy posters comparing the President and others to Nazis, Stalin, or even just the Devil. In the case of the Tea Parties, you have all the same problems in addition to some of your members actually bringing loaded firearms to political events. The imagery alone is incredibly disturbing, and will likely turn away most casual supporters. Weapons will definitely convince most undecided observers that your side is a bunch of outrageous radicals, nothing that they'd ever consider supporting. The Huffington Post reported last year:

A man carried a handgun strapped to his leg to a town hall meeting being held by President Obama in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Tuesday.

It's legal for him to have the gun as long as it is unconcealed, the police told MSNBC. The man was on private property -- church ground on the roadway leading to the high school where Obama would speak. The church gave the man permission to be there. However, according to police officers, he is under constant surveillance and is not anywhere near where the president will speak.

The story got wall to wall coverage across the meainstream media and fed into the narrative of your movement as crazy. Even though it is completely within his constitutional rights to carry the gun, just like burning Bush in effigy and calling him a Nazi are constitutionally protected, it still manages to freak everyone out, and not in a good way. The anti-war movement had similar issues, but these issues were swiftly dealt with, and the extremist elements were marginalized out of existence. The Tea Parties must do the same.

Leave the guns, the effigies, and the Nazi posters at home, period.

4. The Politicians Will Abuse You

In 2006, the Netroots along with the anti-war movement delivered a decisive electoral mandate to politicians who were against the war in Iraq. Once they took office in 2007, the US immediately escalated the war in Iraq. In 2008, voters once again elected leaders who promised to end the wars. Only we're still in Iraq, and we've escalated in Afghanistan. Now the Republican party is adopting Tea Party rhetoric in order to win their votes, but will they actually accomplish anything? It's doubtful, even if they are shouting about it on the floors of congress. Let's look at what Candidate Obama said about Iraq in 2007:

"I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now," the Illinois senator said in excerpts from a speech he was to deliver later in Iowa. The excerpts were released by his presidential campaign.

He said he would immediately begin to pull out troops engaged in combat operations at a pace of one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of 2008.

Of course, Obama has been President over a year now, and we're still in Iraq. Now take Mitt Romney, one of the politicians reaching out to the Tea Party movement:

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn't made up his mind whether he'll run for president in 2012, but he already has a plan for how to overturn the Democratic-led health care program now before Congress, if it becomes law.

The key, he said, is having Republicans reclaim the White House and take majorities in the Senate and the House.

Then, "we can clamp down on this bill ... by not funding it," Romney said during a speech Thursday to hundreds of people gathered at the Hilton Anatole Hotel for the National Center for Policy Analysis' distinguished lecture series.

Sounds like a promise that's easy to make years away from the actual election, but it's highly unlikely he'd ever go through with it, and that's assuming he won in the first place. The politicians are going to talk like you, but that won't mean anything if there isn't a concentrated activist effort after the election. Obama was prematurely lionized as an anti-war hero purely because of his rhetoric, not for any actual accomplishment. The Tea Party movement should avoid the same pitfalls, and demand real legislative action, real policy, from their politicians, not empty too-good-to-be-true promises.

5. The Truth Is Always Effective

The anti-war movement had a very difficult time making its case with "no blood for oil" and rants against global imperialism. Those arguments are abstract and unwieldy, and even in the best case scenario only resulted in philosophical circle jerks. That immediately changed when the debate shifted to concrete, factual points like the growing insurgency, lack of administration planning, lies about the motives behind the war, profiteering and fraud by contractors, lack of adequate care and benefits for troops, the list goes on and on. The anti-war debate changed when the movement used facts. The Tea Party is suffering from the same messaging problem. The Politico reports:

A new poll of self-identified Republicans released Tuesday shows a large slice of the GOP believes President Barack Obama is a "socialist" who was not born in this country, should be impeached, wants the terrorists to win and only won the 2008 election because ACORN "stole" it for him.

According to the poll, 63 percent of Republicans believe Obama is a socialist; 39 percent think Obama should be impeached; 24 percent said Obama wants "the terrorists to win"; and 31 percent agreed with the statement that Obama is "a racist who hates white people."

Those aren't good numbers. Now let's look at some contemporary anti-war messaging by Robert Naiman:

Every day the Afghanistan war continues is another day on which the United States Government plays Russian Roulette with the lives of American soldiers and Afghan civilians.

The British Government has more urgency than the U.S. government about ending the war - and is more supportive than the U.S. of a political solution to end the conflict - because in Britain there is greater public outcry.

If there were greater public and Congressional outcry in the U.S., we could be more like Britain, and get our government on board the train to a political solution, instead of prolonging the war indefinitely.

Nothing about impeaching President Obama or labeling him with some scary sounding "-ism." No talk of his presidency being illegitimate, racist, or pro-terrorist. Instead you see an efficient command of the facts and an urgent call for public support. Not Republican support or Democratic support, pure liberal or true conservative support, but public support. Everyone's help is needed to end the war, not just a few who pass the ideological purity test. Most importantly, the anti-war debate happens with facts, real, verifiable information. It was these facts that turned the public opinion against the war in Iraq, and are now turning them against the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Tea Party would be wise to adopt the same tactics of factual assertions and real policy, instead of conspiracy theories and outright lies.

Like I said, it's difficult to draw a direct comparison between the anti-war movement and the tea parties, but the reactions to them by the media politicians, and the general public have been about the same. There's probably a lot more to learn from those working to end the war, so why not head over to the Rethink Afghanistan Facebook page, and check out some of the other ways we're using to meet our goals.