Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Baggin' History

Time and again the sound bytes on today's Tea Party demonstrations seem to gravitate toward the claim that they somehow constitute the largest, most original grassroots social protest in American history. Pick any national movement in history to put this in perspective beyond the hype. I'll choose one that I can remember from my college days, the 1982 Nuclear Freeze Movement:
Two decades ago, Ronald Reagan had been elected President, and the hawks were riding high. Committed to a vast military buildup, they championed an array of new weapons programs, spurned nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, and talked glibly of fighting and winning nuclear wars. The new President had opposed every nuclear arms control measure negotiated by his Democratic and Republican predecessors. The Senate was in the clutches of bellicose Republicans, while most of the public -- whipped into a nationalist froth by the Iranian hostage crisis -- heartily approved of military priorities.

Yet the hawkish consensus quickly unraveled. In the United States, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and Physicians for Social Responsibility mushroomed into mass movements. In June 1982, nearly a million Americans turned out for a rally in New York City against the nuclear arms race, the largest political demonstration up to that point in U.S. history. The Nuclear Freeze campaign drew the backing of major religious bodies, professional organizations, and labor unions. Supported by 70 percent or more of the population, the Freeze was endorsed by 275 city governments, 12 state legislatures, and the voters of nine out of ten states where it was placed on the ballot in the fall of 1982.
I'm having a hard time seeing how the Tea Parties have yet to even approach the grassroots power of the nuclear freeze movement, let along several others that preceded it. I'd put the 5,000 disarmament groups of the summer of 1982 up against the 500 Tea Party groups of the spring of 2009 any time and feel confident that this year's variation on the anti-Obama movement has a long way to go to make history. The threat of nuclear winter mobilized more people to action than fear of socialism ever will.

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