Dissent against the President of the United States, it seems, has become patriotic.

By contrast, seven years ago, as President George W. Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, dissent was treated by the American political establishment – and especially Republicans – as something to be ignored, disdained or despised.

Still, in the run-up to the war, millions of Americans took to the streets in massive demonstrations and literally screamed at the top of their lungs for Bush not to do it. Many more called their congressmen and wrote letters to editors of newspapers.

In those days, however, the powers-that-be and the major media considered dissent to be un-American. Iraq War critics, ranging from former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter to the country music band the Dixie Chicks, saw their loyalty, their motives and sometimes their sanity questioned.

Ritter, who challenged Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD, was called a Saddam Hussein sympathizer, while the Dixie Chicks faced boycotts and death threats for expressing their personal shame that Bush was a fellow Texan.

And, as Bush readied his “shock and awe” military campaign, few in the U.S. news media defended the value of dissent. There weren't even many voices -- allowed into the news columns or onto the evening news -- that urged caution on something as serious as going to war.

Those who did give voice to anti-war positions sometimes found themselves out of a job, like popular talk-show host Phil Donahue, whose show on MSNBC was cancelled despite the fact it was the network’s highest rated program.

Comparing the Dissent

There are other contrasts, as well as parallels, between the Iraq War protests seven years ago and the health-care protests that began with rowdy “town hall” meetings last summer.

For one, the anti-war protests were much bigger and more widespread. The protests against invading Iraq began in September 2002 and swelled over the months, peaking in February 2003, with upwards of a million people rallying in New York City as part of a global day of action.

The street protests continued into March, with 100,000 demonstrating in Washington just four days before Bush launched the invasion and hundreds of local actions around the country starting on March 20 as the war began.

By comparison, the right-wing demonstrations against the health-care bill and other government domestic policies have attracted far fewer people. Besides a September 2009 “tea party” rally in Washington that drew tens of thousands, the anti-reform, anti-tax movement has not been able to rally anywhere near the numbers that were seen in 2002-2003.

This fact, however, appears irrelevant to the Washington political establishment. While the major media ignored the anti-war protests or treated them as a nuisance, the press corps has been eager to highlight the dissent against Obama.

America’s biggest newspapers have devoted considerable ink to the Tea Party movement, both in news and opinion sections. Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein, for example, asks “Does the future belong to the Tea Parties?” while New York Times columnist David Brooks has dubbed this decade as “the Tea Party Teens.”

Because the Tea Partiers have received much more attention than the anti-war protesters of seven years ago, Boehner and other Republicans are able to cite the protests as a popular mandate for blocking Obama’s health reform.

Of course, part of the reason for the respectful mainstream media coverage of the Tea Parties is that right-wing Fox News has made them impossible to ignore. Fox News has been a vocal and powerful proponent of this anti-government movement.

As Media Matters has extensively documented, “Fox News has repeatedly aired segments encouraging viewers to get involved with ‘tea party’ protests across the country.”

Now, in a transparent effort to sink President Obama’s chief legislative priority, the network is encouraging viewers to inundate Congress with phone calls and e-mails to demand that members vote no on health insurance reform.

“I suggest you call, e-mail, write members of Congress,” Fox News host Mike Huckabee advised viewers. “To make it easy for you,” he added, “what we’ve done is provide a simple link. You can go to callcongressnow.com. Keep calling until they answer.”

Fox contributor Dana Perino urged viewers to “pick up their phone and call their member of Congress today,” while commentator Dick Morris went on the Rupert Murdoch-owned network to advertise “a list of Congressmen to call for swing voters to get them to vote against it” at his Web site.

Faced with Fox News’ intensive coverage of the anti-reform protest movement, mainstream news outlets would get excoriated for “liberal bias” if they didn’t give substantial attention to the protests. At the start of the Iraq War, however, the mainstream media faced no similar pressure from the Left, because progressives have nothing comparable to Fox News.

A surge in Fox News’ considerable influence also can be traced to its “patriotic,” pro-war coverage of the invasion of Iraq seven years ago. By some reports, Fox News had as much as a 300 percent increase in viewers at the height of the invasion, averaging 3.3 million viewers daily.

“Fox News saw its profits double during the conflict, as viewers switched in droves from the main networks and other cable channels,” reported BBC News in August 2003.

The way CNN and MSNBC chose to compete with this exodus of viewers was by offering similarly pro-war coverage, though their efforts were viewed by many as pale imitations.

As the major news media joined in cheering on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – and with war supporters openly challenging the patriotism of dissenters – many anti-war protesters felt powerless and unwelcome in their own country.

By contrast, today’s anti-health reform dissenters are made to feel as though they are the “real Americans” standing up to an out-of-control Washington.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.

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