Last week Inside Higher Ed published a column by Scott McLemee entitled “Rude Democracy,” which discussed Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and apparent trends indicating a lack of political engagement among young people. McLemee’s argument was both intelligent and important, but I believe there’s another side to the story of Stewart’s rally, political civility, and turnout among college students and young voters in the 2010 midterm election.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were very successful in the midterm election, gaining control of the House of Representatives and cutting into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. While the politically active on campuses across the country will surely devote much discussion to the results of the election and their implications over the proceeding days and weeks, it’s less likely they’ll discuss the execrable turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Early exit polling done by CBS News indicates that young people made up roughly 9 percent of all voters in the midterm election. In 2008, young people made up 18 percent of the electorate. Why?
Political scientists and campaign consultants offer several theories. Americans are more likely to vote when enthusiasm abounds for the candidates they support and young people tend to support Democrats. Young people historically don’t turn out for midterms. Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was uniquely galvanizing for young voters. The agenda of Congress and the president has not adequately addressed energy policy -- a very important issue to college students – and media coverage of the health care reform bill (which did quietly include benefits for young people) focused mostly on the concerns of older voters. Thus, young people seem to have concluded that voting isn’t worth their time right now.
Herbst studied the views of young people and found that “72 percent of students agreed that it was very important for them to always feel comfortable in class.” Herbst argues that “Contrary to the image of college being a place to ‘find oneself’ and learn from others, a number of students saw the campus as just the opposite – a place where already formed citizens clash, stay with like-minded others, or avoid politics altogether.”
Based on Herbst’s study, McLemee, writing prior to the sanity rally, argued that, while Stewart’s rally was likely to draw lots of young people and provide them with a fun weekend, “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it's better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor -- this is not civility. It’s timidity.” Clearly, McLemee believes that the unwillingness of young people to engage in political debate – argument – is not a political virtue, but rather a democratically harmful form of indifference.
Before accepting McLemee’s assertion, though, I think several important questions need to be answered. Why do the students in Herbst's survey feel that it isn't possible to persuade others? Could it be that such a belief is the product of an uncivil political culture? If students had political role models who successfully persuaded others in civil and respectful ways, would they be more inclined to view the political arena – and the classroom – as a space in which the clash of ideas can occur and yield positive results?
Personally, I can think of two positive things Stewart does; first, he encourages young people to refuse to subscribe to the currently pervasive ultra-partisan view of politics that fosters incivility and acts as a barrier to progress; and second, and more basically, he brings some level of political awareness through humor to people who might otherwise be totally apathetic and ignorant. Stewart’s influence, in my view, doesn’t breed timidity (as McLemee asserts), but rather increased youth engagement of the type that rejects a toxic political culture.
It also seems possible that the “Obama Effect” I mentioned earlier, holding that young voters turned out in 2008 because of their admiration of the current president, is at play. I'm worried that young people, perhaps naively, viewed Candidate Obama as a post-partisan role model and that President Obama’s lack of success thus far may further discourage engagement among young people who believed he had the ability to catalyze change without acting like every other “scumbag politician” they've come to dislike.
Moving forward, two things are clear. First, the perspective of young people has the power to change the nature of partisanship; if we, as a generation, continue to subscribe to the ideals of the Rally to Restore Sanity, we have the potential to improve the tone of politics.
Second, however, the burden most certainly falls on us; politicians are not going to pander to a portion of the electorate they don’t believe will turn out to vote, so if we want to transform Stewart’s rally from a sunny Saturday on the Mall into a new political reality, we’ve got to make our voices heard.
Among Barack Obama’s distinguishing characteristics in the field of presidential hopefuls, four years ago, was his opposition to the Iraq war, which he had denounced at an antiwar rally in Chicago in October 2002, when invasion was still yet a gleam in the neocon eye. As Obama’s reelection campaign begins this week, his administration continues the military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, while making the down payment on a third in Libya.
This is not what people who supported Obama expected -- and public opinion polls suggest that opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remains as high as it was during Bush’s second term, or higher. But the streets no longer fill with protesters. This coming weekend there will be antiwar demonstrations in New York (April 9) and San Francisco (April 10). They won’t be on the scale that became almost routine a few years ago, however, when hundreds of thousands of people attended such events. They will be one-tenth the size, more or less.
We can predict that with greater confidence than the weather this weekend. But why? And what would it take to change the situation?
Part of the answer might be found in a paper by Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas called “The Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement in the United States, 2007-2009,” appearing in the latest issue of the journal social-science journal Mobilization. (It is available here in PDF.)
Heaney is an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at the University of Michigan, while Rojas is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University.
Drawing on more than 5,300 surveys the authors conducted with people attending antiwar rallies in recent years, the paper is the latest in a series of studies of the relationship between social movements and political institutions -- in particular, American political parties, major and otherwise.
I first wrote about their work four years ago, as demonstrations against the Iraq war were at their peak. (See also also this column.) My interest is not, as the expression goes, purely academic. Any activist develops certain hunches about the relationship between mass movements, on the one hand, and more established and durable political entities, on the other. Such intuitions tend not to be theorized, but you need them as maps of the terrain. Folks in the Tea Party are not likely ever to read Robert Michels, though I’d guess they’ve had a taste of the iron law of oligarchy by now. Sometimes you have to work these things out for yourself.
Years ago, a friend with long involvement in organizing against the Vietnam war explained how the national election cycle had affected the ebb and flow of the protest movement. “In an odd-numbered year,” he told me, “you’d have masses of people coming out to demonstrations. If it was an even-numbered year, lots of the same people would stay at home because they figured voting for Democrats who criticized the war was enough.” He had been one of those out marching no matter what, and you could hear the frustration in his voice.
My friend lacked the sophisticated statistical tools deployed by Heaney and Rojas (henceforth, H&R), whose understanding of organizational dynamics is also more subtle. But their paper largely corroborates his thumbnail analysis.
Mass movements and political parties are very different animals, at least in the United States. Sociologists and political scientists usually put them in separate cages, and activists and policy wonks would tend to agree. “Party activists may view movements as marginal and unlikely to achieve their goals,” write H&R. “Movement activists may reject parties as too willing to compromise principles and too focused on power as an end in itself.”
But dichotomizing things so sharply means overlooking a third cohort: what H&R call the “movement-partisans” or, a bit more trenchantly, “the party in the streets.” These are people who identify themselves as belonging to an electoral party but consider mass protest to be as valid as the more routine sorts of political action. They might march on Washington, if strongly enough motivated -- but will also make it a point, while there, to visit their Congressional representatives for a quick round of citizen-lobbying.
To movement-partisans, each approach seems a potentially effective way to express their concerns and try to change things. In deciding which one to use at a given moment -- or whether to combine them -- ideological consistency usually counts less an their ad hoc estimate of the respective costs and benefits
According to H&R’s earlier research, movement-partisans are likely to be members of unions, civic organizations, and community groups. This makes them indispensable to building broad support for a cause. (They are also crucial to shoring up what party leaders call “the base” these days.) But the intensity of their involvement varies according to the degree of perceived threat they detect in the political environment.
“When the balance of power between the parties changes,” the social scientists write, movement-partisans will “reassess the benefits and costs of taking action. The rise of an unfriendly party may generate suspicions that the movement will be threatened by a wide range of hostile policies, while the rise of a friendly party may lead to a sense of relief that the threat has ended. Since people tend to work more aggressively to avoid losses than to achieve gains, grassroots mobilization is more likely to flow from the emergence of new threats than from the prospect of beneficial opportunities.”
From surveys conducted during national antiwar actions, the researchers found that people who self-identified as Democrats represented “a major constituency in the antiwar movement during 2007 and 2008,” accounting for 37 to 54 percent of participants. Those who identified as members of third parties represented 7 to 13 percent. (The rest indicated that they were independents, Republicans, or members of more than one party.)
In January 2007, an antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., drew hundreds of thousands of people. In H&R’s terms, a “perceived threat” from the Bush administration still existed among Democratic movement-partisans; so did their sense that it made sense to put pressure on Congress as it shifted from Republican to Democratic control, following the midterm.
But as the presidential campaigns ramped up, the dynamic changed. By late 2008, turnout at demonstrations contracted “by an order of magnitude to roughly the tens of thousands” -- and kept shrinking over the following year. At the same time, the composition began to change. By November 2009, the portion of antiwar protesters identifying as Democrats had fallen to a low of 19 percent, while the involvement of third-party members grew to a peak of 34 percent (almost three times the share just a couple of years earlier).
In some cases, decreasing or ending their participation in antiwar protests was a matter of conscious decision-making by members of the Democratic “party in the street,” as H&R call it. They may have approved of Obama’s handling of the Iraq war or sensed that other issues, such as health care, required more attention. At the same time, movement-partisans of the Republican sort were beginning to mobilize. Even people strongly opposed to the wars often felt this as a disincentive to challenge the administration: they didn't want to risk seeming to join forces with the president's political enemies.
But shifts in attitudes and priorities among individual activists only explain so much. In the final analysis, organization is everything. H&R stress the role of coalitions “in enabling parties and movements to coordinate their actions and share resources.”
The largest and broadest national antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, was also the one most likely to supplement mass demonstrations with messages linked to the electoral arena (“The voters want peace”) and lobbying efforts. Arguably, UFPJ even had influence over groups completely rejecting its approach, since it gave them an incentive to cooperate with each other in organizing alternative antiwar protests.
Following Obama’s election, UFPJ began to disintegrate as Democrats withdrew. (It still exists, but just barely, and now calls itself a "network" rather than a coalition.) The most important effect of its unraveling, according to the paper, is “the fragmentation of the movement into smaller coalitions” -- groupings that tended to act on their own initiative, without the capacity to coordinate work with one another. The number of antiwar demonstrations grew even as the turnout shrank. Another consequence was “the expression of more radical and anti-Obama attitudes by leading organizations.” And this has the predictable effect of narrowing the base of likely supporters.
At this point it seems worth mentioning an insight by another friend whose education in such matters took place in the laboratory of the 1960s. For many years, he said, being engaged in antiwar activism or civil rights work meant going to events where, after a while, you were able to recognize almost everybody. Then one day he attended a demonstration and saw that something had changed. There were some familiar faces, but he had no idea who most of the people were.
“That’s how you know that the cause has actually become a movement," he said. "You look around and see a lot of new faces. It’s no longer just the usual suspects.”
What H&R describe in their paper is, in effect, the film running in reverse. Beyond a certain point, fragmentation becomes self-reinforcing. I wondered about the implications of H&R’s work for what now remains the antiwar movement. Was there anything in their analysis that would suggest the possibility of its revival, on a broader basis, in the immediate future? Could it happen with Obama still in office? Or would it take the “perceived threat” of a Republican president?
I wrote Heaney to ask. His short answer was, simply, no -- the chances of a major revival in the short term are slim. The more nuanced version of his response went somewhat beyond my question, though, and seems of interest:
“As long as voters remain highly polarized along party lines,” he responded by e-mail, “self-identified Democrats are unlikely to protest against Obama's policies, even if they disagree with some of them strongly. A sudden end to the era of partisan polarization seems highly unlikely. So I would say that it is a very good bet that Obama will not confront large left-wing demonstrations. Of course, LBJ faced large left-wing demonstrations, but the party system was not polarized back then in the way that it is today.”
The same dynamics apply to the Tea Party: “Our analysis implies that the Tea Party will have a lower degree of organization and success in 2012 than it did in 2010. Because the Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate, Tea Party activists feel much less threatened today than they did a year ago. So, while the Tea Party will obviously be around in 2012 -- and it will likely factor into the Republican presidential contest -- our analysis suggests that the Tea Party will not generate the same level of enthusiasm next year as it did last year.”
Well, you take what grounds for optimism you can find.
Heaney might be right about everything. It could be that the antiwar movement will remain in its doldrum until, say, the Gingrich-Palin ticket proves victorious. That’d put some teeth back into the concept of “perceived threat,” anyway.
But it hardly follows that resignation is the best course. I can’t make it to New York on Saturday (let alone San Francisco) but am buying a bus ticket for someone else who wants to go. And while finishing up this column, I got in touch with Ashley Smith, who is a member of the steering committee of the United National Antiwar Committee, who seems to have a pretty sober perspective on where things stand.
“The most important part of these demonstrations,” he told me, “is bringing together old and new forces to rebuild an antiwar movement that has been weak for the last several years. We have made a high priority of including demands that open up the movement to forces to often held at arm's distance from antiwar mobilizations in the past -- Palestinians, Muslims, South Asians and Arabs. We have also had some success in reaching out to labor unions like SEIU 1199 and TWU 100 in New York. It is crucial that we rebuild the antiwar movement now.“
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld just slightly, you go into the antiwar struggle with the forces you have, not the ones you want, or wish to have at a later time.
Looking back at the early 21st century in their seminar rooms, somewhere down the road, historians might spare a few minutes to consider a short video shot, and posted to YouTube, on the day after Osama bin Laden was killed. It records an attempt by someone in a crowded New York City subway car to lead the other passengers in a triumphant chant of “USA! USA!”
The first half of the clip is evidence of the famous wall of indifference encasing each New Yorker while occupying public space -- and especially while riding the subway, where your car may be invaded at any moment by a roving mariachi band or someone delivering a loud sermon.
Having documented this familiar demeanor, the man with the camera expects to break it down by reminding everyone that Osama is now dead. The effort misfires. Nobody responds. The news is not cathartic. The anthropologist Victor Turner used the term communitas to name the state of collective intimacy, a collapse of social distance, accompanying certain kinds of rituals or festivals. The aftermath of disaster can create it, too -- and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there will no doubt be more and more tributes to the spirit of communitas that emerged then, for a while. Our would-be cheerleader expected it to be churning beneath the surface, now that 9/11 was avenged. But the faces he filmed say otherwise. For them it was just another commute, on just another Monday.
The little drama of awkwardness captured in this slice-of-life video is interesting because it embodies a real conflict over how to respond to an act of violence. One way is to celebrate it -- in this case, it seems, by assuming that revenge brings something to an end. ("We killed Osama, so now we're even.")
The other response proves more ambiguous and harder to characterize, though “resignation laced with dread” might be about right. That is the shade of my own ambivalence, at least. As someone living near enough to the White House to take the mission of the Flight 93 hijackers rather personally, I did not wish Osama bin Laden well. But celebrating his execution as a rite of closure seems both barbarous and bad magic; the spirit of revenge, once summoned, is hard to control. If the people in the subway car don’t start giving each other high-fives, that’s because some are already preparing themselves for the worst
A new anthology called Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World, published by the University of California Press, strives for higher ground than either the “USA! USA!” camp or Team Stoic Pessimism. Edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin, it comes with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, who calls the volume “a path through which we might one day meet the challenge of terrorism and bring peace to our troubled world.” (Carrington has served as an adjunct professor of depth psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Griffin is the author of several books, including A Chorus of Stones, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)
Writing as “a witness to many beautiful and unexpected acts of courage and generosity,” the Archbishop of South Africa testifies to the possibility of redeeming the world -- something he understands as a human task as well as a theological doctrine. The editors share his vision, which they cast in terms of a cosmopolitan spirituality with psychotherapeutic overtones. That does not mean withdrawing from the world’s violence to contemplate higher things. Parts of the book constitute a tour of hell on earth: there are excerpts from accounts of lynching, car bombing, nuclear destruction, civil war, and genocide. “We are looking,” the editors write, “at the way terror damages the human psyche or, as the ancient Greeks called it, soul, and how it is through this damage that the world enters seemingly endless cycles of violence.”
They define terrorism to include “acts of violence against unarmed civilians, no matter who perpetrates them” or whether “purposeful or labeled as collateral damage.” This casts the net more widely than usual, of course. Grabbing the closest suitable reference book at hand, I find that the 2000 edition of the Collins Web-Linked Dictionary of Sociology calls terrorism “a form of politically motivated action combining psychological (fear inducing) and physical (violent action) components carried out by individuals or small groups with the aim of inducing communities or states to meet the terrorists’ demands.”
Carrington and Griffin are much less concerned with the political motivation or consequences of terrorism than its defining effect: fear, trauma, powerlessness … in short, terror itself. The cycles of wounding, retribution, and brutalization pay no heed to the distinction between terrorism and war (which is, from this perspective, semantic).
Mixed in with the reports on violence and atrocity are excerpts from poetry (Federico Garcia Lorca, Theodore Roethke, Taha Muhammad Ali) and scores of essays, along with the occasional prayer or sermon from figures in various world religions. The material is divided into thematic clusters, with one chapter on “trauma, violence, and memory,” for example, and another on “gender and violence.” The first half of the book covers the psychic damage done by terror, including the pathological dimensions of the desire to strike back. The second considers various modes of nonviolent “paths to transformation,” including citizen diplomacy (informal exchanges among ordinary people from adversarial countries) and truth-and-reconciliation efforts in places where a state or powerful group has terrorized a population.
Even with this structure, though, the book is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Some benefit might follow from reading things in sequence, but I found this impossible. Excerpts range from a few lines to several pages in length; the effect is jolting, and the attention wanders. And some of the editorial choices are unfortunate. Placing a traditional Buddhist prayer (translated by the Dalai Lama) right across from a passage by St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t a problem. A little like something the hip young clergyman in a romantic comedy might do? Sure. Otherwise it’s unobjectionable. But turning the Aquinas text into a piece of free verse that sounds like Kahlil Gibran is not much of a contribution to peace and justice.
On the other hand, the world is such a mess that it makes no sense to get too irritable with anybody trying to mend it. Transforming Terror has its heart in the right place, even if it does include the wisdom of Deepak Chopra. Treating war and terror as maladies of the soul can be reductive. But ignoring the wounds they leave means letting them fester, and it makes for a kind of madness.