Antiwar No More?

Whatever happened to the peace movement? Scott McLemee looks at new research on the collapse of a cause.

April 6, 2011

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.


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