The Implosion of the Antiwar Movement

The Implosion of the Antiwar Movement

In 2011, the article “The Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement in the United States, 2007-2009” was published in Mobilization by Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas. The article is a thoroughgoing and fascinating look inside the peace movement as it came to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first decade of the 21st century, and more importantly, how the antiwar movement unravelled with the election of the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, to the presidency of the U.S. The study was mainly an analysis of 5,398 interviews with demonstrators at antiwar demonstrations that took place from 2007 to 2009.  In addition, the study examined the statements of antiwar leaders during that period.


The study, which merits praise for its attempt to assess why the peace movement disbanded or deflated with the election of Obama, is noteworthy in that it is the first exhaustive attempt to catalogue what happened to a once-vibrant social movement that grew up in opposition to the two wars generally associated with the presidency of George W. Bush.


The authors of the study conclude that what happened to the antiwar movement was that most folks, along with their financial support, went home with the election of Obama. People left on the streets to protest were generally older, of lower income, of third or no party affiliation, and were generally more radical than their predecessors who left after the 2008 election. In other words, most Democrats, who felt that they had achieved their goal of electing a “peace candidate,” folded their tents and stole off into the night. The latter is of special interest given that under Obama’s presidency, the war in Iraq continues, while the war in Afghanistan has been greatly expanded. Also, the fact that the U.S. has expanded its war-making influence in places like Libya, Mexico, Pakistan, and Somalia, to name a few wars, makes the Democrats’ abandonment of the antiwar movement all the more curious.


However interesting, informative, and useful Heaney’s and Rojas’ work is, many questions are left about what happened to the antiwar movement. Such questions are perhaps beyond the scope of their distinctive and definitive work.


The peace movement of the 21st century was and is miniscule by standards of the Vietnam antiwar movement during which I came of age. The demonstrations of the first decade of this century are also small by standards of participation in the grassroots movements against nuclear weaponry and U.S. interventions in Central America that took place during the Reagan presidency.


The Vietnam era produced a peace movement of millions of people. While self-interest and self-preservation in the face of the military draft influenced the decision to protest the Vietnam War for many, there was a genuine core of selflessness and idealism that grew out of the experience of the baby-boom generation as it came of age in the 1960s following the staid conformity of the 1950s. In addition, images of the brutality of that war were driven home in the second half of the decade of the 1960s when television broadcast some of the horrors of that war on the nightly news. So-called imbedded reporters in both Iraq and Afghanistan have little motivation to criticize the government’s war making, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Independent news reporting finds its way into small publications and alternative news media that has little effect in influencing public opinion in the U.S.


The two generations that came of age in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century have few models to look up to in terms of political activism. Diminished economic opportunities coupled with increased self-absorption are not conditions that easily give rise to opposing political movements.


With the coming of the age of  the Internet in the 1990s came the belief by some that social networking and gathering news information by way of blurbs on the Web equalled engagement with the society. While some observers predicted that social networking would increase involvement in societal issues, the exact opposite proved true. The Internet became the end all and be all of many young people’s lives, drawing them farther and farther away from political engagement that would demonstrably effect change in the larger society and perhaps even better their prospect for economic security.


The peace movement, once so vibrant, is not even a shell of what it was even as short a time ago from the period beginning in 2001 through 2007. Only a handful of dedicated activists take to the streets these days. Heaney and Rojas make a valuable contribution to understanding how Democrats abandoned the streets after the election of 2008 and stopped giving material support to peace groups. Many other factors, however, have negatively impacted the now moribund peace movement.


Without a viable opposition outside of government, the right political composition of the U.S. will continue to kowtow to the interests of the military, large corporations, and the wealthy. The latter is a prescription for political, social, and economic disaster!





Small “Town”: Big Issues

Small “Town”: Big Issues

Central Falls, Rhode Island, is a tough city. It might even be described as down and out by those passing through. It’s a tiny place, even by Rhode Island standard’s where a forty-five minute trip is often considered to be a major undertaking. Central Falls, like many other Rhode Island communities, rose and fell with the coming and going of the textile industry. The going left giant hulks of empty factories along Rhode Island’s rivers and a population often with few skills to substitute for the ones that tied them to the machinery of manufacturing cloth.



Central Falls has made national news twice over the past few years, a surprising happening for a small city left behind by the drive for cheap labor and the globalization of finance and markets. Like many other New England town gone to rust, original waves of European immigrants were replaced by people of Hispanic descent.


The first event to rock the small city was the mass firing of teachers at its high school in February 2010. What made this event particularly noteworthy was the fact that the President of the United States chimed in on the controversy of the firings, siding with those whose litmus test for public education is high stakes student testing. Of course, students coming from struggling families are almost always shortchanged by the system that offers them few of the trappings that often guarantee success in school. Eventually the teacher firing crisis (and politics in Rhode Island) in Central Falls played out in favor of the fired teachers.


Now, Central Falls is again back in the news: “Faltering Rhode Island City Tests Vows to Pensioners,” The New York Times, August 13. 2011. Both police and fire department retirees from Central Falls are being threatened with massive cuts to their retirement checks, while bondholders of city-issued bonds are being guaranteed a full return on their investments under a new law passed by the R.I. legislature.


Amazing? Well, not in the recessionary environment that has gripped the U.S. economy since early 2008 and has brought out new calls for implementing draconian budgetary measures in the contemporary neoclassical economic system that corporations, the wealthy, and the U.S. and state governments have come to embrace since the early 1980s.



In Central Falls, many retirees are being threatened with a double whammy because the city did not take part in the Social Security system (a “money-saving measure”), thus allowing their retirees next to nothing to fall back on if pensions are slashed.


So the beat goes on in the race to the bottom of the economic ladder. Those people (union members) who worked decades for pensions while providing the bedrock of the U.S. economy are being threatened with penury while the rich get richer and the political right grows bolder in Washington, D.C.

A Decaying System

A Decaying System

It all adds up to much more than there being something rotten in the United States without any assistance from those with a penchant for Shakespeare! There’s something very rotten here! And it’s not only the Supreme Court’s December 2000 ruling in Bush v. Gore that crowned the boy emperor, George W. Bush, as the winner of the 2000 presidential election, or the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens Untied v. The Federal Election Commission allowing the floodgates of corporate dollars to pour into political campaigns. It isn’t even the Tea Party and their right-wing fellow travelers from the religious right.  And from this writer’s perspective, it’s not only the unending wars that seem to expand weekly out of the haze of war the emanates from the president and the Congress and the military. It’s not solely environmental degradation either, but it’s the sum total of all of these assaults on democracy and notions of common decency that add up the the ever-present stench of the rotten that surrounds us all!

It’s easy to see the hand of  influence of huge corporate cash donations throughout the fabric of the society. It became a forbidden topic during the recent budget deficit debacle in D.C. to bring the tax code into line with the needs of the people of this nation. The wealthy, who have had an extended tax party since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, walked away from a recessionary economy with absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of protecting their collected wealth and income. Their proxies in the Congress and in the White House made certain that their riches would not be exposed to any threat whatsoever! And services to the young and old and those in between are  guaranteed to fall, perhaps precipitously. But no matter, Messrs. Panetta and Mullen were soon on Capital Hill arguing against any cuts to the military, a military that has been so voracious in its appetite in sucking the life blood from the nation since the Second World War!

Who else will suffer as a result of the budget negotiations in Congress? First, workers will be forced to continue footing the bill for the party of the haves. With official unemployment over 9 percent and millions of workers working part time, or too discouraged to continue looking for work, the vicious recessionary spiral down to the bottom will continue. Families in the U.S. will send as many of their members out into the workforce vying for wages that reflect a radically altered economic environment that competes with low-wage workers in Asia, Southeast Asia, and India, to name a just a few. Old folks may see their Social Security and Medicare benefits cut as food and fuel prices cause more of a burden on them. The disabled will see similar cuts, while students will be offered more and more credit wagered against a very uncertain employment future. And the housing market will continue rocketing into the cellar, forcing high numbers of minority group members to loose additional value from their major asset (home ownership) that once allowed them to move up the economic ladder.

What’s needed in the current social and political disaster in the U.S. is a transformation of the system! Not liberal criticism that is both well intended and useful, but which really doesn’t get to the crux of the matter, and that crux of the matter is replacing a social-political-economic system with one that works for ordinary people. The boom and bust cycles of capitalism have been relentless since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Environmental destruction may well be beyond the point of no return that predatory capitalism, both here and in places like China (with a state sponsored and controlled capitalist system rather than a privately controlled one) have visited on the planet. The price we pay as individuals and a nation to maintain the system is past the breaking point as those who hold U.S. debt in China now recognize. Finally, our penchant for war (At this writing, the C.I.A. is now involved in the drug war in Mexico and itching to get back into Somalia), both to project our power and manipulate the global economy has strained both the moral and economic fiber of this nation beyond any bounds of sanity. Corporations call the tune in this nation and we all have to get up to dance. Even well-intended reformers are not immune from this historically unprecedented and unimpeded power! Something has got to give!

There is a chance, with the political right in the U.S. holding unprecedented power in the U.S. Congress, that the far right will gain control of more of the political system. Imagine, a combined theocracy and plutocracy in the United States. Meanwhile, despite worldwide demonstrations against the global economic order in places like England, Greece, Israel, Spain, and throughout the Middle East, the streets that were once peopled by activists are dangerously silent! Where’s the anger? Where’s the organizing for action?