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!