I’ve been involved in some nice discussions recently with Skepoet at his blog, Left Turn At the Crossroads of Critical Thinking. It’s a helpful discussion (the particular discussion at issue in this post is from his post On power, ideology, and class, part 1). We share some similar views and yet come from very different directions.
I identify with liberalism for the reason it tends towards moderation and mediation, liberals being the only US demographic to show majority support for compromise. I can’t speak for Skepoet’s predisposition, but I could make some general guesses based on his jumping from one wing to the other (right to left) apparently without spending much if any time in the middle. He is unsurprisingly more critical toward liberalism than I, an attitude I assume he carried over to some extent from the earlier right-wing period of his life.
This brings me to the specific point I wish to discuss. In our discussion, I’ve defended liberalism against some of his criticisms. His initial views of liberalism seem to put it into the context of the policies of the Democratic Party or thereabout. That isn’t entirely wrong, but just too narrowly defined for my own understanding.
As I pointed out to him, almost half of liberals are independents and the other half that is in the Democratic Party only represents a third of the party membership. I’m an independent liberal and so I’m specifically defending the broad sense of liberalism that goes beyond partisan politics with emphasis on the psychological understanding of what motivates the liberal mindset. With their desire for compromise, partisan politics probably bothers liberals more than any other political group, partisan polarization being the complete opposite of bipartisan compromise. In this sense, liberals don’t like dogmatism or at least don’t embrace it in the way and to the extent more often seen on the far right (or even on the far left). This makes perfect sense when one looks at the psychological research where ‘liberalism’ practically equates to ‘openness to experience’, this ‘openness’ both being a strength (e.g., compromise) and a weakness (e.g., capitulation)… or, as some conservatives have stated it, don’t have a mind so open that your brains fall out.
Even though the Democratic Party isn’t specifically a liberal party, it is the party that ends up representing liberalism in the minds of many non-liberals and in the minds as well of many more mainstream liberals. Whether or not Obama is genuinely a liberal, I understand he does play the role of and uses the rhetoric of liberalism (although not in the way that makes independent liberals happy).
In the discussion with Skepoet, I was comparing the Occupy movement to the Bush era anti-war movement. Skepoet responded with the following:
How large was the anti-war movement in the US and how sincere was it? Because it effectively died when Obama went into office, but we are now in three wars instead of two.
I must admit that I was annoyed by this. Sincerity in this context seemed to imply an ideological or moral purity. As a liberal, this left-wing demand for ‘sincerity’ comes off as elitist or else just plain self-righteous. The average person doing their best to get involved is simply not good enough. I realize I might be reading too much into Skepoet’s question, but for some reason it rubbed me the wrong way. Even so, I chose to keep my emotional response out of the discussion and so responded more neutrally:
How large was the anti-war movement in the US?
As I recall from research I’ve done in the past, the US anti-war movement during the Bush administration was the largest protest movement in the US at that time. It was supposedly the largest protest movement in the world. The previous protest movement that I’m aware of that had been the largest in US history and which went global was the nuclear disarmament movement in the 1980s.
How sincere was it?
Sincerity is a relative trait. As the largest protest movement at that time, I’d say it had more sincerity than most political movements. It included libertarians, liberals, anarchists, minarchists, isolationists, pacifists, veterans, social justice Christians, and on and on.
I can’t speak for the whole movement, but I can speak for the part of the movement I was involved in here. There was a protest camp that lasted for months, having started in spring and continuing until the weather turned cold. Besides that camp, anti-war activists regularly protested for years and continues to this day. I constantly hear about anti-war protests in the US, although they get less attention in the MSM. It is far from dead. In my entire life, I’ve never experienced such a long-lasting protest movement.
Yes, the wars have continued and increased even. But you can’t blame that on the protesters. The protests continued. Also, the outrage that fueled those protests is the same outrage that fueled the Tea Party movement and now the Occupy movement. The Ron Paul libertarians were major supporters of the anti-war movement and many of them supported the Tea Party and now many of them support OWS. This is true for other political groups as well. You tend to find the same activists supporting each new manifestation of protest. They are all connected. An Occupy protest camp was formed a while back and it is the first protest camp we’ve had in Iowa City since the peace camp. Many of these people voted for Obama, but it hasn’t stopped them from voicing their outrage.
Skepoet then gave an answer that could be taken as final proof of the failure of the protester’s and of liberals in general:
Really? There is fairly good scholarly evidence to the contrary: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mheaney/Partisan_Dynamics_of_Contention.pdf
I’ve been meaning to respond to this for a while, but I wanted to be very clear in my refutation of this supposed proof.
Let me point out some of the limits of generalizing too much on the basis of this “scholarly evidence”. But first let me consider the complaint itself: Democrats stopped protesting after Obama was elected. Is that true? What were the conclusions of the research?
Did Obama’s Election Kill the Antiwar Movement?
By Ann Arbor
After Obama’s election as president, Democratic participation in antiwar activities plunged, falling from 37 percent in January 2009 to a low of 19 percent in November 2009, Heaney and Rojas say.
So, the complaint was that only 1/5 of Democrats (instead of slightly above 1/3 of Democrats) were willing to protest against the wars once Obama was elected? Accepting that as true, Democrats still represented one of the highest if not the highest portions of the anti-war movement during both Republican and Democratic administrations. That is supposed to be damning evidence? That is the great failure of all liberals and Democrats? This is proof of the superiority of more radical activists?
Anyway, it’s not as if the protests against the wars stopped. And certaintly it’s not as if liberals and Democrats stopped protesting for what they believed in simply because a Democrat was president.
Just because the media isn’t covering it, that isn’t to say it isn’t happening.
To continue, what are the specifics that the researchers focused on?
Antiwar No More?
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.)
As I was arguing, the movement included a diversity of supporters. Democrats were at most 1/2 of the participants and possibly only ever represented a 1/3 of the movement. The anti-war movement was never just about liberals, especially not just liberal Democrats (I’m a liberal who isn’t a Democrat; I participated in the anti-war protest movement and didn’t vote for Obama). What about all of the other groups involved? Why did the Ron Paul libertarians abandon the anti-war movement in order to campaign for Ron Paul and then later to join the Tea Party?
There are many explanations. But it should be pointed out this research was done years after the point when protest movement had some of its early strong support. The anti-war protests started in 2002 and gained their strongest momentum in 2003. Why would anyone reasonably expect the movement to sustain that same energy for the next 9 years following those first protests?
The anti-war protests began as an attempt to stop the invasion in Iraq from happening at all. It failed in that, but certainly the protesters can’t be blamed for what has followed since the invasion. Being against the invasion and being for pulling out are two separate issues. I was against the invasion and yet I believe we should fix what we break. The challenge, however, has been that if we don’t try to fix it the problem could get worse and if we try to fix it the problem might get worse. There are no clear answers at this point. The only clear answer that ever was a possibility was to never invade in the first place. Once the Iraq War was started, there was little hope that protesters could hold onto. Protest increasingly became symbolic rather than pragmatically effective toward some positive end. Worse just leads to worse.
The other purpose of the anti-war movement was to sway public opinion. It is a fact that public opinion has turned away from supporting the wars, and so on that account the anti-war movement has been an unqualified success. The public has become demoralized with the wars just as the anti-war protesters have become demoralized. Everyone has become demoralized by everything that is going on: endless and pointless wars, crony capitalism, a co-opted democracy, and on and on. Even as public support turns away from the wars, there is no sense of having won anything in the process. The public support has turned away from lots of things (the drug war, the culture war, etc) and yet it feels like nothing changes. The media and the government go on as if everything is the same.
What more is expected of the anti-war movement? Protesters can’t force the government to do anything and protesters can’t solve the problems caused by the very war they’ve been against. Many people have continued to protest against war, but people have had their lives and energies focused on the other issues (such as the economy) for reasons beyond their control. With many people hurting (growing poverty and shrinking middle class, unemployment or underemployment, house foreclosures, debt, lost life savings, struggling small businesses, etc), and so people have joined other causes and movements (fighting the Patriot Act, ending Gitmo, and freeing Bradley Manning; election reform, healthcare reform, tax reform, and regulatory reform; Tea Party, Coffee Party, and Occupy movement; etc) which has diffused the energy of the anti-war movement.
Anyway, I understand the criticisms. I’m critical of almost everything in the world these days. I just don’t see why the liberals should be blamed for everything and why all liberals (nearly half of whom, according to Pew’s Beyond Red vs Blue, are Independents) should be accused of being mindless Obama drones. Were there Obama supporters who withdrew from the anti-war movement? No shit, Sherlock. Was the anti-war movement nothing more than mindless Democratic loyalists? Don’t be silly.
The above commentary I posted in the comments section of an article by Paul Street (Were the Anti Iraq War Demonstrations of 2003 Too Good to Be True?). I received a thorough response to which I added further thoughts. Here is some of what I said:
I must admit that I don’t get the point of the criticism you are making. The support for Bush’s wars was bipartisan. Bush and his policies gained public support after 9/11 and the American public wanted revenge. When the anti-war protests began, most Democrats weren’t involved in it. Certainly, Democratic politicians weren’t involved in those early anti-war protests. I doubt that a majority of Democratic voters have ever been involved at the same time in the anti-war protest movement. It’s too simplistic to speak about Democrats hating Bush. Most Democrats, like most other Americans, were more bothered by the Patriot Act than by the wars. As I pointed out above, most Democrats aren’t liberals.
I wouldn’t be so quick to judge anti-war activists. I looked at the research by Heaney and Rojas. I’m not sure it supports your conclusion. First, the Independents (which would include the liberal independents) have maintained strong involvement in the anti-war protests. Second, Democrats decreased involvement by half, but that still leaves 20% involved which is still a fairly large proportion and which is more than the approximately 0% of Republicans involved. Third, as Democrats involvement decreased, third party voters increased by the exact same percentage which could imply that many of the anti-war Democrats didn’t actually stop being involved but simply became third party voters (maybe as they became dissatisfied with Obama). So, the overall participation percentages somewhat balance out over the two year period, the only clear change being the label by which the anti-war activists identified themselves.
(To which I would add: If some Democrats can be criticized for having left the anti-war movement, it would only be fair to praise the high number of Democrats who remained in the movment. Furthermore, it would only be fair to criticize almost all Republicans for never having joined the movement and it would only be fair to criticize Independents in not increasing their involvement until after Obama was elected.)
It’s not as if the anti-war protest movement has died. I still see people in downtown Iowa City with signs protesting the war. Also, I was just talking to a friend the other day. He went on a road trip and stopped by an anti-war protest where some people were arrested for stepping onto a military base. I think it might be this protest:
Just because the national mainstream media doesn’t report on all of these protests around the country, it doesn’t mean they aren’t happening all the time. Just because a few Democrats you knew left the anti-war movement while campaigning for Obama, doesn’t mean that all or most people left the anti-war movement and it doesn’t even mean those Democrats didn’t later return to the anti-war movement.
“Oddly, the polls are sometimes cited to prove the ineptitude of the peace movement. With so many Americans against the war in Afghanistan, why isn’t the peace movement stronger? A fair question, yet one that omits the possibility that the efforts of local peace groups have contributed to that public skepticism.
“If the continued existence of the peace movement is unrecognized, how can this be explained? One is the complete freeze-out by the mainstream media. Since 2003, there have been no fewer than four national demonstrations attended by more than 100,000 people, yet the only one to receive coverage was the huge New York City gathering in the run-up to the Iraq War. The others were so many trees falling in the forest, which nobody could hear or see unless they were personally marching.
“But while the silence in the mainstream media is perhaps predictable, more surprising and less excusable has been the failure of progressive news outlets to provide positive attention to peace organizations. Since 2001, these alternative outlets have done an extraordinary job of reporting American actions abroad and providing sophisticated analysis of international events that are elsewhere ignored. Barely mentioned have been the mass antiwar mobilizations of the past eight years, the ongoing campaigns to move the Congress, or the steady, creative work of antiwar activists in towns and cities across the United States. The demoralizing result is a constant imbalance between the depressing news about U.S. foreign policy and the apparent lack of resistance here. Individuals who are not already part of the existing peace networks often conclude there is nothing useful to be done and focus elsewhere.
“In recent weeks, the silence has been broken by a handful of articles lamenting the absence of a peace movement and attributing its collapse to a misplaced enthusiasm for President Obama and the Democratic Party. In this narrative, the antiwar movement is characterized as nothing more than a partisan club to beat George W. Bush over the head with. Therefore, the story goes, once this particular “evildoer” had retired to Texas, the peace activists simply folded up their tents and abandoned the field. But this description takes no account of the thousands of people across the country who have organized protests for the past decade out of the conviction that the wars are wrong.”
Now I’ll respond to some of your other points.
“you ask where are all the Ron Paul anti-war activists? While there may have been some of those voices involved the bulk were clearly people who identified with the Dems & MoveOn who made it their mission to hate Bush.”
I always had the sense that a fair number of libertarians were involved in the anti-war protest movement, but I’ve never seen specific data. Is there a source of data you are basing your opinion on? Why would you assume many libertarians weren’t involved? Libertarians have tended to be anti-war for a long time. The oldest and most prominent anti-war website (antiwar.com) was started by a libertarian in 1995. The most well known libertarian (Ron Paul) is vocal about being anti-war. Certainly, libertarians hated Bush (with his policies such as the Patriot Act) about as much than liberals. It is true, though, that libertarians haven’t been known for their supporting the activism that liberals are involved in. As one article stated it:
“For that matter, where was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century? The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion — issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.”
Even so, I’m not the only person on the left who recognizes the role libertarians have played in the anti-war movement. Thaddeus Russell said:
“I’m a man of the Left. I was raised by socialists in Berkeley. I’ve always been on the Left. But I stumbled upon antiwar.com about three years ago and was blown away. I said ‘This is what the Left should be doing! This is what the Left should be saying!’ Libertarians and sort of paleocons–but especially libertarians like antiwar.com . . . like Ron Paul–have been the leading voices of the anti-war movement. They’ve been the most principled–the most consistent–no matter who’s president. They’ve been saying again and again and again, ‘These wars are disasters. The Empire must end.’”
On the other hand, there are libertarians who mistrust and denounce the anti-war protests as being merely ‘liberal’. In response to such a libertarian, here is what one self-identified “anti-war liberal” (username Southern Guardian) said in a forum discussion:
“I never saw the anti-war protests as a political movement, and it’s very interesting that you label the anti-war protests as purely those of liberals. Are you admitting that you and other Ron Paul supporters/libertarians never participated? The protests in 2003-2005 were anti-war, that’s it. I never saw myself apart of any political movement, infact I never even saw myself as anti-war as I personally believe it is necessary at times. My stances along with others were rather a protest against the governments campaign against Iraq specifically and lies contained within. Myself and many others supported Afghanistan efforts until the recent capture of Osama Bin Ladin. ”
He expresses my own view. I’ve never been a partisan. In fact, I can’t stand party politics. When I was involved in the anti-war movement, I never thought of it as being a movement of only or mostly Democrats. There definitely wasn’t any Democratic Party material lying around or anything. It always seemed a diverse group to me. At the Iowa City peace camp, there were students, non-students (like me), hippies, veterans, and even some homeless kids. I never asked anyone who they voted for and it didn’t seem to matter since no one asked me either. I knew Republicans were against the peace camp since at one point they temporarily set up a counter-protest camp, but at no point did I ever get the idea that libertarians weren’t welcome in the peace camp. The anti-war protest movement was a part of the protests against Bush policies in general, and it was out of that defense of civil libertarianism that the Ron Paul libertarian movement gained momentum.
“The third point is a classic liberal response that “we have to fix” the mess we made. The Iraqis have been saying for years that they want us to leave, so they should have the primary say in this matter. More importantly, the US has never had any intention of “fixing” Iraq. US policy put Saddam Hussein in power, funded his war with Iran, provided him with the WMDs, invaded and bombed Iraq in 1991, imposed the most brutal sanction regime on any country in history for 12 years, then invaded/occupied again in 2003. During this current occupation the US has set up permanent military bases, privatized much of the economy, including oil as a means to have greater longer term influence on Iraq’s economy……see Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine.””
I’m familiar with all of that. You seem to have misunderstood me. My point was that, if the US destroys the infrastructure of a country in a pointless and unjustified war, then it would be fair and just for the US to at least rebuild that infrastructure to some extent (make roads passable, make water and electric plants operable, etc). I wasn’t talking about nation-building.
I added one even more important point that critics seem oblivious of:
As for Obama, he promised that he would withdraw troops and that is what he is doing. I realize he didn’t do it as quickly as his critics would have preferred, but this seems to prove valid the anti-war protesters who decided to support Obama. If McCain had been elected, maybe there would have been no troop withdrawal at all. I’m not a fan of Obama, but I try to be fair in my assessment of his presidency.
Skepoet would have a point if Obama hadn’t fulfilled his basic promise, however imperfectly. We can argue over various factors, but the broad point remains the same.
The anti-war protesters, Democrats included, managed to accomplish two of their main goals:
- They helped swayed public opinion away from supporting the war effort.
- They helped bring the Iraq War ever closer to being ended.
Considering their powerful opponents, that is a massive success… even if qualified by the larger context of the War on Terror that continues in that region. It is hardly inspiring to criticize protesters even when they have victories, no matter how minor you may think those victories are. Yes, it would have been better if the wars had ended earlier, but it seems to be clear at this point that they are coming to an end. Yes, military bases and contractors will remain in Iraq for the time being; still, you should accept the victories you can get.
Looking at other criticisms, I came across the following which mentions in some detail the anti-war movement in Iowa City, the location of the peace camp I was involved with in 2003. This critic brings up some good points about what went wrong:
Were the Anti Iraq War Demonstrations of 2003 Too Good to Be True?
By Jeff Smith
There is no longer an antiwar group of any relevance in Iowa City. The UIAC is dead, thanks to the departure of the best activists, the nefarious activities of an FBI informant, internal squabbles over personalities and Israel, and – last but not least – the significant demobilizing impact of a Democratic president who deceptively ran as an antiwar candidate.
What caught my attention was the reference to the FBI. I had forgotten about that. The FBI has a long history of disrupting and even destroying grassroots movements. With the Patriot Act, the FBI had been newly empowered to go even further than they would have prior to 9/11.
The following is a better overall analysis:
Where have all the war protesters gone?
The largest demonstrations ever have largely dissipated, even as we’ve launched new wars. Why a movement sputtered
By Todd Gitlin
The outrage that greeted the run-up to the Bush-Blair Iraq war debacle generated what must have been the largest antiwar rallies and demonstrations in the history of the world. Sometimes in subzero temperatures, millions of marchers in New York, London and elsewhere took to the streets to interrupt the roar of self-righteous crypto-imperial bravado, to barge through George Bush’s strutters’ ball and its fevers of fantastical, deceptive and self-deceptive claims about Saddam Hussein’s danger to the United States and Washington’s promise to parachute democracy into Saddam’s stricken land. In the well-chosen words of one London sign, the marchers were “Shocked, Not Awed.”
Then the marches stopped.
The author then goes on to give many reasons, all of which I agree with. Grassroots is never easy even under perfect conditions, and the situation the anti-war movement faced was challenging to say the least. In response to that analysis, here is a good argument for why the death of the peace movement is greatly exaggerated:
Don’t Exaggerate the Death of the Antiwar Movement
by Medea Benjamin
In an article in Salon.com, Todd Gitlin writes a convincing obituary for an antiwar movement killed by a thousand blows: crushed by Bush’s pigheadedness, dumped in the media’s black hole, rendered invisible by a volunteer army and drones, overshadowed by more urgent financial crises, chastened by the “unpleasantness” of adversaries from Taliban to al-Qaida to Gadhafi. He leaves out some other daggers to the heart of the movement: grass-roots election campaigns that lured away millions of activists; betrayals by the president and groups like MoveOn who used and abused the antiwar sentiment; craven congressional reps who violate the will of their constituents by continuing to fund war; powerful lobbyists for the war industry who wield enormous power in Washington; and the utter exhaustion that sets in after 10 years of standing up to the largest military complex the world has ever seen.
Despite all these challenges, however, the reports of the death of the antiwar movement are greatly exaggerated. Sure, there are no longer millions marching in the streets — but there aren’t millions marching in American streets for any cause these days. Lacking the staying power of Tahrir Square, our weekend rallies failed to effect policy and left people disillusioned — and bored. That’s why creative and media-savvy activism 2.0 tactics — like flash mobs, Twitter culture jams and YouTube videos — have emerged that engage with the younger generation.
And that’s why the movement has transformed as well. Rather than marching in circles and chanting slogans to ourselves, we’re reaching deep into our communities to make connections between the economic crises our neighborhoods face and the wars that rob us of scarce resources.
The author then goes on to give the examples of the continued activism. Then the author concludes with the following:
Finally, we have been busy trying to insert the anti-war message in the broader movements for social and economic justice. While our message is sometimes rebuffed or marginalized in activities closely linked to the Democratic Party, at every major rally for jobs, civil rights or corporate responsibility, you’ll find anti-war activists.
As Todd Gitlin knows well, movements ebb and flow. We are certainly not at our zenith, but we are still breathing. The Arab Spring has given us new inspiration, and as the 10th anniversary of the senseless war in Afghanistan approaches in October, you can expect to see the antiwar movement not just breathing, but kicking into high gear with an open-ended mobilization in D.C. starting on Oct. 7 and artistic actions throughout the country under the banner of 10 Years and Counting. We invite Todd and others who have been writing about our demise to come join us.
Also, take for example these comments to the above article:
Posted by orbit7er
Jul 21 2011 – 8:56am
My own local Peace Group has been having a Peace Vigil every Friday since
September 11, 2001. We are still there…
At first when Bush started the Iraq War we got middle finger salutes..
But within some months those turned to peace signs and honks of support.
And every week still we get peace signs and honks of support…
The vast majority of Americans want to END these Wars!
Posted by suhail_shafi
Jul 21 2011 – 8:25pm
I do not think that the anti war movement is dead at all. Much of US and Western public opinion is opposed or at least skeptical of the US invasion of Iraq and the NATO attack on Libya.
If the mission of the anti war movement was to end all wars, it has indeed failed miserably. But if the mission of the movement was to galvanize public opinion against the wars, it has been an unqualified success.