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What Wars? What Anti-War Movement?

May 1, 2011

One of the biggest debates within the Left during the massive upswell in anti-war sentiment during the Bush administration was whether the anti-war movement was a viable movement upon which real radical change could be constituted or on the other hand, the rallies were largely self-serving activities designed to make liberals feel good about themselves, express disdain for the cowboy President, and whip up some nostalgia for the 60’s. In other words, could the masses of soccer moms, apolitical teenagers, moderate Democrats and dedicated leftists all come together and cultivate a political apparatus outside the bounds of electoral politics and the two-party system?

It certainly seems so (Credit: Author)

As someone who has heavily invested in the anti-war movement during my college years, I’ve had this discussion with many of a political comrade and foe. From the beginning, I always felt an anti-war movement for its own sake is like a movement without a symphony — it may be pleasant to the ears, but without the whole, you’ll never truly understand or enjoy the work of art. You cannot have the current US political constellation without wars of imperialism — they are intrinsic to the system and its functioning. To envision the system status quo without them is a non sequitur. I suppose I had hoped and even worked to ensure the anti-war movement would not be regulated to a passing political fad, but I became largely disillusioned as early as 2004 with the massive support for war-monger candidate John Kerry and we all know how well that worked out. The election of Barack Obama, albeit a nice symbolic gesture, did not exactly engender confidence in me.

Not that Bush is gone we can actually put this question to test: did anti-war sentiment remain as high even with a Democratic President in office who supports the wars? This is exactly the question researchers University of Michigan’s Michael Heaney and colleague Fabio Rojas of Indiana University asked in their new study of the anti-war movement. Their results were clear:

“As president, Obama has maintained the occupation of Iraq and escalated the war in Afghanistan,” said Heaney, U-M assistant professor of organizational studies and political science. “The antiwar movement should have been furious at Obama’s ‘betrayal’ and reinvigorated its protest activity…Instead, attendance at antiwar rallies declined precipitously and financial resources available to the movement have dissipated. The election of Obama appeared to be a demobilizing force on the antiwar movement, even in the face of his pro-war decisions.”

In short, Obama effectively enervated and demobilized the anti-war movement. The protests were likely more about Bush, than about a stance against imperialist wars. They looked at 5,400 demonstrators at 27 protests mostly in Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago and San Francisco from January 2007 to December 2009 to reach these conclusions. With Obama now in office, the only ones left (no pun intended) protesting or providing any major criticism of US foreign policy are the “professional left,” as the White House calls us. The soccer moms have their Obama shirts and their suburban paradises in which to indulge, while the teenagers are focused on their video games, job prospects and mountains of debt. And we still have 150,000 troops deployed overseas, trillions of dollars in military spending, and three active wars.

I’m glad someone took the time to put some empirical research behind this sad dénouement to the most recent incarnation of the anti-war movement. It represents just another lesson how our political system manages to cannibalize and neuter any serious mass political dissatisfaction with the crimes of the US empire…or perhaps this wasn’t even real dissatisfaction at all to begin with. As for strategy and tactics forward: what is to be done?

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