Who Killed the Antiwar Movement?

Fabio Rojas

We need a movement against war and imperialism that isn’t tied to the Democratic Party.

Activists congregate on the National Mall during an antiwar rally January 27, 2006 in Washington DC. Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Interview by
Branko Marcetic

It’s easy to forget now, but during the Bush years, the antiwar movement was a genuine political force. Bigger than the Tea Party and Occupy movements, both in numbers and longevity, the movement also engaged in lobbying, spurred on the creation of legislative caucuses, and was an influential electoral bloc, all while having deep inroads to a major party. Yet just as that party took power and was suddenly best poised to enact the movement’s agenda, it withered away. Why?

Two scholars, Fabio Rojas and Michael Heaney, set out to find the answer to that question. The pair interviewed thousands of antiwar protesters between 2004 and 2010, adding up to what they say is the largest-ever survey of participants in a US social movement. Their findings were published in their book Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic recently spoke with Rojas about their research and what it all means for antiwar organizing in the age of Trump and beyond.

Branko Marcetic

Why did antiwar organizing start to fall away around 2007?

Fabio Rojas

The main argument that Michael and I propose in our book is that support for the antiwar movement overlapped with support for the Democratic Party. So, in other words, when people were coming out to protest, they were protesting the war and using it as an opportunity to protest George Bush and the Republican Party.

So what happens is when the party moves on — when the Democratic Party starts to get victories and they start getting elected to office — there’s less of a motivation. Those identities start diverging from each other.

People have to make the choice, maybe unconsciously, where they could say, “You know, I could keep protesting the war, but does that make Obama look bad? Is that an issue we want to avoid?” And in the case of the antiwar movement, partisan motivations and partisan identities won the day.

The primary evidence for this is that the size and composition of antiwar movement changed dramatically over the course of the 2000s. We surveyed about ten thousand protesters from 2004 to 2011. We also collected data on protest event size from various sources, such as the National Parks Service and various media outlets. We discovered that around 2004 and 2005, protests were relatively large, attracting hundreds of thousands of people. We also found that about 50 percent of the people we surveyed at these events claimed to be Democrats. By 2008, the size of the protests had collapsed, to hundreds of people, and only about 20 percent claimed to be Democrats.

Additionally, we asked people to list the reasons for attending an antiwar protest. The number one and number two reasons were consistent over time — people wanted to voice opposition to war and wanted to “express” themselves. Tellingly, the importance of partisanship changed radically over time. Early on, anti-Republican statements were the third most popular reason for protesting. By 2009, anti-GOP reasons were the eleventh most popular reason.

The book presents evidence in other ways. For example, we looked at bills sponsored in the US House of Representatives and the Senate that tried to end or limit the wars in Iraq. Before Obama took office in 2009, we found a surge in antiwar bills. In the 110th Congress, we found sixteen bills that had committee hearings. The number drops to zero in Obama’s first two years. We found a similar rise and fall in other types of bills, such as those that received votes, an important measure of the political will behind a particular policy proposal.

Early in the 2000s, the antiwar movement was large, vibrant, and decidedly partisan. Starting with the 2006 election, the antiwar movement declines and loses its partisan and Democratic character. This is a problem because the antiwar movement relied on Democratic activists for everything from participation in street protests to sponsoring antiwar legislation.

Branko Marcetic

You compare the antiwar movement of the 2000s to the one in the 1960s, which came about under a different environment — it was a Democratic president who had taken the country into war. What was the big difference between these situations? Why was the movement in the 1960s less focused on partisan targeting, and more on the actual war itself?

Fabio Rojas

The antiwar movement over its history has changed a lot. So, for example, the 1930s antiwar people tended to be Republican isolationists. It became more bipartisan in the 1960s — a lot of people from both the Democratic and Republican parties participated in antiwar demonstrations. And then it changed. It became much more of a Democratic thing.

One of the main reasons is that American society overall has become more polarized, meaning that people are more likely to move into boxes where everybody in the box is liberal or everybody in the box is conservative. So you live in an environment where everything is tied to which political party you’re in, and other issues like war and peace will be shoehorned into those boxes.

Branko Marcetic

Was a big part of the change also the elimination of conscription?

Fabio Rojas

Yeah, I think that that’s a very good point, and this ties in well with the recent book by the Cornell scholar Sidney Tarrow. His argument is that the way we wage wars today is a response to political protest in the past.

If you wage a big war with lots of soldiers, lots of conscripts, in public, then people can push back. So the next time you fight a war, then what you’ll do is do it through mercenaries, or drone strikes, or missile strikes, where there’s a lot less to point out and to discuss.

If you think about how wars operate, most of the time, there’s a conflict, the leadership will announce that there’s a war, then there’s a dispute about that, and then the war happens, and then it ends. Then people kind of move on to other topics. So that’s kind of a basic aspect of antiwar organizing.

Or say, for example, you wanted to recruit veterans to protest against the war. There are relatively few veterans. The amount of people mobilized in these conflicts is relatively small compared to the past. So the fact that these aren’t constituencies that are stable, and the fact that wars have the greatest effect on people far away, and not your neighbors and not yourself, is also another issue.

Branko Marcetic

It’s interesting as well because it seems like Democrats and liberal groups also don’t seem to be using antiwar or peace messaging in a partisan way like they were in the 2000s. I don’t know if that’s because it’s perceived as less effective for their goals, or if they feel like it’s politically better for them to support military action. What are your thoughts on that?

Fabio Rojas

There are two things to remember. One is that, in general, political parties are not in a rush to support the antiwar issue because being antiwar often means being accused of being unpatriotic. So that’s always a tough hurdle no matter what.

But then, there’s the specific position of the Democratic Party, where a lot of the leadership is actually very hawkish. So for example, Hillary Clinton. She takes the stand, “We should bomb Syria.” She came out and said it. There’s also a bill that was coauthored by Tim Kaine that essentially created indefinite reauthorization of the use of force so that Trump wouldn’t have to go and reauthorize it all the time, or a future president wouldn’t have to reauthorize it. These are not marginal figures, these are some of the key people of the Democratic party, and they’re coming out as very pro-war, very interventionist.

In American politics there’s often a perception that Republican party is the pro-war party and the Democratic Party is the antiwar party. I think it’s more accurate to say that they’re both interventionist parties, it’s just that the antiwar people have a little bit more voice in the Democratic side than the Republican side. But the mainstream of each party is still fairly hawkish.

Branko Marcetic

What can antiwar organizers do to mitigate this partisan loyalties, if anything?

Fabio Rojas

It’s a hard question, but what I would recommend to activists is to first of all to be a little bit mindful. To not slip into partisanship as an automatic reflex. Keep your eye on the ball, which is the policy and not the person or the party. That’s super important.

Number two is to make your words follow your actions. So if you really are interested in ending the war, you have to realize that you can’t do it with Democrats alone.