Americans Are Outraged About the War on Gaza. Will Elites Listen?

From street protests to the vote uncommitted movement to Aaron Bushnell’s tragic self-immolation, millions of Americans have been voicing outrage over Israel’s assault on Gaza. Government unresponsiveness threatens to worsen our epidemic of political despair.

Tens of thousands of protesters rally in front of the White House to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza on January 13, 2024. (Mostafa Bassim / Anadolu via Getty Images)

On Sunday, February 25, a US Air Force serviceman lit himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, in protest of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza and US support for it. Twenty-five-year-old Aaron Bushnell declared that he would “no longer be complicit in genocide” before self-immolating. He succumbed to his injuries the same day.

Bushnell’s extreme act of protest followed months of elites dismissing growing antiwar opinion in the US as Israel’s assault became increasingly horrific; it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people, and that the US government is complicit. Bushnell, like many other young people around the United States, had been inundated for months with the brutal images, videos, and stories coming out of Gaza — of residential blocks leveled, hospital patients massacred, hungry Palestinians shot dead trying to get access to aid, a ten-year-old boy starving to death.

Two days after Bushnell’s death, some voters in Michigan’s Democratic primary engaged in a much more prosaic act of dissent. In the weeks leading up to the February 27 primary, disaffected voters organized a movement to vote “uncommitted” in the Democratic presidential primary, instead of for Joe Biden. The effort, dubbed Listen to Michigan, won over 100,000 votes, 13 percent of the primary vote share.

Since then, grassroots efforts in other states to vote uncommitted have followed Michigan’s lead. Efforts to vote uncommitted or leave ballots blank in protest garnered roughly 19 percent of the Democratic primary vote in Minnesota, 8 percent in Wisconsin, 12 percent in New York State, and 14.5 percent in Rhode Island.

The movement to vote uncommitted — like, in another way, Bushnell’s self-immolation — is a manifestation of widespread desperation and exhaustion. Americans who see the need to end Israel’s war on Gaza do not have a presidential candidate or political party to vote for. The normal political avenues for expressing disgust with Israel’s war and US complicity seem to be blocked. After countless emails and calls to congresspeople, mass street protests, and civil disobedience — anything, seemingly, any of us can think of — the images of wholesale starvation and slaughter keep beaming through our phones.

Though the uncommitted vote counts are impressive, the efforts are also a rather depressing reflection of the bind facing antiwar forces: as far as formal electoral politics go, we can do little more than raise a symbolic middle finger to Biden. Our most compelling option in this presidential primary is to vote, literally, for no one.

Our political institutions seem rigidly unresponsive to progressive demands in general, not just disapproval of the war in Gaza. Despite years of protest, there has been no meaningful action on climate change, economic inequality, or mass incarceration. If Democrats continue to dismiss or ignore nonviolent protest as well as attempts to register dissent at the ballot box, would it be a surprise if we see more young people tragically resorting — as Bushnell did — to drastic and violent measures?

Deepening feelings of political nihilism are a rational response to depressing political conditions — and also incredibly dangerous. Overcoming them will require a political movement that offers a compelling alternative to the status quo that actually addresses the needs and aspirations of working people, with a plausible path to victory, capable of moving millions more into grassroots activity to challenge corporate power and imperialist foreign policy.

This is far easier said than done, though. Right now, despair seems to be winning.

Bubbling Discontent

Though the most acute fissure between the Democratic Party’s base and its elected officials right now is due to Biden’s Israel policy, dissatisfaction with Biden and the Democrats began long before the current war. During the 2020 election, Biden pledged to address the climate crisis, end America’s forever wars, and oppose nativistic anti-immigrant policies. Instead, he has granted new public land and offshore drilling permits, embroiled the United States in another conflict in the Middle East, and pursued Trumpian border crackdowns.

To be sure, Biden’s tenure has not been without achievements: COVID-era welfare expansions, investments in domestic infrastructure, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a remarkably prolabor National Labor Relations Board. But for millions — particularly young people and Arab and Muslim Americans — these accomplishments pale in comparison to his failures, especially his support for the obscene war in Gaza.

Young people’s disillusionment with the Democratic Party did not begin with Biden. The recent defections represent the acceleration of a trend dating back to Barack Obama’s presidency. Despite a powerful mandate for change in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Obama mostly delivered more of the same.

Obama’s term and the intervening years also saw growing demonstrations of popular discontent — Occupy Wall Street, two Black Lives Matter uprisings, the teachers’ strike wave, and Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs. Young people have come of age in a climate of disappointed expectations but also heightened protest and political activity.

But the conditions that gave rise to these protests largely remain in place. In 2011, Occupy Wall Street popularized slogans decrying the power and wealth of the top 1 percent. Today, over ten years since Occupy, the bottom 50 percent of Americans own just 3 percent of national wealth, while the top 1 percent holds more than a third.

When Greta Thunberg led the world’s largest climate protest, with six million participants globally, in 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had just warned of a quickly shrinking window of time to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and avoid a catastrophic rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The IPCC issued yet another “final warning” last year, reporting that world temperatures have already risen 1.1 degrees; US emissions have barely budged. Meanwhile, two massive protest waves have done little to change our brutal, racialized system of policing and mass incarceration.

The impotence of this popular discontent appears to be driving a general loss of legitimacy for political and economic institutions in the eyes of young people. Sixty-five percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine think the American political system is not working too well, or not working at all; 83 percent say that most elected officials don’t care what people like them think.

Most Americans seem resigned to this. Though just 4 percent of Americans believe our political system is working well, more powerful than the erosion of faith in the American government are pervasive feelings of pessimism and exhaustion. Nearly a supermajority of Americans describe politics as “exhausting.”

Vast majorities support ideas like Medicare for All, taxing the very wealthy, and a cease-fire in Gaza. But few people believe our government will actually deliver on those kinds of policies. Even though 61 percent of Americans believe that there is too much economic inequality, 81 percent predict that by 2050, “the gap between the rich and poor will grow.”

These are the sentiments of people with little hope that the future will get better or that their own opinions make a difference.

Even Democratic Party politicians, who claim to be the last line of defense against attacks on US democracy, seem eager to justify popular disempowerment. On ABC in early March, discussing public support for a cease-fire in Gaza, Democratic senator Chris Murphy said he hoped Biden “doesn’t make decisions about what to do in Gaza or the Middle East based upon how the votes line up. . . . These issues are too important to be dictated by the polls.” That a sitting senator can confidently reject the idea that public opinion should guide state policy, apparently without political repercussions, is a testament to how little power American voters have.

Without a break in this impasse, there’s no reason to think that political exhaustion and despair won’t also continue to spread. The authoritarian far right on the march, working people increasingly abstaining from political participation, Aaron Bushnell’s tragic self-immolation — these are all morbid symptoms. More are likely to come.

Desperate Measures

Efforts around the country to vote “uncommitted” or “no preference” are an attempt to channel the outrage over Gaza that’s been expressed in street protests across the country into a formal electoral challenge. But though the number of protests has remained relatively constant over the past four months, the number of participants has fallen.

It’s worth asking, as elites continue to ignore popular opinion and protests, whether more people won’t resort to desperate measures. In his best-selling book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm suggests that activists concerned with fighting climate change ought to escalate to sabotaging fossil-fuel infrastructure. “To appeal to [elites’] reason and common sense,” Malm writes, “would be evidently futile. The commitment to the endless accumulation of capital wins out every time.”

Malm recalls that before the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate movement had been growing into the “single most dynamic social movement in the Global North” — millions participated in 2019’s Fridays for Future school strikes, while others implemented blockades, occupations, sit-ins, and took direct action by temporarily shutting down fossil-fuel infrastructure. Despite this explosion of mass-movement activity, Malm laments, elites’ feet remain glued to the gas pedal of carbon extraction and emission.

He concludes that the movement must “escalate” by engaging in direct sabotage and destruction of fossil-fuel infrastructure. Unlike some who advocate sabotage and other forms of guerilla action, Malm doesn’t think blowing up pipelines is a substitute for mass-movement activity. He describes his theory as “the radical flank effect”: the idea that the more reform-oriented mass movement requires a more militant and violent radical wing, whose attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure incentivize elites to address the demands of reformists.

Yet Malm does not discuss escalations that can actually involve millions of people. Risky campaigns of direct sabotage are typically the province of small groups of committed activists. The poorer one is, the more personally ruinous the effects of arrest, especially for something as serious as bombing or setting fire to fossil fuel infrastructure. Workers and the less affluent will probably tend to avoid participating in Malmian sabotage.

Whether sabotage will help bring about significant climate action is far from clear, but it seems even less likely to effect a change in government policy when it comes to the war in Palestine. Military bases and defense suppliers are less accessible and far riskier targets than those in the energy-production supply chain, and attacks on them are even more prone to invite a violent response by the state rather than a substantive change in policy.

Direct sabotage would also provide the state an excuse to repress left-wing organizations broadly, and draw the attention of committed activists away from organizing that brings larger numbers of people into action. Still, it isn’t unreasonable to think that approaches like Malm’s will start attracting more politicized young people who are despairing, and for whom there is no clear path to the change they seek.

The United States and other Western countries were rocked by this kind of far-left political violence in the ’70s. Infamously, amid the implosion of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the government’s seeming immunity to widespread outrage over the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground emerged and initiated a series of bombing campaigns against government buildings, military installations, and banks.

The turn to guerilla-type violence was not effective in achieving its goals; but it did give the federal government greater cover to ramp up its persecution of leftists. The formation of the Weather Underground (aka the Weathermen) and similar groups represented the beginning of the end for the New Left, as activists gave up attempts on building a movement with a mass base in favor of extreme tactics that isolated them from the broader public.

Mark Rudd, a leader of the Weathermen who first rose to prominence in the 1968 student protests at Columbia University, told Jacobin that he and others in the group, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, had seen the need to “destroy SDS . . . and start a revolutionary guerrilla army.” According to Rudd, they abandoned what had actually been their source of power at Columbia — “organizing and coalition building” — in favor of the militancy of a few activists, detached from a mass movement. SDS at its height was home to one hundred thousand activists across four thousand campuses. The Weather Underground started with five hundred members; by the end of its life, the organization claimed only two hundred.

Perhaps as likely as the rise of Weather Underground–style bombing, and a more disturbing prospect, is that Democratic intransigence on Gaza will continue to facilitate our country’s descent into authoritarian right-wing rule. Democratic elites’ refusal to entertain either an alternative course of action in Palestine or an alternative nominee to the remarkably unpopular Biden makes a second Donald Trump presidency look increasingly probable. Trump has already promised to aggressively prosecute political opponents, use the army to suppress big protests, crack down on trans and labor rights, ban leftists from entering the country, and carry out a mass deportation campaign.

Young people, and those who care about stopping war and climate catastrophe, are not irrational for wanting better options. The campaigns around the country to vote uncommitted in the Democratic primary are a relatively polite expression of this desire; Bushnell’s was literally incendiary. If the polite expressions continue to be dismissed or ignored, shouldn’t we expect more fires?