Did Partisanship Kill The Antiwar Movement?

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Above: We say No to War sign seen at a 2007 anti-war protest. (Photo by Thiago Santos on flickr)

How Can Social Movements Win in an Era of Strong Political Parties?

Party In The Street book coverIn our new book, Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Fabio Rojas and I examine the rise and decline of the antiwar movement of the 2000s.  We argue that its relationships with the Democratic Party contributed to the antiwar movement’s strength (especially in 2003-2006), but ultimately stimulated its demobilization (especially in 2007-2010).

Key to this dynamic is the fact that many activists, organizations, and legislators identify both with the Democratic Party and with social movements.  We find that as these identities compete with one another inside people’s minds and inside the decision-making arenas of organizations, partisan identities win out more often than not, thus putting social movements in a precarious position.  As a result, social movements often find that they are co-opted, or simply left out in the cold, in the aftermath of their collaboration with major political parties.

It is imperative that social movements critically examine their relationships with political parties and ask what they can do to improve their chances to advance their social and political aims.  I do not know, and thus I should not pretend to know, the secret strategy that will greatly elevate the power of movements vis-a-vis political parties.  Yet I do believe that the findings of Party in the Street have some implications that are worth considering seriously.

In his invitation to me to contribute this essay, Kevin Zeese wrote that the view of Popular Resistance is that “the social movement needs to be independent of the Democratic Party.”  That premise is a good one from which to begin a conversation.  If a social movement is not “independent” of a party – if it is instead “dependent” on a party – then it will likely find itself sidelined whenever doing so is electorally expedient for the party.  But what does it mean to be truly “independent” of a party?  That question does not have a simple answer.


Antiwar protest in New York focuses on George W. Bush. Source Sad Hill News

Antiwar protest in New York focuses on George W. Bush. Source Sad Hill News

The antiwar movement after 9/11 advanced numerous strategies that were dependent on the success of the Democratic Party.  One such strategy was that it often framed its arguments explicitly anti-Republican or anti-Bush terms; for example, “The world says NO to the Bush Agenda.”  Such a slogan was successful in the sense that it evoked partisan-inspired ire and mobilized thousands of people to protest the Iraq War.  Yet such as slogan was problematic in that it helped to educate activists that the grievance was with President Bush per se and not as much with the policies of the government.  A logical lesson to learn from this campaign was that if we could only get rid of Bush and/or Republicans in Congress then the problem would be solved.  Who, then, is to fault the many activists who stopped participating in the antiwar movement after they successfully voted Republicans out of controlling Congress and the White House?

The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011-on advanced different kinds of strategies with respect to the Democratic Party.  Many people in the core leadership of Occupy vehemently rejected any form of collaboration with the Democratic Party.  Individuals and organizations with well-known Democratic Party affiliations were largely persona non grata.   The reliance of Occupy on strict consensus rules of decision making helped to enforce these preferences.  Yet this strategy is also not “independent” of a political party.  By categorically rejecting the Democratic Party and its affiliates, Occupy turned away actors and resources that could have been marshalled for its cause.  Occupy was dependent on the Democratic Party in the sense that it de facto allowed the Democrats to dictate whom it would not work with.

The Tea Party movement of 2009-on has taken a still different approach by working increasingly as a faction within the Republican Party.  Indeed, many politicians within the Republican Party have become beholden to the Tea Party.  This approach has downsides too.  The Tea Party has shed much of its independent agenda (such as opposition to money in politics) as it accommodates party insider status.  By allying so strongly with the Republicans, the Tea Party also pushes away possible allies among Democrats and independents who might support its demands on some issues (such as greater fiscal responsibility).

Occupy Washington, DC by Ward Reilly

Occupy Washington, DC by Ward Reilly

So what would genuine independence from a political party look like for a social movement?  My view is that independence means choosing allies regardless of their partisan affiliation.  An independent movement should have allies that are Democrats, Republicans, members of other political parties, and nonpartisans.  Independence means educating activists that parties are neither the enemy nor the savior; rather, they are one more political structure that can be used for good or ill.  An independent movement should embrace working with allies on one issue if there is agreement on one issue, even if there is disagreement on a multitude of other issues.   Independent movements should advance the best arguments supporting their cause, regardless of whether these arguments are typically classified as conservative, liberal, socialist, or using some other label.  They should socialize their supporters to learn about and care about their cause above achieving electoral victories.  Elections are a potential means of achieving social and political change, but they are neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for doing so.

I am not so naive as to believe that what I propose would necessarily be easy to accomplish.  Bringing activists together across ideological traditions, for example, may stir up innumerable clashes relating to differences on other issues.  Divergent cultural backgrounds of activists in different movements may not mix well.  Working with political parties to any extent – or with any organization – makes a movement vulnerable to dilemmas of cooptation.  The fact that corporate media profit by perpetuating partisan polarization and infotainment – rather than thoughtful deliberation – is a major complicating factor.  Likewise, the enormous imbalance of financial resources between business interests and citizens’ interests undercuts the agendas of social movements.  Yet if social movements are to advance their goals, they must find ways to leverage all possible allies, arguments, and resources in building power.  Social movements must find a way to dance with political parties without becoming beholden to them.  There is no simple prescription for how to do so.

Michael T. Heaney,  is a political sociologist working at the intersection of the disciplines of political science and sociology.  His research focuses on how social networks, social movements, interest groups, and political parties shape organizational processes and policy outcomes. Contact: mheaney@umich.edu.

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  • Aquifer

    I agree with the sentiment that aligning or identifying with one of the 2 corporate parties – D/Rs – is a major mistake, but i also think that eschewing all political involvement is a major mistake, because all that does is leave the political field to those 2 entrenched parties, making it quite possible, nay likely, almost inevitable, for them to undo much of the good that can be achieved outside the political realm, using the legislative process, and hence the “rule of law” to negate those achievements, and, as i agree that “(e)lections are a potential means of achieving social and political
    change” though they “are (not) a …. sufficient condition for
    doing so,” i think they are, indeed, a necessary one … They are are one of the 2 legs (movements being the other) we need to actually get ahead of the game – chopping off a leg leaves us perpetually hopping around, playing whack a mole, reacting to one after another of the assaults the political players inflict on us …

    One thing i learned about a quarter of a century ago is that it is not enough to keep saying “No” – we have to have something to say “Yes” to, and then an organization, a means, of getting to that “yes” – that often takes more work than demos and marches and all that and is decidedly less glamorous – but without that, it seems to me the best we can do is tread water …

    I am a registered indy – party politics leaves me cold, but parties, IMO, are a necessary structure for achieving the organizational capacity needed to sustain an effort over time and the longer we eshew them altogether, the farther behind the 8 ball we get …

  • DHFabian

    It’s actually a deeper divide than that. Occupy itself became a symbol of this deep division. Think back: What began as an extraordinary people’s movement that could have changed the course we’re on was quickly redefined — by Dem pols and lib media — as a Middle Class Only movement. The rest of us — the poor, and those who get why unrelieved poverty is sinking the country — walked away. All ideology aside, not everyone can work, and there aren’t jobs for all who urgently need one. The US shipped out a huge number of jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare aid in the 1990s. The middle class demands, “No crumbs for the poor!” It seems that efforts to pull together and stand up on any issue are quickly turned into a panderfest for the better off, those still in the middle class. Masses of people who would otherwise have united to push back have, instead, been too deeply divided by our class war.

  • DHFabian

    Actually, we’ve already reversed much of the progress made from FDR to Reagan. During that era, we had implemented a range of policies and programs that took the US to its height of wealth and productivity. We then began reversing course, ending those policies and programs. When Reagan was first elected, launching the long campaign against the poor, the overall quality of life in the US was rated at #1. By the time Obama was elected, this had already fallen to #43.

  • Jon

    This does not at all refute what Aquifer had to say. You are both on track.

  • LibertyQuotient

    America’s war making is very much alive. Her war victims are
    very much dead or devastated. Her antiwar movements are dead or floundering. The Doomsday Clock has been moved to three minutes to midnight.

    I am trying as hard as one person can to resurrect the antiwar movement by reaching out to people who could make a difference.

    One group of people, numbering in the millions, is religious groups. Throughout history to this day these groups have engaged in, promoted, or accepted wars. Can that change? We shall see. I have written the leaders of all the major groups hoping to shame them into participating in an escalating confrontation with the war makers instead of acquiescing to them. Specifically, I have suggested they:

    1. Create an interreligious task force to plan in detail a strategy for peace, oriented first toward the U.S.
    2. Establish a steering council, pick leadership, obtain funding and recruit staff.
    3. Help unite the dozens of movements protesting all sorts of different injustices. Connect the dots for these people–no injustice can really end if war doesn’t end. Give the coalition an inspirational and galvanizing name.
    4. Warn the leaders of the warring and spying complex in America that the grand movement and its leaders are serious in their intent and actions and are not simply posturing.
    5. As an interreligious entity morally and publicly condemn the current administration, Congress, the war and spy industries, the mass media, and Hollywood.
    6. Unleash a torrent of escalating litigation. The first would be a rehearsal in which a prestigious group of Americans conducts a Tribunal Court ending in the informal prosecution and conviction of all US international war criminals. Follow up by compelling the International Criminal Court to prosecute all U.S. international war criminals even though the U.S. regime refuses to join the ICC.
    7.Promote and engage in all forms of civil disobedience coupled with organized rallies of millions of protesters in the four regions of
    the US.
    8. Monitor progress. If there is little to none, don’t despair. Try a Plan B. We must be good and responsible ancestors of future generations. For their sake we must not fail.

    What do you think will be their replies?

  • Aquifer

    All the more reason to dump D/Rs – both corrupted beyond salvation …

  • Aquifer

    Plan B – throw them out of office ….

  • LibertyQuotient

    —and into jail