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.