It’s the Blind Partisanship

Why did the peace movement grow large around 2003-2006 and shrink around 2008-2010? Military spending, troop levels abroad, and number of wars engaged in can explain the growth but not the shrinkage. Those factors hardly changed between the high point and the low point of peace activism.

Was pulling troops out of Iraq and sending them in huge numbers into Afghanistan a move the public favored? There’s not much evidence for the second half of that, and it was never a demand of the peace movement at its height. Did the wars become more legal, more honest, more internationally accepted? Hardly. The United States escalated in Afghanistan and remained in Iraq as other nations ended their minor roles in those wars. The U.S. president began taking drone wars into a number of other countries with no domestic or international authorization at all, as he would later do with Libya, and then back into Iraq again (which Congress is considering possibly deliberating on whether to debate retroactively “authorizing”).

The earlier period saw obvious lies about weapons in Iraq. The latter saw obvious lies about “success” in Iraq and imminent “success” in Afghanistan, not to mention the precision nature of drone “strikes,” followed by lies about threats to civilians in Libya, chemical attacks in Syria, Russian invasions in Ukraine, and existential danger from ISIS and Russia.

Was the difference a matter of sheer exhaustion, then? Peace activists could perhaps only keep going for so long? Actually, no, activists moved to other issues more than they dropped out, and those who dropped out disproportionately had something in common: loyalty to the Democratic Party. I don’t know this because I’ve chatted with a few people unscientifically selected as most likely to agree with whatever I say. I know it because I’ve just read a new book called Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 by Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas who have spent years studying this question using careful surveys of large numbers of activists. Their book begins with 93 pages of scholarly theoretical framework before getting to the data. You want careful examination of the influence of partisanship on activism? This is it.

“The 2006 elections and their immediate aftermath were the high point for party-movement synergy,” write Heaney and Rojas. “At exactly the time when antiwar voices were most well poised to exert pressure on Congress, movement leaders stopped sponsoring lobby days. The size of antiwar protests declined. From 2007 to 2009, the largest antiwar rallies shrank from hundreds of thousands of people to thousands, and then to only hundreds.”

What explains this?

“Our explanation centers on the shifting partisan alignments favoring the Democratic Party. We observe demobilization not in response to a policy victory, but in response to a party victory. The rising power of the Democratic Party may have convinced many antiwar activists that the war issue would be dealt with satisfactorily.”

Is that what happened? The authors, in fact, have found strong evidence for these conclusions:

“Partisan identification tends to be stronger and longer-lasting than movement identification.”

“While the Democratic Party was able to leverage antiwar sentiments effectively in promoting its own electoral success, the antiwar movement itself ultimately suffered organizationally from its ties to the Democratic Party.”

“[T]he parties agree more on the substance of policy than their political rhetoric suggests.”

“Overall, the findings offer strong support for the partisan identification theory as a way of understanding the mobilization of grassroots activists. Partisan identification fueled the growth of the antiwar movement during the Bush years but then trimmed the grass roots in the Obama era.”

“Antiwar leaders crafted partisan frames to help get people into the streets. UFPJ’s use of the slogan ‘The World Says No to the Bush Agenda,’ for the protest outside the 2004 Republican National Convention is a classic example of this strategy in operation.”

“The bad news for the antiwar movement was that activists were more likely to favor their Democratic identities over their antiwar identities. Especially once Obama became president, there were too many good reasons to be a Democrat. The country had its first African American in the Oval Office, an important symbolic outcome after centuries of struggle for racial equality. The Democratic majority in Washington – which was nearly a supermajority – meant that comprehensive health care reform would stand a real chance for the first time in fifteen years. Thus, many former antiwar activists shifted their attention to other issues on the progressive agenda.”

Heaney and Rojas and their surveys were features of antiwar events for years. Here are hypotheses they tested and found support for:

“h4.1. Partisan frames were more effective in drawing participants to the antiwar movement the greater the unity of Republican control in Washington, D.C. Partisan frames were less effective in drawing participants to the antiwar movement the greater the unity of Democratic control in Washington, D.C.

“h4.2. The participation of self-identified Democrats in the antiwar movement was more likely to be motivated by partisan frames than was participation of non-Democrats in the antiwar movement.

“h4.3. Self-identified Democrats were more likely to reduce their participation in the antiwar movement over time than were non-Democrats.”

“h4.4. The more salient an individual’s identification with social movements, the more likely that she or he maintained participation in the antiwar movement over time.

“h4.5. The more salient an individual’s identification with the Democratic Party, the less likely she or he was to participate in the antiwar movement at all.

“h4.6 In cases of conflict, individuals participating in the antiwar movement were more likely to maintain their party loyalties than their movement loyalties.

“h4.7. Self-identified Democratic activists were more likely than non-Democrats to view wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as being managed well by the Obama administration.

“h4.8. After the election of President Obama, self-identified Democrats were more likely to shift their attention to nonwar issues than were non-Democrats.”

Heaney and Rojas fend off some likely straw men:

“We do not claim that partisanship entirely explains the decline of the antiwar movement,” they write. “There is no doubt that a long list of factors played a role. Activists were frustrated by a lack of policy success, meager resources, intramovement conflicts, and more. Many activists burned out from too many years of traveling to protests. Yet our analysis validates a very important role for partisanship in the decline. If partisan identities were not a contributing factor to the movement’s decline, then we would not have observed differences between Democrats and non-Democrats in their behavior vis-à-vis the movement.”

Now to quibbling. Heaney and Rojas, I think, fail to place the decisions that doomed the anti-Republican war movement quite early enough or to adequately distinguish the extent to which partisan organizations engaged in purely anti-Republican war activism even during the height of the movement. “[M]any of UFPJ’s members no longer wanted to focus on antiwar opposition once a Democrat was in the White House,” they write. In fact, I remember the big drop-off (whether driven by popular interest or funders or executive decisions) coming in 2007 as Democrats took more interest in electing a president than in opposing wars or building peace.

“While MoveOn formally continued to hold antiwar positions after Obama’s election,” write Heaney and Rojas, “it threw its weight behind health care organizing, rather than antiwar mobilizations.” They add: “Neither MoveOn nor its members suddenly became ‘prowar’ in 2009. Instead, their issue priorities shifted with the rise of a new administration. With so many of its members identified with the Democratic Party, it was unlikely that MoveOn would maintain an agenda that was counter to the party’s trajectory. Democratic identities outweighed antiwar identities within MoveOn, so, one of the leading players of the antiwar movement from 2003 to 2008 moved on to a different agenda.”

But in fact, well before 2008, MoveOn was organizing antiwar events in the districts of prowar Republicans and not in the districts of prowar Democrats. In March 2007, shortly after the Democrats took power in Congress I wrote this analysis of MoveOn’s refusal to lobby for peace as it had in years gone by:

“The Congress that was elected to end the war just voted to fund the war. Congresswoman Barbara Lee was not permitted to offer for a vote her amendment, which would have funded a withdrawal instead of the war. Groups that supported Lee’s plan and opposed Pelosi’s included United for Peace and Justice, Progressive Democrats of America, US Labor Against the War, After Downing Street, Democrats.com, Peace Action, Code Pink, Democracy Rising, True Majority, Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Backbone Campaign, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Voters for Peace, Veterans for Peace, the Green Party, and disgruntled former members of MoveOn.org.

“True Majority was a late addition to the list. The organization polled its members. Did they favor the Pelosi bill to fund the war but include various toothless restrictions on it, or did they favor the Lee plan to use the power of the purse to end the war by the end of the year? Needless to say, True Majority’s membership favored the Lee plan.

“MoveOn polled its membership without including the Lee alternative, offering a choice of only Pelosi’s plan or nothing. Amazingly, Eli Pariser of MoveOn has admitted that the reason MoveOn did this was because they knew that their members would favor the Lee amendment.”

Heaney and Rojas, however, emphasize popular will as the decisive factor:

“Did the movement decline because individual antiwar activists stopped showing up at public demonstrations? Or was the absence of organizational leadership the culprit? Our evidence suggests that the declining magnitude of antiwar protests during the 2007–2008 period was in large part, if not entirely, due to decreased interest among individual activists. If anything, the major organizations and coalitions intensified their mobilization efforts in 2007–2008, reflecting their access to financial and human resources accumulated over the past few years. The institutionalized movement persisted in its opposition in 2007–2008, even in the face of declining interest among its mass constituency. Still, decisions by organizational leaders had a greater hand in the movement’s decline in 2009–2010 than they had in the earlier period.”

I’m not convinced. I have no doubt that public sentiment, and in particular political partisanship, was hugely important. But organizations that have been corrupted by closeness to power don’t advertise their shifts in position. They “poll” their members and declare themselves “member-run.” The most common comment on antiwar conference calls in 2008 was “People are too busy with the election.” Were they? Some were, some weren’t. The question wasn’t really tested. The most common comment on antiwar conference calls in 2009 was “It’s too early to be seen as protesting Obama.” Was it? That wasn’t tested either, but it seems easier to answer in retrospect. We’re more ready to say that in fact we shouldn’t have hacked our own legs off at the knees and transformed into a collective Nobel Committee handing out magical prizes. We should have demanded peace if we thought it likely, and we should have demanded peace if we thought it unlikely. In fact, Obama supporters frequently quoted him telling us to go out there and make him do it, even while advocating against going out there and making him do it. The fact that we’d already gone relatively silent in 2007-2008 tends to get forgotten.

Heaney and Rojas deal in actual views of numerous actual people. So there are no imaginary master plots of deception involved. The idea is not that everyone who turned out to march in February 2003 was actually indifferent to war but using the war as an excuse to protest Bush. Rather, protesting both war and Bush were desirable to many. Then, Heaney and Rojas, argue, protesting war became less important than demanding healthcare.

I think a couple of points are worth adding some emphasis on, however, that may darken the picture slightly. When the Democrats took Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, it became necessary in protesting war to protest Democrats. That, in fact, was a worse fate in a lot of people’s minds than accepting war. Democratic politicians do not typically try to be antiwar. They just work to be seen as less pro-war than Republicans (although many exceptions don’t even do that). In addition, Democratic politicians pretend to favor things when they are out of power. In 2005 and early 2006, numerous Democrats in Congress were making commitments to end the war in Iraq. But by 2007, with the majority and the chairmanships in the House, 81 Representatives felt obliged to sign a letter committing to not fund more war just prior to, almost all of them, voting to fund more war. The activists who let them get away with that before moving onto healthcare were organized by groups that took direction from those very Democrats. They were forbidden to have signs reading “Single Payer” at their rallies or to advocate for anything not already in the legislation. It was a completely inverted relationship with public servants telling constituents what to demand of them. And now, with the Democrats back in the minority, they’re starting to make noises about favoring progressive taxation and all sorts of things they stayed away from while in the majority.

Is all of this inevitable? I’m afraid the scholarly apparatus of scientistic studies tends to suggest it. Here are Heaney and Rojas: “The greater the size of the party in the street, the more likely a movement is to evolve toward using institutionally based political tactics. The smaller the size of the party in the street, the less likely a movement is to evolve toward using institutionally based political tactics.” In other words, if you start to build numbers of people involved, they will move into lobbying and electioneering rather than nonviolent resistance or creative communication. Given that inevitability, the one thing that might seem unnecessary would be urging movements to make that turn voluntarily. Yet Heaney and Rojas have this advice for Occupy:

“A first step for the Occupy movement might be to recognize that many of its supporters and potential supporters identify with the Democratic Party. By taking such a strong stand against the Democratic Party, Occupy cuts itself off from a key part of its support base. Instead, the movement might look for ways to recognize and incorporate the intersectional identity of ‘Occupy Democrats.’ A second step might be to inaugurate some institutional structures within Occupy. These structures might help to raise funds, employ staff, and regularize communication with Occupy supporters. While this suggestion is somewhat counter to the nonhierarchical ethos of Occupy, some minimal level of organization may be necessary to make any systematic progress toward the movement’s long-term policy goals. A third step might be to forge alliances with genuine allies in the progressive community. While it may be that alliances with the Democrats and MoveOn are untenable, perhaps Occupy could partner with the Green Party and other political organizations whose agendas are not incommensurate with Occupy’s vision.”

Weighing against that advice is evidence in this very book that a mere generation back the laws of movement politics were different:

“Public opinion was polarized according to party to a much greater degree during the 2000s than was the case during the Vietnam War era (Hetherington 2009, p. 442). Polarization was highly consequential in the formation of public opinion on the war. As Gary Jacobson (2010, p. 31) notes, ‘the Iraq war has divided the American public along party lines far more than any other US military action since the advent of scientific polling back in the 1930s.’ Americans often took their cues about how to make sense of developments in Iraq from their partisan identifications (Gelpi 2010). We argue that, as a result, the rhythms of the antiwar movement after 9/11 were driven by partisanship much more than was the case during the Vietnam antiwar movement.”

Now, I am not proposing that we can turn back time. I have enough respect for laws of physics to discount that alternative. Heaney and Rojas cite the youth of the Vietnam-era movement as one possible factor weighing against partisanship. Clearly a draft is not the only possible way to involve youth in a movement. The contrast between war making nations with student debt and peaceful nations with free education is one possible lever. Another is education in exactly the field Heaney and Rojas have mastered. Surely if everyone in the country read this book its conclusions would be thereby rendered wildly wrong — and in a good way. If people recognize that their partisanship is hurting the causes they support, they will surely begin to question in. I’d like to see research similar to Party in the Street but focused on those who move away from partisanship: what enables them to do that?

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