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The Vietnam war was finally ended when the House of Representatives voted to cut off money for the war. The antiwar movement ought to take the lessons to heart. Will the present House do that? Not a chance. There are simply too many hawks, both Republican and Democrats. We need to start organizing now to punish pro-war politicians at the ballot box in 2006. The war will still be around in 2006, never fear. Until we stop it.
That means forming an antiwar coalition in each Congressional district. The goal is to make the war a public issue, to make a big public stink about the war. Prowar politicians want the war to go away as an issue. They hope that nobody bothers them about their pro-war vote. They simply want to be left alone. They count on public apathy or resignation: in most Congressional offices, if they get 10 letters on a topic in one week, they think the sky has fallen.
This means getting votes against the war from city councils, county board of supervisors, labor unions, and community organizations. Before the war started in 2003, the peace movement was very successful in getting these advisory votes. The votes themselves have little or no legal force, but in the process of campaigning for the vote, it allows us to make our arguments. And it raises the war as an issue, which the hawks would rather forget about.
It means focusing on our existing Congressional representatives: Petitioning them, letter-writing campaigns, raising the issue during Congressional visits to their home districts, and going to their offices on Capitol Hill. It also means large public demonstrations, both national demonstrations and local demonstrations. There are plenty of non-electoral work to do before the 2004 elections.
But lobbying the existing officeholders is not enough. We need to recruit candidates to run against the existing officeholders. We need to punish pro-war politicians at the ballot box.
A decision has to be made about the best way to defeat pro-war politicians: In the primary election? Or in the general election? The best approach will vary from one district to another. In the primary election, there is often a low turnout, so a small number of activists can have a bigger impact.
In a safe Democratic district, the primary election IS the election. Pro-war Democrats could be especially vulnerable, because the Democratic Party activists are often anti-war. A poll at the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004 found 95% of the delegates opposed to the war.
What about Republicans? There are enough Republicans (and enough rotten Democrats) that a successful antiwar campaign has to be nonpartisan. In the 1960’s, Pete McCloskey ran for Congress as a maverick antiwar Republican and won. In most of Utah, it makes sense to run an antiwar Mormon in the Republican primary. In a safe Republican district, often the Democratic nomination goes begging. We can put one of our candidates on the ballot in the general election as a Democrat, but I donít know if we can win. It might make more sense to also put up a Libertarian candidate in the Republican primary, in order to wound the incumbent in the primary.
We might win: in 1982, Lane Evans, a liberal Democrat and former antipoverty lawyer, ran for Congress in an Illinois district that had voted Republican since the days of Lincoln. He won, and heís still there nearly a quarter of a century later.
I have focused on the House, not the Senate, because only 1/3 of the Senate is up for re-election at each election, while 100% of the House is up for re-election. Also an antiwar campaign with lots of volunteers but less money than the pro-war forces has a bigger impact on a House race than on a Senate race.
Four practical questions:
Can we raise enough money? Can we recruit the candidates for office? Can we recruit the volunteers for the campaign? And what about the media?
Can we raise the money? In 2003, the peace movement put 3 million people on the streets in opposition to the war. If each person at the demonstration gave $30, that would be $90 million. If we run antiwar candidates in every Congressional district, that would be over $200,000 per district. And $200,000 and a lot of volunteers, and a important message, ought to be enough to wage a very credible campaign in every district. If each person of the 3 million raised $300, we would have $900 million, or over $2M per Congressional district. We may not actually have to run campaigns in absolutely every district, but it would be wonderful if we could threaten to do so.
Can we recruit the volunteers for the campaign? In 2004, grassroots organizations did a good job in turning out volunteers for even a lackluster candidate like Kerry, a man without a message. Imagine how much easier it would be to recruit volunteers to campaign for a candidate with a real message! Can we recruit credible candidates for office? Thatís not easy. Even a political party as well organized and as well financed as the Republicans, its not easy: they could not find a credible candidate for US Senate against Barak Obama. Instead of holding our noses and voting for a hawk, letís get one of our own people to run. We better start now.
What about the media? The media can be very important in forming public opinion. On the war issue, the mainstream media has covered itself with shame, repeating two discredited pro-war myths: Iraqís mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction, the bogus Saddam/Al Quaeda link. Even so, the people are ahead of the official media: at present, about half the country is opposed to the war. We hardly have half the newspapers or television networks opposed the war. We need to attack the mainstream media for their biased coverage. Already their credibility is quite low, as even members of the media Establishment sometimes admit. We need to support worthy alternative media such as CounterPunch. We ought to follow up the very important work of Bob McChesney and his colleagues at www.freepress.net, who are holding an important convention on media reform in St. Louis in May 13-15.
As a wonderful example of what NOT to do, consider the Kerry campaign. Kerry supported the war, and his campaign spurned the antiwar movement. At rallies, his people took down the antiwar signs. Kerry had the opportunity to turn the Democratic Convention into an antiwar rally, but chose not to do so. His whole ìmessageî was that he would somehow manage the war more competently than Bush. That didnít sell. The antiwar movement wasted a lot of time and money and effort in backing a hawk.
We ought to learn from the example of successful lobbies: the anti-abortion lobby, the National Rifle Association, and the Israel lobby. Each lobby can make or break a campaign, by influencing (say) 10-15% of the vote. These lobbies succeed by making their issue a bottom-line issue. That means that if a politician vote against their issue, the lobby will target the politician for defeat. In this case, our strategic objective ought to be: cut off funds for the Iraq war. Any politician who votes for to fund the war will be targeted for defeat.
One big advantage that the peace movement has is that its supporters are more motivated than supporters of the war. How many pro-war demonstrations have there been? Hardly any, and they have been tiny. Weíre closer already than the hawks in making our issue a bottom-line issue.
The true number one issue of politicians is to get re-elected. When confronted by demands to cut off funds for the war, they naturally ask, ìwhatís going to happen if I donít do it?î If the answer is ìnot much,î then most of them simply wonít do it. If we can build an antiwar movement with clout, the answer will be: ìif you donít vote to cut off funds for the war, youíre going to lose your job. Unemployment in your district is going to increase by one.î That will most definitely get their attention.
If the antiwar movement can put together a credible antiwar campaign in all or most Congressional Districts, and if the elections of 2006 see the ousting of, say, 50-100 prowar Congressional representatives, that will put a hell of a scare into the rest of them, including the most spineless opportunists in Congress. This kind of campaign, combining non-electoral and electoral work, is what finally ended the Vietnam war. We did it before, and we can do it again.
John W. Farley writes from Henderson, Nevada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org