Not Just Anti-War, But Pro-Democracy

“The antiwar comedy ‘Lysistrata’ — in which women withhold their favors to secure peace — received more than a thousand readings yesterday in 59 countries, all 50 states and Washington” reported the March 4, New York Times. One thousand. In every state of the union, and worldwide. This is not the familiar face of American politics. This suggests a Havelian joy, the heady stuff of participation, of democracy in unexpected forms breaking out all over. The Times barely covered the productions. The paper of record obviously hasn’t caught on to what the White House is already smelling and fearing: that the nature of politics itself is being changed by the Iraq crisis.

Changed from what? Since the end of the Vietnam War, progressive organizing in the United States had increasingly located itself by issue and identity. Millions of us signed up as environmentalists, feminists, or with a host of other ists and isms, advancing this issue or that, often to significant ends. The advantage of the siloing of political energy and focus has been an undeniable raising of political consciousness. Rights advanced. Water and air quality improved. But along the way, advocacy became professionalized. We left the hard work of change to lawyers and public interest professionals, fine people all. Membership was reduced to an annual check-writing ritual, advocacy to a bumper sticker. Participation, the showing up and risking parts of activism, declined, appearing only on the noble fringes of issues, as with the courageous young in Seattle or the rare Wellstone-type political campaign. Our collective sense of urgency and determination as well as the joy factor, so essential to oppositional politics, declined… Until Iraq. Until now.

The psychological confusion which followed September 11 left many progressives unable to respond to the Bush administration’s agenda. We, like all Americans, ached for the loss of life and for the lost illusion of security. We felt ourselves to be on the edge of an era of blind fear, apparently overwhelmed and certainly dispirited, ready to be patriotic if powerless. Then George W. Bush mis-stepped, putting himself directly in the path of a new generation with new ways of thinking and organizing.

For the President, the unforeseen, under-the-radar-screen factor turned out to be an organization so tiny — two full-time employees and one on three-quarters time — that he might be forgiven for not noticing. Its name was MoveOn. Created in 1998 to lobby Congress to move beyond the distraction of the proposed Clinton impeachment, MoveOn moved on, creating modest call-in and petition campaigns on a variety of issues. But in the late summer of 2002, its twenty-one year old staffer Eli Pariser converted their internet based, electronic “constituency” into an embodied and emboldened force. This action personalized the power of the ether. Congress realized that the passion of the MoveOn constituency could be translated into direct action, and therefore votes. Speaking in a language that both parties understand, MoveOn stimulated its growing cadre to show up and give where they had previously only spoken.

Soon, not a few, not hundreds, but thousands of MoveOn electronic petition signers were turning out at Congressional offices to protest Bush’s threatened invasion of Iraq. After the Congressional vote that essentially authorized an Iraqi war, MoveOn succeeded in raising $4.5 million dollars in less than a week to support the few brave members of Congress who had risked reelection by voting against the President. This galvanized the ever-dedicated peace movement, including such consistent resisters as the American Friends Service Committee and Peace Action. Suddenly there was a new ally, cooperative and generative, bringing new people, a new sense of possibility and new energy to the work.

In October, ANSWER, an historically sectarian organization, did everyone a favor by securing the permits for a Washington D.C. demonstration against the threatened war. Peace and justice groups, both national and local, wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to witness their opposition, joined ANSWER in spite of their ideological differences. MoveOn, its membership in a brief few months having mounted to a staggering half-million, summoned them to participate and many responded. The result was a turnout that made the media blink, if not stare. Wanting to maintain and build on the march’s momentum while distinguishing their politics from those of ANSWER, more than eighty groups formed a network called United for Peace and Justice. They agreed to coordinate actions and messaging through a shared website and regular steering group conversations.

The same day, leaders from a group of national organizations agreed that there was an opportunity to make a majoritarian case against the impending war with Iraq by linking it to the administration’s growing domestic wars against civil liberties and the budget. Their agreement to work together evolved into the Win Without War Coalition. Since then, numerous other formations have weighed in — associations of actors (a la “Lysistrata”), musicians, poets, students, labor activists, city councils — catalyzed into action by the prospect of war. Working collegially, the groups have made the whole feel even greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. And the sum continues to grow.

Since November, the capacity to work together has been enhanced by that rare balm: success. Old factors and new have combined into an alchemy that defies historical comparison and conventional analysis. Peace, labor, church and humanitarian groups have found an energy that has inspired their members to brave the winter cold as they swell weekly vigils from coast to coast. Lacking leadership from a largely cowed Democratic Party, citizens themselves are taking on the business of making their voices heard, of creating democracy in action.

Grasping the connections between the Bush international and domestic agendas, major national membership groups, such as the NAACP, NOW, and, most stunningly, the AFL-CIO (never previously a public partner to the peace movement), joined side-by-side in producing a plethora of anti-invasion ads, petitions and public letters. This broad multi-constituency engagement shocked and challenged the policy elite, fostering a new level of commentary and debate in their media.

The sheer numbers of demonstrators and actions and letters to the editor have also commanded the attention, and occasionally even the respect of the media. The administration, mindful of the growing cross-section of Americans represented by the opposition, has been politically dismissive but rhetorically respectful of the antiwar movement. They believe that the day we invade, the protestors will be diminished by a rush of patriotism engendered by TV coverage of rockets and bluster. They are wrong.

There is a big story still to be told from these last six months of remarkable response to a war not yet begun. It is that the voice rising is addressing a different aspect of our patriotism — the patriotism of determined participation that we call democracy. It will not dissolve the day we invade Iraq, nor will it dissipate from inertia if we postpone this war. What is bursting out all over is not merely an anti-war movement. It is a genuine, homegrown democracy movement defined by citizenry in action, not by polls or pundits, and led by one another. This movement is coming into its own, as so many of us continue to unite across issue and identity boundaries, witnessing for a vision of security based on the rule of law (our endangered constitution, international treaties and courts), an open society, and support for human and environmental needs. We rising millions will not have to resort to Lysistrata’s wily strategy. Instead, we will vote.

HARRIET BARLOW is an organizing lifer. She has worked on every major progressive issue since the Civil Rights Movement. She is the co-founder of the Blue Mountain Center, a gathering place for organizers, activists and cultural workers.