Rebuilding the Anti-War Movement

With Iraq under martial law and a full-scale assault on Fallujah under way, the anti-war movement is struggling to re-mobilize in response to this looming catastrophe. On a parallel track, the left continues to dissect and debate the meaning and reasons for Kerry’s loss, but there are multiple lessons for the anti-war movement lurking within the election debacle. Two camps of explanation have emerged from the debris: one says that Kerry’s loss shows just how conservative the church-going American heartland is, while the other argues that, even though they advocated a vote for him, Kerry’s pro-war, pro-corporate, pro-NAFTA, pro-Patriot Act record alienated the “base” of the Democratic Party. The result, the second camp says, is that this Democratic Leadership Council controlled campaign resulted in mediocre turnout among young voters and people of color, as opposed to the enthusiastic rush to the polls of bigoted evangelical Christians.

But the truth is more complex than either of these scenarios. On the one hand, it is true that Kerry provided little incentive for people against the war, concerned about racism or about their job security to go to the polls. However, the silence of the movements–against the war, for gay marriage, against attacks on Arabs and Muslims–contributed to an extremely narrow, conservative political framework defined primarily by two pro-war, pro-Patriot Act, anti-gay marriage politicians, which then had an impact on popular consciousness. For the anti-war movement in particular, we must take stock of how our virtual silence contributed to this rightwing political atmosphere. And in figuring out where to go from here, the failed Kerry strategy of forever chasing the (real or imagined) center-right middle class suburban swing voter holds vital lessons for how to rebuild anti-war consciousness and activity in the US.

The bulk of the anti-war movement made the decision that ending the occupation under Kerry would be easier than under Bush and so focused their efforts on the election. The result, with the exception of the anti-Bush rally at the RNC in August, was little visible anti-war activity in the US for the past 6 months. Even in the face of the exposure of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, the siege of Fallujah, Samarra and Sadr City, the torture in Abu Ghraib, and the mounting civilian and US soldier casualties, the once mighty anti-war movement–the New York Time’s second super-power – remained quiet.

In the effort to bring the anti-war movement to the polls, there were two major problems. One was that the candidate himself was pro-war. Equally significant, however, was the conception that the movement could maintain its political momentum and hold on public opinion even if it left the public stage. While the crises faced by the Bush Administration in Iraq did damage to their case for war, they were nonetheless able to repeatedly recover their footing and push ahead. Although the Iraqi resistance continued to threaten them, there was no venue for opposition in the US to add to the pressure.

The result was that anti-war sentiment was funneled into a campaign that only began a mild criticism of the war in Iraq in the final stretch, after Kerry’s post-RNC collapse in the polls. But the political damage was really only about to begin. As Bush went on the offensive to defend his foreign policy, Kerry countered by criticizing the way the war in Iraq was conducted. But in connecting with people’s doubts and objections to the war, he then argued for a strengthening of the occupation and more resources put into the War on Terror.

It can be argued without much difficulty that Kerry’s campaign in fact strengthened support for the War on Terror and damaged arguments for immediate withdrawal from Iraq. This was only magnified by the fact that the anti-war movement had no independent public voice with which it could put forward actual anti-war arguments. The so-called anti-war candidate could talk about hunting down and killing the terrorists and victory in Iraq, while the anti-war movement had no way to counter this or the equally virulent defense of the war in Iraq coming from Bush. And even more tragically, this all played out as events in Iraq were opening huge avenues of thought and deliberation in the minds of Americans, as the resistance in Iraq made “victory” less sure and American soldiers paid the price.

But there was no way to engage in this deeply ideological battle in one of the most politically engaged election seasons in recent memory. So instead of using this opportunity to gain political ground and reach more people, the anti-war movement actually slipped backwards. Many had argued in the run-up to the election that we should not counter pose voting for Kerry and building the movement, that in fact we could do both, and further, that the election could help to mobilize the movement. But the reality was, as it has been so many times before in the history of social movements and the Democratic Party, that it was a choice, and the movement chose voting for Kerry over building its own forces. With no platform from which to speak, the pro-war candidate replaced the movement as the “liberal” position on the war. And so as the city of Fallujah faces a widely advertised slaughter, the movement is scrambling to respond.

The movement can, of course, be rebuilt. The reality of the human and financial costs of the occupation of Iraq is the fertile ground of movement building. But we are now faced with the question of how to re-group and re-build. There are many individuals and organizations proposing creative and urgent actions, but there is an overall question of strategy to be faced as well.

There are those in the movement who, even before the Bush victory, were proposing a moderation of demands. The argument was that, while many people in the US think the war in Iraq was a mistake and have misgivings about the occupation, calling for immediate withdrawal is an unrealistic demand which loses a mainstream audience. Instead, we should propose a “practical” plan for withdrawal that people can support, a phased withdrawal over 4-6 months that more Americans can “be more comfortable” with.

But the disastrous Kerry campaign holds more than a few lessons for our would-be mass movements. As Kerry reached further and further to the right to touch the so-called swing voters, Bush presented a hard, pro-war conservative position, mobilized his base, and won a layer of former Democratic voters as well (of those who voted, 44% of Latinos, 36% of union members, 42% of those earning $15-30,000 voted for Bush). Never wavering, and putting forward a coherent rightwing platform, Bush clearly had a plan, while Kerry was left to try to convince people that he had one (which he repeated, unconvincingly, like a bleating goat in every debate).

The anti-war movement should not repeat this mistake. Rather than contorting ourselves for some imagined “Middle America,” the anti-war movement needs to raise its demands with more force, vigor and confidence. Mobilizing our base is the first step in this process–even if you believe the lowest polls, over a third of US adults think the troops should come home now, and 70 million people is nothing to walk away from. From that base, we can make the case for immediate withdrawal, and win wider layers of people to that position. At the end of the day, we must convince people that it is the occupation itself which is making the country unsafe, unjust, and undemocratic. If we do not win this basic argument, the phased withdrawal will become an ever-receding goal in the future. What is to say the “security” situation will be different in 3 months? Won’t the argument then be that the US needs to stay a little longer until things are stabilized? The lesson of the Kerry campaign is that if we don’t fight for a position, we will never win it. And worse, by not fighting, we allow the political spectrum to slip further and further to the right (witness the disastrous passage of state gay marriage bans)

The Bush Administration has successfully linked the War on Terror to the war in Iraq (a majority of Americans now see them as connected) and so even if for this reason alone, we must also go after the legitimacy of the War on Terror. If we do not, Bush will take this “political capital” (which Kerry helped him to consolidate) and spend it on greater atrocities in Iraq or in some place like Iran.

The greatest asset of the anti-war movement is that reality is on our side, but it is up to us to marshal it in a convincing and compelling way. If we want to connect with the imagined heartland and with the millions of young people, working class people and people of color who stayed home on Election Day, there is no better way than to expose the class and racial divide of this war. Who is dying? Who is fighting? Who is paying for this war? And would we tolerate an occupation of Texas by some other country because of Bush’s crimes against humanity?

Frederick Douglass’s words have never served us better: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Meredith Kolodner is an activist in New York City and a contributor to the International Socialist Review. She can be reached at merkol88@hotmail.com


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