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The Peace Movement and Electoral Politics

Although the U.S. peace movement has been on the wane for about a decade, it remains a viable force in American life.  Organizations like Peace Action, the American Friends Service CommitteePhysicians for Social Responsibility, the Fellowship of ReconciliationJewish Voice for Peace, and numerous others have significant memberships, seasoned staff, and enough financial resources to sustain their agitation in communities around the country.  If they currently lack the power to mobilize the mass demonstrations that characterized some of their past struggles, they continue to educate Americans about the dangers of militarism and influence a portion of Congress.

Even as the movement declined during the Obama presidential years, it managed to eke out some occasional victories, most notably a treaty (New START) reducing the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, modest cutbacks in the U.S. military budget, the Iran nuclear deal, and the normalization of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

But the total takeover of the U.S. government by the Republican Party, occasioned by the GOP sweep in the 2016 elections, has produced a disaster for the peace movement―and for anyone concerned about building a peaceful world.  In less than a year in office, the Trump administration has escalated U.S. military intervention across the globe, secured a massive increase in U.S. military spending, issued reckless threats of war (including nuclear war) against North Korea, and forged close partnerships with some of the world’s most repressive regimes.  Nor is the peace movement growing significantly in response to this disaster―probably because progressive activists, the peace movement’s major constituency, are so overwhelmed by the government’s sweeping rightwing assault that they are preoccupied with desperately defending social and economic justice, civil liberties, and environmental sustainability.

As long as this situation continues, it seems unlikely that the peace movement is going to win many victories.  With hawkish, rightwing Republicans controlling the federal government, the peace movement’s educational campaigns, small-scale demonstrations, and Congressional lobbying will probably have little effect on U.S. public policy.

But there is a promising way to change the federal government.  A likely outcome of the November 2018 Congressional elections is that the Republicans will retain control of the U.S. Senate, thanks to the large number of Democratic incumbents running for the 33 contested seats.  Even so, the Democrats have a good chance to retake control of the House of Representatives, where every seat is up for grabs.  For more than six months, generic ballot polls about the House elections have shown Democrats with a lead ranging between 8-12 points over their Republican opponents.  Many analysts believe that this significant a lead will produce a “wave election”―one that will sweep the Democrats into power.  And with one branch of Congress in the hands of the Democrats, U.S. foreign and military policy could shift substantially.

Would it, though?  After all, despite significant differences with the GOP on domestic policy, aren’t Congressional Democrats just as hawkish as the Republicans on foreign and military policy?

There are numerous indications that they are not.  Although, in some cases during the Trump era, Congressional Democrats have joined their Republican counterparts in voting for hawkish legislation, representatives from the two parties have diverged dramatically on key foreign and military policy issues.  In July 2017, the House took up a bill reducing U.S. government spending on nuclear nonproliferation programs but increasing spending on nuclear weapons programs by 10.7 percent.  The bill passed by a vote of 235 to 192, with only five Democrats voting for it and only five Republicans voting against it.  Similarly, in October 2017, when the House voted on the People’s Budget―a measure drawn up by the Congressional Progressive Caucus that boosted social spending and cut military spending―Democratic members of the House supported it by a vote of 108 to 79.  By contrast, the Republican vote on it was zero in favor and 235 opposed.

Sharp party divisions on foreign and military policy have also occurred in the U.S. Senate, with the most dramatic of them focused on a proposal to repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force―a loose measure, passed in 2001, that has been used subsequently by U.S. Presidents to justify 37 U.S. military operations in 14 countries.  Coming to a vote in September 2017, the proposal to repeal the Authorization was defeated, 61 to 36.  Only three Republicans (out of 52) voted for repeal.  But repeal was supported by 31 Democrats (out of 46) and two Independents.

With the 2018 Congressional elections occurring in less than a year, the peace movement has the opportunity to enhance its leverage over U.S. public policy by helping to flip the House to Democratic control.  In addition, playing a role in the election campaign would strengthen the movement’s ties with progressive organizations, which, horrified by the rightwing onslaught, will be working zealously toward that same goal.  At the least, peace and progressive activists should be able to unite behind the provisions of the People’s Budget―cutting military programs and increasing spending on public education, health, and welfare.

But how can the peace movement become an effective player in the 2018 Congressional election campaign, supporting peace-oriented Democrats against their hawkish Republican (and sometimes hawkish Democratic) opponents?  Some groups, like the Council for a Livable World, Peace Action, and Progressive Democrats of America, already raise money for peace candidates in Democratic primaries and general elections.  Others could do so as well.  Also, to make their support more visible to politicians, peace groups could play a more prominent role in election campaigns―volunteering to distribute flyers on specific dates, staff phone banks for specific periods, and engage in door-to-door canvassing at specific times.

Of course, the peace movement need not drop all its other activities.  But the 2018 elections do offer it a particularly useful opportunity to help steer the U.S. government away from militarism and war.

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Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.)

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