Peace Nixed

Antiwar movement retreats


In October 2002, Barack Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, addressed a Chicago rally against the proposed invasion of Iraq. The young politician denounced the "dumb" and "rash" war as a "cynical attempt by…armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."

Today President Obama is commander in chief of that same dumb war, which he shows little interest in winding down. But while the change in Obama is notable, it's not as striking as the change among his ardent antiwar supporters. A new study in the political quarterly Mobilization suggests that the election of Obama in 2008 dealt the left-wing antiwar movement a blow more severe than anything Karl Rove could have cooked up.

"The Democrats and the antiwar movement struck a useful alliance from 2003 to 2006," write the University of Michigan political scientist Michael T. Heaney and the Indiana University sociologist Fabio Rojas. "By early 2009, however, it was abundantly clear that Democrats were no longer interested in this alliance." That includes not just Democratic politicians such as Obama and members of Congress but activists in the street-level movement. 

In "Partisan Dynamics of Contention: Demobilization of the Antiwar Movement In the United States, 2007–2009," Heaney and Rojas analyze surveys of 5,400 demonstrators at 27 protests in Washington, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities. While self-identified Democrats represented up to 54 percent of the total crowd at events during the last two years of the Bush administration, they accounted for only 19 percent in November 2009.

While they mention the increasingly Republican-leaning Tea Party groups only in passing, Heaney and Rojas conclude with a warning for members of any movement with a strong major-party character: "Leading activists within a movement may be largely issue-focused, but if rank-and-file activists have strong partisan identities, then the fate of movements may become linked to parties in ways that their leaders fail to foresee."