The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happened to the antiwar movement?

According to Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas in their new book, “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11,” the antiwar movement never recovered from two serious blows: the election of a Democratic Congress in 2006 and the election of a Democratic president in 2008.

The change in power in Washington managed to knock out the antiwar movement without knocking out the war itself:

This graph from Heaney and Rojas might not be the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen but it gets the point across.

What happened in 2006 and 2008? Heaney and Rojas give three explanations:

1. Many participants in the antiwar movement (people who went to rallies or gave money or were involved in some other way) were Democrats, and once they saw Democrats in power they felt the job was done, and that a Democratic-led government would end the war without such a need for outside pressure.

2. Many leaders of the antiwar movement were Democrats and were not well positioned or strongly inclined to battle with those Democrats in government who were continuing the war.

3. The antiwar movement didn’t have the steady supply of money that would be needed to organize and finance large rallies, D.C. lobbying, and primary election challenges.

One implication that you might draw from the above story is that the antiwar movement was too closely tied to the Democratic Party and that it would’ve been better to have more of an independent identity. But Heaney and Rojas do not make this claim; indeed their research suggests the opposite. In addition to following the antiwar movement, Heaney and Rojas discuss and compare to two other recent mass movements in recent U.S. politics: the tea party and Occupy Wall Street.

Of these three movements, it would be fair to say that the tea party has had the most success (even though it has never been as large as the anti-war movement was at its height). And, of these three movements, the tea party is the one that is closest to an existing political party. Indeed, at this point the tea party could probably best be described as a wing of the Republican Party. The antiwar movement was more distant from the Democratic Party, and Occupy Wall Street was even more distant from electoral politics.

So, the message of this book is that partisan politics can make or break a political protest organization, and that a social movement in the United States will struggle if it tries to go against the grain of existing divides between Democrats and Republicans. Political parties: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

From a methods standpoint, I liked how the book mixed qualitative and quantitative evidence. The only place it seemed weak–and this weakness occurs in many treatments of politics, including much of my own work–is in its glancing treatment of money in politics. It is perhaps no surprise that the Tea Party found ample funding from some rich people, given that one of its central goals is to keep down taxes on the rich. Raising funds for an antiwar or anti-corporate movement proved to be more of a challenge (in the words of Heaney and Rojas, “the antiwar movement had few financial resources and ran on a shoestring budget”). Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has needed to keep an eye on wealthy individuals and corporations (not just labor unions) to keep itself going. These financial imperatives formed much of the background to the individual choices that are detailed in this book.

As Heaney and Rojas write in their conclusion:

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago, Americans are “forever forming associations.” Associating is a key way that they address problems and pursue their aspirations. Their associations are wide and multiple. Yet the way that associations affect one another – how they influence the behavior of political actors – is still ill understood. This book illuminates the consequences of party-movement intersections in one political context, but a multitude of other overlapping affiliations that shape the dynamics of American politics remain unexplored.