Under Protest

Have you noticed all the huge antiwar demonstrations in the last twelve months?  Yeah, me neither.  It turns out that a lot of the energy for the movement seems to have been provided by Democrats who are a lot less worried about wars conducted by Democratic presidents.  Or at least who believe that advancing the Democratic agenda is much more important than trying to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is by no means the whole movement--but it was enough that once a Democrat took office, both the numbers at the demonstrations, and the organizational capacity of the movement as a whole, dwindled away to near-nothingness.

Scott McLemee meditates on what this means:

At this point it seems worth mentioning an insight by another friend whose education in such matters took place in the laboratory of the 1960s. For many years, he said, being engaged in antiwar activism or civil rights work meant going to events where, after a while, you were able to recognize almost everybody. Then one day he attended a demonstration and saw that something had changed. There were some familiar faces, but he had no idea who most of the people were.

"That's how you know that the cause has actually become a movement," he said. "You look around and see a lot of new faces. It's no longer just the usual suspects."

What H&R describe in their paper is, in effect, the film running in reverse. Beyond a certain point, fragmentation becomes self-reinforcing. I wondered about the implications of H&R's work for what now remains the antiwar movement. Was there anything in their analysis that would suggest the possibility of its revival, on a broader basis, in the immediate future? Could it happen with Obama still in office? Or would it take the "perceived threat" of a Republican president?

I wrote Heaney to ask. His short answer was, simply, no -- the chances of a major revival in the short term are slim. The more nuanced version of his response went somewhat beyond my question, though, and seems of interest:

"As long as voters remain highly polarized along party lines," he responded by e-mail, "self-identified Democrats are unlikely to protest against Obama's policies, even if they disagree with some of them strongly. A sudden end to the era of partisan polarization seems highly unlikely. So I would say that it is a very good bet that Obama will not confront large left-wing demonstrations. Of course, LBJ faced large left-wing demonstrations, but the party system was not polarized back then in the way that it is today."

The same dynamics apply to the Tea Party: "Our analysis implies that the Tea Party will have a lower degree of organization and success in 2012 than it did in 2010. Because the Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate, Tea Party activists feel much less threatened today than they did a year ago. So, while the Tea Party will obviously be around in 2012 -- and it will likely factor into the Republican presidential contest -- our analysis suggests that the Tea Party will not generate the same level of enthusiasm next year as it did last year."

McLemee goes on to rue this tendency and reaffirm his own committment.  But that won't improve the dwindling numbers--or help the toxic effect that this has had on an already toxic political polarization.  During the heyday of the protests, Republicans complained that they were less about the war, or policy in general, and more about raw partisanship.  The rapid turnaround has now given support to their belief--just as Democrats will be furious if the Tea Parties turn into GOP lapdogs.

Overall, this work seems to hold out pretty dismal hopes for the transformative power of mass movements, at least when partisanship is high.  Movements that lose steam whenever the White House changes hands are unlikely to effect any lasting change.  For one thing, it means that the protests are exclusively targeted at people who are very unlikely to care (because the people at the protests are, by and large, the people who would never vote for them anyway.)  And a presidency--or what's left of it--is a pretty short time to achieve meaningful shifts in policy.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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