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Rebuilding the antiwar movement

November 19, 2004 | Pages 8 and 9

WITH IRAQ under martial law and a full-scale assault on Falluja under way, the antiwar movement is struggling to remobilize in response to this looming catastrophe. On a parallel track, the left continues to dissect and debate the meaning and reasons for John Kerry's loss. MEREDITH KOLODNER argues that there are multiple lessons for the antiwar movement lurking within the election debacle.

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TWO CAMPS of explanation have emerged from the debris of George Bush's victory in the presidential election.

One says that John Kerry's loss shows just how conservative the churchgoing American heartland is. The other argues--even though they advocated a vote for him--that Kerry's pro-war, pro-corporate, pro-NAFTA, pro-USA 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, or 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 antiwar movement, in particular, we must take stock of how our virtual silence contributed to this right-wing 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 antiwar consciousness and activity in the U.S.

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THE BULK of the antiwar movement made the decision that ending the occupation under Kerry would be easier than under Bush, and so focused its effort on the elections. The result, with the exception of the anti-Bush rally at the Republican National Convention in August, was little visible antiwar activity in the U.S. for the past six months.

Even in the face of the exposure of the lack of weapons of mass destruction; the siege of Falluja, Samarra and Sadr City; the torture in Abu Ghraib; and mounting civilian and U.S. soldier casualties; the once mighty antiwar movement--which the New York Times called the world's "second superpower"--remained quiet.

In the effort to bring the antiwar 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 its case for war, it was nonetheless able to repeatedly recover its footing and push ahead. Although the Iraqi resistance continued to be a threat, there was no venue for opposition in the U.S. to add to the pressure.

The result was that antiwar 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-Republican National Convention 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 antiwar movement had no independent public voice with which it could put forward actual antiwar arguments. The so-called antiwar candidate could talk about hunting down and killing the terrorists or how to win in Iraq, while the antiwar movement had no way to counter this--or the equally virulent defense of the war 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 antiwar movement actually slipped backwards.

Many had argued in the run-up to the election that we should not counterpose 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.

The pro-war candidate replaced the movement as the "liberal" position on the war. And so as the city of Falluja is facing a widely advertised slaughter, the movement is scrambling to respond.

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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 regroup and rebuild. 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 U.S. think the war in Iraq was a mistake and have misgivings about the occupation, calling for immediate withdrawal is an unrealistic demand that loses a mainstream audience. Instead, we should propose a "practical" plan for withdrawal that people can support--a phased withdrawal over four to six 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 percent of Latinos, 36 percent of union members, 42 percent of those earning $15,000 to $30,000 chose Bush). Never wavering and putting forward a coherent right-wing 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 antiwar movement should not repeat this mistake. Rather than contorting ourselves for some imagined "Middle America," the antiwar 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 poll statistics, over a third of U.S. 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 that 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 three months? Won't the argument then be that the U.S. 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 don't, Bush will take this "political capital," which Kerry helped him to consolidate, and spend it on greater atrocities in Iraq, or someplace else, like Iran.

The greatest asset of the antiwar 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' words have never served us better: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

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