Deepening the Majority: Anti-War Organizing in an Election Year
Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. She is the author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer (Olive Branch Press). This article is based on an interview with Sara Burke, Co-Editor of Peacework, on September 29, 2007.
Much has changed for the anti-war movement since the last election. At the beginning of the current war in Iraq, our goal was to change public opinion - in 2001, only 22% of US Americans were against the war. Well, we've done it, though along with our organizing, an enormous factor in the change has been the rising toll of US casualties. Now, 70% of US Americans think the war is wrong and should end.
Now the question is how to transform public opinion into a change in public policy. This is a new problem for the US peace movement - we haven't been here before. In our struggles to end US military involvement in Vietnam and later in Central America, public opinion in agreement with our goals was much lower.
Realistically, we are not going to get much bigger than we are now. An important task for this period is to deepen, consolidate, and especially to educate that 70 percent. "Preaching to the choir" is important - they need to know the score!
Learning to be Educators
There are many aspects of this project of education, each easily accessible or replicable to activists in all parts of the US.
The alternative media, like Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! and the Laura Flanders Show on Air America, offer important, up-to-date information. It is also important to do the deeper research on the issues that underlie the crises. Sometimes this brings unexpected opportunities: When Jeremy Scahill's book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books) was published, it received little notice outside progressive circles - but now that Blackwater is in the headlines, even the mainstream press is turning to him for interviews.
Some groups have sponsored speaking tours for Iraqi organizers, and this is an important way to counter the racism and dehumanization that underlie not only the pro-war position but also, unfortunately, some parts of US opposition to the war ("they don't deserve our help").
The talking points, the bulletins, the speaking tours - these give people the tools they need to engage constructively with their neighbors and co-workers. When people in the audiences I address say that to withdraw the troops would be to abandon the Iraqis, I say "Thank you for bringing this up. It is important to acknowledge our obligation to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan." From there we can move on to talking about reconstruction, compensation, and reparations; about both the ugliness and the potential improvements that will follow US withdrawal. We need to educate ourselves enough to engage with people.
Compromises and Resistance
Because of the great change in public opinion against the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, we are in a position of some strength - yet there are new obstacles, as well. Corporate control over policymakers has increased. Unlike at other crucial points, in the 2008 election neither the President nor the Vice President is running for reelection. These leaders are not particularly accountable even to their own party, and this is a dangerous situation. They can afford to stake out extreme positions.
Another obstacle to a change in public policy is the use of fear since the September 11, 2001 attacks, not only against all US citizens but more specifically against Congress. Indeed, fear grips many members of Congress with an iron fist -fear that they will be accused of being "soft on terrorism," or of "not supporting the troops." The new members who were elected in 2006 over pro-war opponents, are being deliberately intimidated by party leaders into moderating the very positions that won them their seats.
One of the dangers of organizing for peace in an election year is that we start defining our movement by those elections. People build expectations of parties and candidates, and if those aren't met, they get frustrated. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a person of profound integrity, whose goals are truly aligned with those of the peace movement, but there aren't many like her. Mostly, members of Congress are there to make compromises - and we're there to stop them.
We address members of Congress directly, but we can not rely on this alone. We also search for alternative centers of power. One good model is the Cities for Peace project. At the municipal level, coalitions are built among city council members, the mayor, academics from local colleges, and other community members; a resolution against the war is drafted and campaigned for, and if passed, can then be presented to state representatives' offices with an impressive constituency behind it.
Bird-dogging (putting concerted pressure on candidates for elected office to take a clear position on an issue - see article this issue) is a good example of identifying and using a space where people are already engaged and listening. We have much greater access to Congressmembers when they are campaigning than at any other time. Access has also been increased by the recent innovation of opening up the debates on-line.
Big demonstrations, like the ones planned by the United for Peace and Justice coalition last month in ten regions around the US, continue to play an important role. Congressmembers do pay attention to the messages sent by these gatherings. And most important, the big demonstrations remind activists who are doing local work that they are connected to a wider movement.
The Last Half Inch
It is very hard, at an emotional level, for people to understand that none of the Presidential candidates likely to win in 2008 is committed to ending the war.
In Congress, there are some individuals who really do want to end the war, but not many, and none of them is in the leadership of either party. In an election year, we must be particularly careful not to forget: Congress is not the peace movement.
Still, it matters very much who gets elected in 2008. Even those of us whose work is focused almost exclusively on ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan don't have the luxury to say that all candidates, for Congress or for the presidency, are the same. It is likely that the next President will choose a judge to replace Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court, and no matter what we are organizing for, we must not lose sight of this. I believe that we are very, very close to losing the viability of that institution entirely. If you are drowning, and the water has risen as high as your top lip, the last half-inch from the water level to your nose is pretty important.