As Congress squares off on proposals to de-fund the war and bring the troops home, the NY Times reports that the antiwar movement is finding success by moving away from social movement strategies.
Finally! Those idealistic do-gooders are beginning to wake up and realize that sit-ins, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience aren't getting them anywhere. Welcome to Washington, kids!
“The principle under which we’ve been operating is more like a political campaign,” Mr. Matzzie said....
The discussion at the retreat mirrored that of planning meetings for traditional political campaigns, with presentations on polling, strategy and field operations....
“The whole movement has updated themselves to be where campaign-style politics are generally,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist. “They’re just incredibly savvy, tactically and politically. They know how to use the news cycle.”
Wait...hang on a second. Maybe - now just bear with me for a second here - maybe its the Washington insiders who are warming up to social movement strategies?
Cha-ching! But this is really nothing new. Social movements have long worked with political elites who sought to strengthen their own political capital with claims to be the voice of the people. Sociologists have argued that social movements gain political leverage when they throw their numbers and organizational weight behind one or the other political faction in a time of heightened political division (as we are seeing now, especially with election season in full swing).
Many of the major players in Americans Against Escalation in Iraq earned their stripes not from sit-ins, marches and other acts of civil disobedience but as Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns. The sophisticated political operation they have built is a testament to how far the antiwar movement has come since the Vietnam era.
It's probably more accurate to say that the antiwar movement and Democratic insiders are both taking steps toward the other. The result is a tenuous, trans-beltway coalition being pulled in two directions toward their respective fields, and we should not be surprised by disagreements over goals and tactics.
Watering down issues has long been the province of large, bureaucratic organizations (like political parties) bent more on survival than achieving their stated goals. If Democratic Party survival - e.g., in the next election - remains tied to opposing the war, as it has within the last year, then we should see more trans-beltway organizing. However, as Democrats begin to stake their political territory in the presidential race we are likely to see greater divisions (more frequent, though not necessarily more pronounced) and an increasing diversity of proposals about how to best end the war. This doesn't bode well for their social movement pals.
“There’s a dividing line between those groups who feel the most important thing is to be clear on bringing the troops home as soon as possible, and the groups that feel that unity within the Democratic Party is most important and the most important thing is for the Democrats to win the White House,” said Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, an antiwar group that is not part of the alliance. “So the groups who feel the most important thing is to win the White House would naturally be more inclined to listening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she says the only way we can get a vote through is if we water it down.”
Social movements, for their part, include a range of organizations that range from living room meetings of neighbors planning banner-hangs and mock funerals to massive non-profit organizations housed in DC making personal visits to congressional leaders. Movements aren't centrally coordinated so they are more likely to develop factions and break apart. Each organization's position vis-a-vis the political field shapes the nature and timing of its response (if any) to changes in that field. The longer the Dems drag out the antiwar debate and as the election draws nearer, social movements (and coalitions like Americans Against Escalation in Iraq) are likely to feel increasing pressures pulling them both into and out of electoral politics. The larger, bureaucratic organizations will tend to cozy up to the party while smaller, decentralized organizations will cling firmly to their strident rhetoric of ending the war immediately.
This same dynamic has led to the collapse of many a social movement, as "moderates" clamor to get inside the beltway while "radicals" are increasingly marginalized, repressed, and driven to failure. Is it inevitable? Can the antiwar coalition maintain momentum with support both inside and outside the beltway? This article by a Boston University historian about congressional opposition to the Vietnam War suggests that we've been here before and party politics, albeit "sophisticated" and "saavy," is at best a very slow process. Ten years before the end of that war, Congress was debating and passing legislation to stop funding it. So I ask you, should the antiwar movement be moving closer to electoral politics?