A couple of years ago at a trade show I met an Egyptian business executive. He had come to Barcelona directly from the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, where he’d been brained by a rock thrown by pro-Mubarak supporters. He was a higher-up in a successful telecom company in Cairo—to look at him you’d imagine him to have been a beneficiary of a dictatorship more than a critic of it. And yet there he was, bandaged and bruised, a few stitches over his right eye. It was only a few days after Mubarak had fallen, and he was so excited he shared several hours of video he’d recorded on his cell phone from amid the protests—including his own woozy pictures of himself with his head smashed.
Another reporter and I had asked him to explain why the Tahrir protests had worked, and he hadn’t the slightest idea. What we were really asking, I suspect, is why most protests fail.
Mubarak’s fall had been a surprise not only because of his long rule, but because raising crowds and yelling publicly pretty much never works. It didn’t work in China. It didn’t work in Burma. It didn’t work in Thailand. Famously, it hadn’t worked in the U.S. either. In 2003, the largest series of protests in human history had put millions of people on the streets to protest U.S.-led plans to invade Iraq. The protests were impressive—and as today’s decade anniversary of the Iraq war’s start demonstrates, they didn’t work at all. The war came. Then stayed. And eventually the anti-war movement disappeared. Despite subsequent U.S. involvement in more conflicts, nothing like the 2003 demonstrations has occurred again.
About the same time I met the Egyptian protester, early 2011, University of Indiana sociologist Fabio Rojas won headlines with a study that appeared to answer the question. Rojas found it curious that despite unpopular wars underway in at least two countries (Iraq, Afghanistan) or perhaps four (Pakistan, Yemen) or five (Somalia) or six (Libya), the U.S. had no meaningful anti-war movement. So with colleague Michael T. Heaney, Rojas had looked at attendance at anti-war rallies from 2004 onward. To his surprise, he found that attendance at public anti-war demonstrations had continued more strongly than generally assumed until 2008.
After President Obama took office in 2009, however, attendance in anti-war rallies crashed, even though Obama pursued many of the war policies from the Bush administration.
Initially, the cause seemed to be that the U.S. economy tanked then, and priorities turned elsewhere. But Rojas’ data also suggested that distraction wasn’t the whole story.
Rojas now believes the U.S. anti-war movement failed, where similar efforts had succeeded before and would after, because its organizers suffered from the one prejudice a political movement can’t afford: they didn’t have anyone like the Egyptian salesman in their ranks. The data suggested to Rojas that the anti-war political demonstrations had been carried off by people who hated politics.
THE THEORY, Rojas explained to me by phone, goes like this:
In 2004 support for the war had fallen below 50 percent in key ally Britain, followed the next year by American sentiment souring. At that point, the anti-war movement had public opinion on its side, and could have pushed candidates into the political system for the 2004-2006 cycle. So they did.
“What was the issue in the 2004 elections? The war,” he said. “Then in the 2006 Congressional [election], the Democrats took power again, with several candidates in primaries running on anti-war platforms.”
After that, though, anti-war activists mysteriously seemed to opt out of politics. Rojas found scant evidence of organizers pushing candidates who held anti-war stances, or significant efforts to produce specifically anti-war candidates from inside their own movement. Groups behind the massive 2003 rallies—which were run principally by a group called the ANSWER Coalition and smaller organizations like Code Pink—proved disinterested in electoral politics.
For their part, neither major political party had an interest in pushing anti-war candidates, either. It would only invite primary challenges to their incumbents, most of whom voted for the war.
The result was a split between party politics and activists, who came to distrust each other rather than cooperate.
“The theory is, in politics you have a choice. You can care about the policy, or you can care about the political party,” Rojas said. “The partisan says, ‘He’s my guy. If I’m really that unhappy about him, I should go make his life miserable.’”
But the anti-war movement decided not to focus on elections. “The anti-war movement has always taken on a counter-cultural stance. They’re really scared of being co-opted by the system in some way,” Rojas said. “And working in politics forces you to get out of your comfort zone.”
Conservative activists, meanwhile, did turn their focus to primary elections—and succeeded. “The person who, say, is a member of the Ladies’ Republican Club says, ‘I’m going to go down to the Republican primary in Indiana and I’m going to vote for somebody else.’”
So the rallies continued as the war ground on, and the Bush administration kept ignoring them, as in 2003. Time passed. Enter Obama. And things, paradoxically, got worse for the anti-war crowd.
Obama turns out to push a bellicose foreign policy. Drones. Libya. The bin Laden raid. “There’s a lot of continuity between Obama and Bush. A lot of Obama’s policies are Bush’s. It’s not clear how you should respond to that.”
By then the protesters had cornered themselves ideologically. The 2003 marches had been painfully partisan, Rojas argued, rather than issue-oriented. “The anti-war movement didn’t talk to anti-war conservatives. When they march in San Francisco, New York, Bush says, ‘This is the left, these are the people who matter least to me.’
“If they’d marched in Atlanta, Dallas,” in 2003, “maybe the president would have thought twice,” he argued. Now it was too late: rather than organize around the Bush presidency, they would have the tougher job of organizing a typically left, anti-war crowd against Obama. Meanwhile conservative activists—the Tea Party wing—had been developing candidates for two, three years.
“So, I talk to a Republican campaign official,” said Rojas. “And he says ‘Here’s the deal. The deal is that if you have a registered voter list that’s useful, then you’re good. And if you don’t have that, then you’re useless.’”
Rojas agrees with that analysis. He argues that the anti-war response [to Obama’s war policy] should have been “to primary the living daylights out of Democratic candidates.”
That never happened. And that forced anti-war activists to choose between their party affiliation and their ideological stance on the then eight-, nine-, ten-year-old Bush wars. The party affinity beat the policy complaints, Rojas says his research shows.
“You talk to educated Democrats, and you ask them, ‘How many of you did any work for the anti-war movement?’ None of them. Within about one or two generations there’s been a real divergence between the anti-war movement and the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”
It’s a hard argument to quantify. What’s anti-war? One example does leap out: Cindy Sheehan. The mother of a slain soldier, Sheehan became a national icon in 2005, after camping out in front of Bush’s Texas ranch for weeks, demanding a response to the loss of her son.
Years later, Sheehan has gone into politics—but obliquely, speaking at small rallies and seeking office as the 2012 vice presidential candidate on the Peace and Freedom ticket, as running mate to comedian Roseanne Barr.
By comparison, a former Vietnam war protester, John Kerry, is now Secretary of State.
That’s assuming a partisan approach—that anti-war activists would tend to involve themselves in Democratic politics. Rojas argues that isn’t necessary. During protests for civil rights legislation, activists tended to focus on the issue before party, but didn’t reject electoral politics as much as current anti-war activists seem to have.
“When Eisenhower was in office, they pushed for civil rights. When Kennedy was in office they pushed for civil rights. When LBJ was in office they pushed for civil rights,” Rojas argued. Protests grew without respect for who was in office from the 1950s to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act in the mid-1960s. A sharp falloff in activism when one party took over the White House from another, as happened to anti-war participation when Bush handed power to Obama, never occurred in civil rights.
And so they won, Rojas claims.
ROJAS’ WORK is only one theory on why an unpopular war never produced a meaningful opposition. Oddly, there aren’t many other theories. Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, the particulars of the American street’s failure remains a curious hole in the scholarship.
A few years ago, the Egyptian executive at the trade show had also asked about American protests, and said he wasn’t really sure if Egyptian ones had been any better, or just luckier.
Rojas claims to have numbers suggesting the protests are a matter of strategy and tactics, not luck.
“The politician says, ‘These anti-war people, yeah, they can bring out a crowd.’ Is that crowd going to vote? Is that crowd going to make your life a living hell?”
When politicians looked at the crowds in 2003, they asked themselves whether they were likely to lose their seat to anyone rising from the street below. If the answer is yes, they have to listen to the crowd.
“The answer is no,” Rojas said.