Antiwar Action: Back to the '60s?

The antiwar groups originally formed to oppose the invasion of Iraq took a variety of different positions during this election year. Some condemned both major parties as two sides of the same war party, but urged members to vote anyway. Others, sharing some of the same reservations about the major candidates, were more ambitious, running their own voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Either way, antiwar groups have to face the fact that the occupation continues and that 2003’s unprecedented worldwide peace mobilization did little to slow the drive to war.

Chicagoans Against War and Injustice (CAWI) has big plans for next steps. CAWI co-chairs Marilyn Katz and Carl Davidson recently wrote “The Road Ahead After 2004,” a document aimed at guiding discussion of political strategy.

CAWI “deputized and trained nearly 1,000 registrars in Chicago and the suburbs; and, working with some close allies, brought in nearly 20,000 new voters. Hundreds of CAWI members and affiliates traveled and made phone banking calls to other states—gaining valuable skills and experience,” they wrote. “If we allow all these gains to slip through our fingers, we will have been little more than a tail on the Democratic Party.”

Formed to connect peace and justice groups across the country, New York-based United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) has a more national focus. Hoping to avoid sectarian splits within its coalition, UFPJ did not engage in voter registration or mobilization during the recent election. Instead, member groups focused on educating people about the impact of the war. Some groups outlined strong anti-Bush positions, but endorsed third party candidates, rather than support John Kerry.

UFPJ plans to continue its focus on the war. “The problem is the war isn’t ending,” says Leslie Cagan, UFPJ’s national coordinator. “Our member groups are considering proposals to launch a major organizing drive run by local groups, reaching out to people we’ve never reached before.” Some UFPJ groups will move beyond “street heat” to “interfere with the war machine,” says Cagan, invoking a ’60s-style phrase.

By aiming at new and larger constituencies, CAWI and UFPJ recognize the need to inject new vigor into the left’s old organizing traditions. One obstacle to the change they envision is our electoral system. As James Weinstein, In These Times founding editor, writes in his book "The Long Detour": "The presidential system favors the wealthy and powerful because winning a nationwide election requires massive amounts of money and a subservient corporate media. Of course, a political movement with a large well-organized, popular network of experienced people dedicated to a long-range struggle, might offset that advantage. "

Weinstein explores the history of progressive third party organizing in the United States, and he outlines the obstacles a “wanna-be” movement must confront. No matter what issues a movement addresses, he writes, the central imperative “is to pursue a path that brings supporters together.”

That means moving beyond a few hundred thousand activists and an estimated 10 to 15 million reliably progressive voters. But a movement like UFPJ may encounter difficulty reaching new audiences with a style that rings a back-to-the-’60s note. That note, as Weinstein observes, is flawed by more than mere nostalgia: "In the New Left, as in the old, style, rhetoric, and the degree of commitment and self-sacrifice also became the badges of radicalism. Few New Leftists were concerned about the class nature of American society, fewer still about the need to gain political power."

CAWI’s strategy of building an infrastructure that can support and accommodate people moving in and out of political life may accomplish political outreach more effectively. Such a strategy recognizes the workplace and family commitments that make constant political engagement difficult for far too many Americans.

One of the explanations for Kerry’s defeat was his failure to speak persuasively about these economic realities. Had he convincingly addressed poverty-level wages, rising unemployment, job anxiety, lack of access to health care, the longest work day and the longest commute in the industrialized world and other economic issues, Kerry surely would have attracted more voters. A constituency constantly distracted by such matters has little time for candidates who barely mention them. An antiwar agenda that doesn’t address such issues isn’t likely to fare any better.

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