party in the street: social identities and policy continuity
One of the issues that we draw attention to in Party in the Street is that there was a great deal of continuity in war policy between the Bush and Obama administrations. This is an example of a broader theme in American government: domestic disputes are not brought into foreign policy. The phrase for this is “politics ends at the water’s edge.”
The water’s edge idea has important implications for social movements, especially progressive movements that are often participating in anti-war activism. Normally, we think of movements responding to some sort of stark contrast in policy and they expect different political actors to have distinct views on policy. For example, it is pretty safe to say that Democrats and Republican leaders promote very different abortion policies.
In contrast, the “water’s edge” theory suggests that there will be a fair amount of continuity between administrations in terms of foreign policy. It doesn’t mean total similarity, but a great deal of overlap. For example, the Iraq withdrawal was initially negotiated by the Bush administration and then carried out by Obama’s administration. Similarly, both the Bush and Obama administrations, at various times, sought to extend US involvement in Iraq. Did both administrations have identical policy? Definitely not, but there is a lot of continuity and overlap.
If you believe that movements closely follow policy, then the overall path of the antiwar movement might seem puzzling. When Bush surged, the movement began its decline. As Obama sought extensions in Iraq, there was little protest. Antiwar activists did not focus on the main instrument of withdrawal, the Status of Forces Agreement, initiated by Bush. The War on Terror involved over 100,000 troops “on the ground” from 2003 till about 2010.
We argue in Party in the Street that the overall growth and decline of the antiwar movement can be better explained by the tension of activism and partisanship instead of policy shifts. Early on, the antiwar movement’s identity did not conflict with its ally, the Democratic Party. So the movement could draw partisans and grow during the early stages of the Iraq War. As elections changed the landscape, partisanship asserted itself and the movement ebbed. And that is how we get a declining movement as the US intervention in Iraq is sustained, then incrementally reduced during a multi-year withdrawal phase and the vastly expanded in Afghanistan.
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