party in the street: response to amenta
In the most recent Contemporary Sociology, Irvine’s Edwin Amenta wrote an incredibly kind and generous review of Party in the Street (“Raising the Bar for Scholarship on Protest and Politics“). It’s really humbling to have such an accomplished researcher so deeply engage with our work and find so much value. Not only did Professor Amenta say nice things about the book, he also offered a number of carefully thought out critiques of the book. In this post, I’d like to summarize what Professor Amenta wrote and offer a few brief comments in response.
Amenta takes issue with a fundamental assumption of the book. Here is Amenta:
Specifically, I question the authors’ explanation for the contrast between the decline of the recent antiwar movement and the expansion of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the analytical conflation of antiwar protest and antiwar movements, and their empirical conflation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Let’s start with what I think is a more amenable issue – the issue of the connection between the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Once again, Professor Amenta:
The authors’ most puzzling decision—to combine analytically the war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan—challenges their account of movement decline. This conflation of the two wars is central to their puzzle— why did the antiwar movement end while war kept going? But the contrast in opposition to the two wars answers this better than the rise to power of a Democratic president. The war in Afghanistan, beginning almost immediately after the September 11 attacks, drew the protest of only scattered anti-imperialist, anarchist, and other smallbore groups. That war was waged on a Taliban regime and its ward al Qaeda, which had planned the attacks, and generated public support. By contrast, even before the war in Iraq began, it drew extensive opposition from a broad coalition of organizations and participants; it was clear during its lengthy run-up that Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and that the Bush administration claims of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were questionable. Without this war of choice, or ‘‘dumb war,’’ as Illinois state senator Barack Obama referred to it in 2002, it seems unlikely there would have been much antiwar activity or an antiwar movement. As president, Obama quickly wound down the Iraq war, the one that the movement opposed. And so it is not surprising that antiwar activity slowed and did not return, even after the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, as there was never any real movement against that war. The origin of the mass antiwar movement in opposition to the Iraq war—in its gratuitousness, deviousness in justification, and bungled execution—helps to explain the decline of this movement, as it ended as that war ended. The authors’ point is well taken that protest declined after partisan government changed, but the decline of movements is also typically related to their emergence and their influence; and thus any analysis of decline should address these influences.
A number of issues suggested to us that it would be useful to link the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the narrative. First, the “kernel” of the antiwar movement emerged in the days after 9/11. Amenta calls these early groups “smallbore.” I would agree, but all movements need to start somewhere. The Afghanistan war was the event that pulled a lot of hard core activists into peace activism and these activists often went on to leadership positions. For example, one the leading groups during the Iraq War era was International A.N.S.W.E.R. From one perspective, it is a “smallbore” group – allied with the socialist left and operates with a pretty small staff. However, it was one of the groups that got in “on the ground floor” right after 9/11 (the early Afghanistan war era) and became a highly influential player during the peak of the antiwar movement (the Iraq War era). Therefore, it makes a lot of sense (to us) that both of these conflicts were important events that shaped the trajectory of the movement. The Afghanistan war “jump started” a core of activists who were previously working on other issues while Iraq allowed that core to grow into a truly mass movement.
But there is a deeper point. Much of the antiwar movement leadership said they were in the *peace* movement, not the anti-Iraq War movement. Also, it was the frame offered by the Bush 2 administration. They were both parts of the “War on Terror.” If you can accept this view, then a lot of public opinion makes sense. The public supported both Iraq and Afghanistan as responses to terrorism and only turned on Iraq once casualties mounted. Among activists, they were both wars to be opposed for similar reasons (e.g., pacifism or anti-imperialism). Only among the Democratic/liberal wing of the electorate do you see the split on Iraq and Afghanistan, which we attribute to the tension between partisan and movement identities. This overall pattern only makes sense if you consider Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a broader context, not completely independent events.
Later this week, we’ll delve more deeply into the comparison between peace activism in the Vietnam and Iraq War eras.