I’m a pacifist, but I’ve never been intellectually impressed with the U.S. peace movement.  The sound argument against war, in my view, combines (a) the common-sense moral view that, “You shouldn’t kill innocent people unless you know with high certainty that the long-run benefits heavily outweigh the short-run costs” with (b) the empirical fact that predictions about war’s long-run benefits are extremely inaccurate.  U.S. peace activists’ typical arguments against war are both too weak and too strong: Too weak because they focus on the badness of particular leaders and regimes rather than the murderous essence of modern war, too strong because they make overconfident, overblown predictions about the long-run effects of wars they oppose.  Worse still, U.S. peace activists have a ghastly tendency to side with despicable totalitarians and bloodthirsty nationalists.

Reading Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas’ excellent new Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 (Cambridge University Press, 2015) confirms many of my deepest misgivings about the U.S. peace movement.  The book begins with a puzzle: Democrats’ war policies were very similar so those of their Republican predecessors, but the antiwar movement still durably dissolved once the Democrats gained power:

The antiwar movement became a mass movement from 2001 to 2006, as Democratic Party loyalty and anti-Bush sentiment provided fuel for the movement. However, the 2006 elections and their immediate aftermath were the high point for party-movement synergy. At exactly the time when antiwar voices were most well poised to exert pressure on Congress, movement leaders stopped sponsoring lobby days. The size of antiwar protests declined. From 2007 to 2009, the largest antiwar rallies shrank from hundreds of thousands of people to thousands, and then to only hundreds. Congress considered antiwar legislation, but mostly failed to pass it. In 2008, the Democrats nominated an antiwar presidential candidate in U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). But once Obama became president, his policies on war and national security resembled those of his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush. 

In case these patterns are in doubt, check out the data on antiwar protest size and media coverage:


Drawing on a a vast number of original surveys –
most conducted in the midst of antiwar protests – Heaney and Rojas reach
a cynical resolution of the puzzle: Democrats energized the antiwar movement, then dropped it as soon as
their side regained power.  “We observe demobilization not in response to a policy victory, but in response to a party victory.”  Why?  Because Democrats’ real target was not war, but Republicans.  The authors present wide-ranging evidence, but I’m impressed by this simple graph of partisan breakdown over time.


Since total participation was sharply falling, the overwhelming majority of Democratic protestors simply lost interest as their side gained power.  Heaney and Rojas strive to be diplomatic, but read between the lines:

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the antiwar movement may or may not have gained an ally in the White House. However, it definitely lost its prime enemy: President Bush. The antiwar movement had relied on Bush as a mobilizing meme for almost eight years. For example, the radical antiwar organization World Can’t Wait had adopted “Drive Out the Bush Regime!” as its slogan (Sweet 2008), though it never adopted the slogan “Drive Out the Obama Regime!” With Bush leaving the White House, some activists may have felt that their goal had been achieved…

Activists in the antiwar movement cared about the substance of foreign policy. They wanted more than just a change of party. However, for many of them, partisanship served as a lens through which to see policy. On the most basic level, Obama had promised a withdrawal from Iraq. Perhaps it would require substantial grassroots pressure to compel him to keep this promise. But for self-identified Democrats, it might also make sense to trust Obama to keep his word without actively applying pressure. These activists might not necessarily look closely at the details of the administration’s policies. Yet, even if they did, they would find considerable ambiguity, leaving room for interpretation. While it was possible to consider Obama’s policies to be mostly prowar, it was also possible to see them as antiwar. Self-identified Democrats might have been more likely to see Obama’s policies in an antiwar light than non-Democrats would have. They might also be more likely than non-Democrats to make excuses for the president’s policies, seeing them as the only practical option under the circumstances.

The period from 2001 to 2012 was a time of shifting identities for Democrats and antiwar activists. The initial shift occurred from 2001 through 2003, as Democratic identities began to be coupled with antiwar identities. Democratic identities raised the salience of antiwar identities, and vice versa. From 2003 to 2006, antiwar and Democratic identities were (mostly) self-reinforcing. However, starting in 2007, antiwar and Democratic identities began to conflict with one another. For some activists, the emergence of Democratic majorities in Congress was enough to satisfy their demand for change. Others, however, were troubled when Congress not only failed to use its power of the purse to end the war in Iraq, but also voted for supplemental appropriations to fund Bush’s surge in Iraq. Likewise, once Obama became president, his promises of withdrawal from Iraq were good enough for some. Others were troubled by the prolonged timetable in Iraq, negotiations to extend the SOFA, the escalation in Afghanistan, the administration’s liberal use of drones, the U.S. intervention in Libya, and the president’s unsuccessful efforts to close the controversial U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Activists were increasingly compelled to choose between their identities. “Am I a Democrat? Or am I an antiwar activist?” It became difficult to be both.

The bad news for the antiwar movement was that activists were more likely to favor their Democratic identities over their antiwar identities. Especially once Obama became president, there were too many good reasons to be a Democrat.The country had its first African American in the Oval Office, an important symbolic outcome after centuries of struggle for racial equality. The Democratic majority in Washington – which was nearly a supermajority – meant that comprehensive health care reform would stand a real chance for the first time in fifteen years. Thus, many former antiwar activists shifted their attention to other issues on the progressive agenda.

The great Bastiat once wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”  Though they’re too polite to come out and say it, Heaney and Rojas’ book shows that the good cause of peace was not merely ineptly defended, but insincerely defended.  While the peace movement no doubt includes some honest-to-goodness pacifists, they’re honorable outliers.  The peace movement was not about peace.