The Anti-War Movement and Democratic Political Fans

The Wall Street Journal website has an interesting summary of a recent study tracing the decline of the anti-war movement over the last few years, despite the deepening involvement of the United States in multiple wars:

President Obama inherited two wars, neither of which has ended—and the United States is now involved in military action in Libya—yet the anti-war movement has all but vanished. Why?

The answer, according to a new research article, has to do with the complex relationship between non-partisan activists and those who identify as Democrats. In short, many antiwar Democrats saw the election of President Barack Obama as a sufficient victory for their cause and withdrew from the streets.

The researchers conducted 5,398 surveys at 27 antiwar protests from January 2007 through December 2009. They also interviewed movement leaders and conducted ethnographic observations. The largest protest during that period occurred on Jan. 27, 2007, and drew over 100,000 people, by the researchers’ count. By October 2009, however, protests were drawing mere hundreds (which is about where they’ve remained).

What changed? During the period studied, the proportion of protesters who identified themselves as Democrats dropped from about 50% to roughly 20%. The rest of the protesters identified with no party or, less often, a third party. The proportion of third-party activists grew over time.

Both the Democratic Party and the antiwar movement gained advantages from their interaction, the researchers argue. But Democrats viewed the election of President Obama as a victory per se, while nonpartisan protesters were more attuned to policy continuities. Such continuities as—well, the wars not ending, and the one in Afghanistan escalating.

As I have explained elsewhere, many people, especially committed partisans, tend to act as “political fans”: processing political information in a highly biased way that overvalues anything that confirms their views or partisan loyalties, while ignoring or downplaying evidence that cuts against them.

One manifestation of this tendency is that committed partisans will tolerate behavior from their own party that they would be among the first to condemn if the opposition did it. When “our” side does the kinds of things that we condemn the other party for, partisans tend to ignore it, downplay it, or pretend that there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases even when there isn’t. This is similar to the way that sports fans denounce cheating or bad calls that go against their team, but ignore such things when they help the team win.

Many anti-war activists who are also partisan Democrats are willing to tolerate, if not actually support, aggressive military action undertaken by Obama that they would have vehemently opposed under a Republican president. In the immediate aftermath of Obama’s election, it might have been plausible to believe that Obama would quickly cut back on US military action abroad, even though he had actually promised to escalate the Afghanistan war during the 2008 election. By now, however, it is clear that Obama intends no such thing. Indeed, he has actually entered another war – this time without congressional authorization, and despite the fact that Muammar Qaddafi’s regime poses little threat to US national security interests, and does not have nearly as extensive a record of mass murder as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq.

A few antiwar liberal Democrats, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, have indeed denounced Obama’s war policies. But most have either kept quiet or actually supported the president. As the article by Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas shows, this reaction is in sharp contrast to that of antiwar activists who are not also Democratic partisans. The latter have consistently opposed the various wars under both Obama and Bush, and have correctly recognized the substantial degree of continuity between the two.

Of course, this kind of partisan bias is far from limited to liberal Democrats. During the Bush presidency, many Republicans tolerated a vast expansion of federal spending and regulation that they would never have accepted from a Democrat. Earlier, the famous “Nixon in China” phenomenon arose because most Republicans were willing to accept Nixon’s cosying up to a mass-murdering Communist dictatorship just a few years after its worst crimes, even though they would not have tolerated similar policies from a liberal Democrat. There were principled conservative Republicans who denounced Nixon and Bush. But the overall level of Republican opposition was far lower than it would have been had a Democrat done the exact same thing.