Monday, July 31, 2006

The Selfishness of Protest

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a story entitled "Partisan Divide on Iraq Exceeds Split on Vietnam" about the nature of American public opinion on the Iraq War. According to the article, "no military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say — not even Vietnam. And those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign." The numbers: "Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the middle." "An analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans viewed the Vietnam War — specifically, whether sending American troops was a mistake — never exceeded 18 percentage points between 1966 and 1973. In the most recent Times/CBS poll on Iraq, the partisan gap on a similar question was 50 percentage points."

Many people see this partisan gap as a potential long-term problem for the American body politic:
Many experts and members of both parties say they worry about the long-term consequences of such bitter partisan polarization and its effect on the longstanding tradition - although one often honored in the breach -— that foreign policy is built on bipartisan trust and consensus.

"“The old idea that politics stops at the water'’s edge is no longer with us, and I think we'’ve lost something as a result," said John C. Danforth, a former senator and an ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said, "“There used to be some unwritten rules when it came to foreign policy."

The article goes on to discuss the role that the war is playing in electoral campaigns.

All of this may be true, but if the divide over the Iraq War is so great, then I'm left with one burning question: Where's the protest? If Iraq is the single most divisive foreign policy issue of the last 30-40 years, then where's the public outcry? Where are the protests? Where are the rallies? Where are the anti-war movements? Sure, Cindy Sheehan was in the news, but apart from her, this must be the quietest anti-war movement of all time. I've been on two college campuses (Duke and Puget Sound) since the invasion, and I've not seen one serious protest or rally. There have been round table discussions, talks, and "teach-ins," but nothing along the lines of good old fashioned opposition and outrage.

Why not? If this war is inflaming the Republican-Democrat divide, why isn't it inflaming the protestors, and the students in particular, as well? My theory: the absence of a draft has tamped down the anti-war sentiment. The myth of Vietnam is that public outrage at an unjust and immoral war grew and grew until Nixon was forced to bring the boys home, but this is little more than a myth. Public opinion actually ran strongly in favor of military operations in Vietnam for quite some time, and only began to turn late in the war as US casualties grew, especially in the wake of the Tet Offensive. However, the vanguard of the protests, and the student protests in particular, were not opposed to the war per se, but to the draft. What got students marching and, well, burning their draft cards was the likelihood of them getting called up and sent overseas. It was the possibility of personal involvement and danger that motivated the anti-Vietnam movement.

Obviously, there is no draft today. The Iraq War is being fought by a volunteer army. No one who does not choose to be is at risk of dying in Iraq. Without the risk of the draft, the motivation to vehemently protest is simply not there for most people. Not that this is surprising...people respond to incentives, and without proper incentive, there's not much reason to act. People may not support the war, but unless they personally stand to be affected by it, they won't march, they won't sit-in, they won't hold signs and banners. True, there has been the occasional massive rally, but these seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. Attending a one-time rally assuages the guilty consciences of the anti-war types, but does little to actually affect public policy or opinion.

This seems to me to be a critical transformation of the political dynamic. The logic of the democratic peace (the theory that democracies do not go to war with one another) rests heavily on the domestic nature of a democratic polity, and, specifically, the hesitancy of the public to go to war. By ending the draft and moving towards an all-volunteer military, the federal government has done much to insulate itself from the pacific tendencies of its audience. By and large, this is probably a good thing; the foreign policy of a hegemonic superpower cannot be run from the streets. But, when a complacent public is combined with a feckless Congress, the propensity for executive abuse becomes high. If neither the American public nor the US Congress is willing or able to check the power of the executive branch, the country could be in trouble indeed.

So if you're opposed to the war, are you out making your voice heard? If not, why not? Are you just selfish and lazy?

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