Earlier this week, Fox News reporter John Stossel asked a question that often pops up from the right wing media on a slow news day: “where did all the anti-war protestors go?” Stossel suggested anti-war protestors were really just “anti-President Bush,” citing a study by “two college professors,” with no reference to where the study came from. He called the drop off in attendance at rallies from this mysterious study “amazing” (the mystery study he quotes says after Obama was elected president, attendance went from thousands to hundreds) and said that “protestors have remained silent over Libya.”
The study Stossel references was authored by two social scientists, Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan and Fabio Rojas of the University of Indiana. Research was conducted at various anti-war rallies in the U.S. from 2007 to 2009. Heaney and Rojas have been following the anti-war movement since the 90’s, paying particular attention to the political affiliations of people in the movement and tracking the ebb and flow of participants. The study found that participation in anti-war demonstrations “dropped by an order of magnitude” from ’07 to ’09.
Stossel and others in the right wing media seized on this, painting anti-war demonstrators from the last decade as hypocrites who gave up on a lost cause. Making this assumption based on Heaney and Rojas’s study trivializes the anti-war movement and trivializes the study as well. Movements, especially those surrounding huge issues like war or trade policy, aren’t based on party affiliation alone. The study found that the largest amount of people who “left” (stopped coming to protests) were democrats, right after Obama was elected into office. That’s not surprising, given the amount of lip service Obama gave throughout his campaign about ending the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So why aren’t those millions of people back in the streets since we’ve escalated the war in Afghanistan, escalated drone bombings in Yemen and now are involved in the Libyan conflict? Probably for the same reasons mass demonstrations saw their numbers dwindle only a few months after the start of the Iraq war. There were huge protests during the lead up and shortly thereafter, but once the conflict continued on for months, then years – plenty of people started questioning how much of an effect a march in the streets was having. The business of war continued as usual, whether or not a few hundred or 10,000 took to the streets during rush hour.
Support for public protests ebbs and flows based on world events, based on public perception of effectiveness of a movement. In participating in various demonstrations against war and other U.S. Policies for more than a decade, I’ve found that more people attend a rally or hit the streets when there’s a catalyst, like a sudden escalation in fighting or casualties, or the anniversary of the start of the conflict, etc. But just because someone isn’t in the streets every day or even once a year, doesn’t mean that person doesn’t identify as “against the war.” With a media that serves as a mouthpiece for continuing conflicts and escalating others, no real exit plans in sight, and politicians who make strategies to “get out” and then change them a year later, it’s no wonder the public has become desensitized to seeing violence across the middle east every day. Anti-war protestors haven’t gone anywhere, they’re simply trying to find new strategies to wake the rest of the public up from their complacency.