“Antiwar Fervor Fills the Streets,” the Washington Post headline blared, “Demonstration is Largest in Capital Since US Military Invaded Iraq.” Sounds like something big. We have heard a lot about the antiwar movement lately–rapidly growing, burgeoning, mushrooming (I’m sure some of them are). Reading the enthusiastic Post story you’d get the idea that we were back in the Sixties, the Golden Age of protest. This is the flip side of the Vietnam analogy; if Iraq is Nam, then today’s protesters are the SDS and the Yippies. Same slogans, same love beads, same tie-dye and sandals. But the same impact? No way, man.
Let’s check the numbers–the body count, if you will. Officials estimated turnout for Saturday’s rally in Washington at 100,000, a respectable number. However, that’s how many turned out for the October 26, 2002, antiwar rally five months before the war in Iraq began. Similar numbers were on hand for the January 18, 2003, demo, and that was in 20-degree weather. So it’s hard to see how Saturday’s turnout constitutes a sign of growth in the movement. Compare those flat-line figures to the standard set by the Nam-era protesters. The April 17, 1965, SDS protest attracted 25,000 people, at the time the largest antiwar rally ever in D.C. Three times that number gathered on October 21, 1967–this was the one where Abbie Hoffman tried to levitate the Pentagon. The November 15, 1969 “New Mobe” rally brought in over 250,000. That is a respectable growth curve, a tenfold increase over four years.
Moreover, Saturday’s 100,000 turnout is anemic compared to other recent examples of street theater. The April 25, 2004 March for Women’s Lives (more here) attracted 500,000 (organizers claimed 1.15 million), and last year’s demonstrations in New York during the Republican National Convention were also in the half-million range. This was in line with the June 12, 1982, Central Park Nuclear Freeze rally. And for really effective mobilization it’s hard to beat the Million Man March, actually 800,000 strong, about the same number that turned out for the June 8, 1991, Desert Storm Victory parade.
So why is the media-story lining that the antiwar crowd movement is picking up steam? One reason is the poll numbers on Iraq. The line goes that public opinion has recently turned sharply against the president. Like after the Tet Offensive. A USA Today poll showed two thirds disapproving. However, the “sudden decline” story line does not hold up well in detail. I know this is not particularly good news, but the public has been ambivalent about Iraq for some time–USAT first showed majority disapproval in November 2003. Nor do all polls currently show “all time lows.” The CBS/New York Times tracking poll reached its nadir in late May 2004. Of course, it would be better for the president to be enjoying the 75-percent approval rating of March 2003, but that had sagged to below 50 percent within six months. Since then there have been fluctuations in public opinion, but no decisive trend. Public confidence picked up after last January’s successful elections, and probably will again temporarily after the October 15 referendum.
Another reason for the story line about the antiwar movement’s momentum is the media’s fascination with Cindy Sheehan. She has been the focus of a very effective and carefully crafted information operation, giving reporters the kind of pathos and theater they can craft into dramatic news. Cindy Sheehan has been given extraordinary praise in the press, bordering on the hagiographic, and her reputation apparently has not even been marred by ramblings having nothing to do with Iraq, on which her presumed moral legitimacy is pegged. You get the impression from the coverage that the Sheehan story will keep growing and expanding, just like the antiwar movement, in a kind of self-fulfilling feedback loop. The more reporters cover it, the more column inches they devote to it, the more real it becomes to them. Pro-war parents of the fallen have simply not been getting the same attention.
But note this interesting reality check at Blogpulse: A search for references to Cindy Sheehan in the blogosphere shows that at least in that universe her fall has been as rapid as her rise. References to her peaked on August 18, and then dropped by 90 percent in the next three weeks. She has enjoyed a slight bump in recent days, but still at a level only a fifth of a month ago. Comparison to discussion of Hurricane Katrina also lends some perspective.
I doubt any of this makes much of a difference. I know that being a member of a movement is emotionally satisfying for True Believer types, and other people turn out for the free music. Plus there are the fringe benefits. It is said that after the 1967 peace vigil next to the Pentagon the principle detritus was condom wrappers, which at least demonstrates that “Make Love Not War” was more than just a slogan. But today protests of this sort have become so ritualized, so controlled, so derivative and predictable that it is a wonder anyone bothers. There is no particular tension, no threat of violence–power is not in the streets, and the whole world got bored with watching a long time ago.