Syria and the Partisan Dynamics of Contention

Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray observes that as the Obama administration prepares to intervene in Syria, “the once-robust antiwar movement has stayed curiously silent.” The sociologists Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas described the partisan dynamics behind the demobilization of the antiwar movement after Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential election campaign. 

Drawing upon 5,398 surveys of demonstrators at antiwar protests, interviews with movement leaders, and ethnographic observation, this article argues that the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Democratic activists changed the character of the antiwar movement by undermining broad coalitions in the movement and encouraging the formation of smaller, more radical coalitions. 

Democratic success hasn’t just weakened the antiwar movement. Though the Obama administration has been criticized by environmentalists and civil libertarians for various failures, real and perceived, the energy behind these movements tends to wane under Democratic administrations, and not just because Democratic administrations are more likely to accept the legitimacy of environmentalist and civil libertarian claims. Similarly, conservative calls for fiscal consolidation and abortion restrictions have tended to be more muted under Republican administrations, though it is possible that this will change in the future. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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