By DAVID CALLAHAN
Today there will be another rally for peace in Manhattan. In the last few months, the United States has seen the emergence of the largest antiwar movement since the days of Vietnam. Yet the protests had no evident impact on the Bush administration's plans for war in Iraq, which began Wednesday.
The movement could still influence the direction of United States foreign policy by signaling the profound unease that many Americans feel about a militarized, unilateral approach to the world. It may be, however, that the greater significance of the protests lies in what they portend for politics here at home. While antiwar movements are rarely successful in their immediate goal, they are often prescient indicators of the national mood.
Historically, antiwar movements have nearly always put forth larger critiques of how American society is organized, and have often been entwined with powerful social movements focused on domestic problems. Protesters against the Mexican-American War of 1846, worried that it would add more slave-holding states to the Union, energized the abolitionist movement. At the turn of the century, many critics of the imperialistic Spanish-American War were also leaders in a growing push to curb the power of corporate trusts.
Likewise, the intense opposition among many Progressive leaders to America's entry into World War I was wrapped up in domestic considerations. These leaders — the predecessors of New Deal liberals — argued that initiatives to create greater social and economic equity should take precedence over involvement in a European war. In the 1960's, the movement against the Vietnam War was linked to a range of national reform efforts, including demands for more civil rights and less poverty. The protests also helped create a counterculture of nonconformity that reshaped American society.
What might today's antiwar movement say about domestic politics? Two undercurrents of the protests hint at larger critiques of United States society that seem to be gaining momentum. One relates to consumption, the other to democracy.
Recent years have seen mounting public uneasiness with the relentless consumption and waste in America. This uneasiness fuels new and different kinds of environmental activism, like campaigns against suburban sprawl or S.U.V.'s. It also underlies the growing movement of "downshifting," which emphasizes simplicity and authenticity over earning and spending.
So when antiwar protesters chant about oil, it should come as no surprise. They are questioning not just the huge United States military presence in the Persian Gulf; they are also criticizing a wasteful American way of life. This critique of our society existed before the war against Iraq, and it will become only more pronounced afterward.
A larger message about the health of American democracy can also be heard amid the din of disparate antiwar arguments. Many protesters are unhappy that their arguments are being ignored — not so much by the news media, although coverage has been sporadic at best, but by their elected leaders. Of course, a disconnect between the will of ordinary people and elites in Washington has been obvious for more than a decade. It has spurred many third-party candidacies and led to campaign-finance reform. Now, after the manipulation of public opinion by a president intent on war, and the failure of Congress to offer real dissent to his policy, voters' concerns about the health of American democracy will only deepen.
None of these undercurrents is likely to transform American politics any time soon. But elected leaders should understand that the direction of American foreign policy and the fate of Iraq are not the only things protesters are concerned about. They are also worried about the fate of America — and if history is any guide, their voices will only get louder.
David Callahan is director of research at Demos, a public policy organization.