Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Getting Organized, Getting Engaged:

Independent Antiwar Intervention
in the 2008 Election Campaigns

By Carl Davidson
Keep On Keepin’ On

February 13, 2008

If our peace movement wants to make some far-reaching gains in the 2008 election cycle, it doesn’t have much time to waste. Super Tuesday is over, the remaining campaigns will end in November, and critical events are moving at a rapid pace.

Most important, ending the war in Iraq needs to be a greater part of everyone’s political decisions in 2008 than it is now.

In mid-February, we’re down to four main candidates, plus the Greens—two Republicans who promise to win the war, whatever the cost, even if it takes decades, and two Democrats who promise to end it, with less than desirable timelines and qualifications.

Large numbers of Americans critical of the war have decided to enter this arena in one way or another—but they are not necessarily part of the one million or so who have taken to the streets to date. Most have not. The most obvious is the insurgent wave of youth taking up Barak Obama’s cause, seeing him as their favored instrument to end the war and advance other progressive causes. They may make other choices later, but they have chosen to enter the fray this way, whether anyone else thinks it’s the best way or not.

Yet we, the more seasoned core of the antiwar movement, are not as engaged as we could be. Tom Hayden has elsewhere argued forcefully—‘After Super Tuesday, Time for Peace Movement to Get Off the Sidelines’--on why the peace and justice movements need to deploy more of its forces. At the risk on repeating some of his points, I’ll focus on some of the key ways it can actually be done, although just about any way would be better than doing nothing.

Political Intervention. With all the various ‘plans’ regarding Iraq being floated, it’s important that the peace movement stake out its position, and the one shared by the antiwar majority among the people themselves, of immediate withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq and their return home. Every candidate of every party needs to be directly confronted with this at every public forum. While there are important differences among them, not one of those remaining completely shares this perspective. They are either lagging behind the electorate or opposing it. Those who claim to want to end the war, at whatever level they are contending, need to be openly informed that they only gain support by taking a stronger stand.

Ballot Intervention. We can also directly put issues on the ballot, as well as into the discussion. Near West Citizens for Peace & Justice, for example, put a cutoff of funding for the war on the ballot at its township level in a working-class suburb of Chicago in the recent primary, where it won by 77 percent. Since electoral law varies, this may not be practical in some areas, but wherever it can be done, it’s a great nonpartisan, non-endorsing tool to bring antiwar votes to the polls.

Expanding the Electorate. This is already shaping up to be an historic election with a record-breaking turnout, if for no other reason than the likelihood of the ‘White Guys Only’ sign being taken from the Oval Office. Growing numbers want to be part of that history, and not just watch it. Still, the sharper the differences are drawn with the unabashed defenders of prolonging the war, the greater the potential turnout. But it has to be organized. Some new voters register themselves, but many do not until they are encouraged, especially among young people. The antiwar movement has everything to gain from registering voters in a nonpartisan fashion, so that the contact list with the new voters belong to it, rather than any party. Most states make it easy for volunteer organizations to get new registrations on their own and turn them in. There’s nothing standing in our way but our own lack of initiative.

Shaping and Informing the Electorate. A few years back the average voter was a 60-year-old retired economically liberal but socially conservative blue collar woman in a ‘white’ working-class suburb. But everything changes, especially in times of crisis, and there’s no law of the universe or even demographics that says it has to remain that way. Expanding the electorate comes in many flavors—the promoting more war and injustice crowd certainly works on expanding it in their direction, and there’s no reason we can’t do it our way. Moreover, an electorate more educated on the war—disabused of notions that Iraq caused 9/11 and other such lies and illusions—is more likely to vote rationally on the war, and to make educated selections among the candidates on their own, with an assist from wide distribution of candidate position survey and score cards, candidate night debates, and so on.

Identifying the Antiwar Electorate. Knowing that a majority of the electorate is critical of the war is one thing. It’s quite another to know all the names and addresses of voters in your precinct who are opposed to the war, support the war, or waver in between. The additional information is empowering to those who hold it, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be in the hands of our neighborhood-based peace and justice groups. But you have to do old-fashioned, door-to-door organizing to get it. Fortunately, a voter registration drive in an election cycle is an excellent way to do it. And it’s an additional plus that the same information is more than useful for mass mobilizations and other projects beyond Election Day.

Mobilizing the Electorate. Potential voters who are registered and antiwar but don’t make it to the polls don’t help much. There’s no reason we can’t organize nonpartisan GOTV—Get Out The Vote—events, not only ourselves, but with all our allies among churches, schools and unions. This way the relationships and ties belong to you after the election, not to any party. No one’s campaign reaches far enough into every corner; there’s always work to be done in areas where it’s not crowded but important to us nonetheless. Again, you can get your antiwar voters to the polls without endorsing anyone. They’ll figure out what to do.

Protecting and Securing the Vote. Perhaps I’m biased by my years in Chicago, but, yes, this is crucial to know how to do. Getting all sorts of voters to the polls doesn’t help much if you can’t get a fair and reliable count. There’s lots of justified concern about electronic machines these days, but in the 1980s, I went through an excellent three-hour training on ‘100 things to watch for’ to prevent stealing the vote when all the ballots were paper. (One was to look for long, sharpened fingernails on those handing out ballots. A wink from the precinct captain would get an unfavorable person’s ballot ‘nicked’ for later removal). It’s definitely worthwhile getting a number of people trained and positioned as poll watchers and election judges, for the future as well as the present.

Staking Claim to the Vote. It’s not very convincing to politicians or anyone else for us to claim a positive gain from an election we had nothing to do with, save for cheerleading on the sidelines. But to the degree we can reasonably claim responsibility for favorable results and turnouts in one battle, it enhances our independent ‘clout’ in future battles, inside and outside the electoral arena. It enhances our ability to ‘counter-spin’ the outcomes and post-election battles from those who would marginalize us. Most important, no matter who is elected, the need for an ongoing, independent and election-savvy organization is going to be more needed than ever in the dangerous ‘end game’ to Bush’s disaster in Iraq.

There are different sets of rules for doing all the above, depending on whether your local group or coalition is a 501C3, a 501C4, a straightforward public interest group with a bank account and no tax exempt status, or just an ad-hoc group of volunteers. If you are in doubt as to what can or can’t be done, and have a status that needs defending, consult a lawyer with some experience on the topic. But don’t fall for the claim that you can’t do anything.

There’s a lot that can be done, preferably completely independent of any party or campaign. If your imagination fails, you can always get to the organizations of the candidates or party of your choice, but do it now. You don’t want to tell your grandchildren that you sat on the sidelines in the Election of 2008.

[Carl Davidson is author, together with Marilyn Katz, of ‘Stopping War, Seeking Justice,’ available at lulu.com/changemaker. He was founder and director of Peace and Justice Voters 2004 in Chicago, and a member of the steering committee of United for Peace and Justice. See carldavidson.blogspot.com for more information.]

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