Political Tremors Rock Antiwar Movement

With the conclusion of the Republican and Democratic Conventions, the pundits instruct us that election 2012 is in full swing at last. The truth is precisely the opposite — the two events that might bestow some historic heft on election 2012 are now decisively behind us. In matters of substance Brunnhilde has sung her last.

The Failure of the Progressives

The first of those events was the abject failure of progressives to field a primary challenge to Obama. Compare this to the election of 1968 and the action of “liberals,” the forebears of the “progressives,” and it is evident how much rot has set in on what used to be the left in the U.S. (“Progressive” is a rebrand of “liberal,” and progressives are still labeled “liberals” on the Right.) [DV does not consider progressivism to be a rebrand of liberalism. DV views progressivism as an umbrella term encompassing the range of the Left, of which left liberalism is one component. — Eds] In 1968, with the Vietnam war raging, the liberals within the Democratic Party found in Senator Eugene McCarthy a candidate to challenge Lyndon Baynes Johnson and the war bequeathed him by JFK. McCarthy did not eke out a victory, but he came damned close. LBJ saw the game was up and quit the field. The initiation of the McCarthy candidacy came from within the Democratic Party among activists who were fed up with the war. And the foot troops of the effort came from the ranks of the young who abandoned their counter-culture accouterments and went “clean for Gene” door to door in New Hampshire.

The story did not end there. The liberals and the emerging radical Left were not stampeded into lesser evilism to embrace the hawkish Hubert Horatio Humphrey, Johnson’s chosen successor. Instead they took to the streets of Chicago protesting at the Democratic National Convention, changing the spirit of the times and scuttling the hapless Humphrey’s candidacy. It was a glorious moment for the Left.

Today it is quite the opposite. The hawkish Obama was the candidate of the “progressives” in 2008, even as the hawkish Kerry was in 2004; and said progressives were unable to break free of Obama in 2012. Typical of the lot is Tom Hayden, a leader in the events of ’68, albeit an unreliable one even then, but now a confirmed Democrat of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) stripe, a gang with the lucrative aim of co-opting progressives who might be disposed to a genuine Left. Many of these people in their political dotage have turned into the very species that they regarded as the enemy in their youth. Perhaps the greying of the liberal left has been a major factor in its sclerosis, but it seems more likely that the lesser evilists all along lacked the core convictions and analyses needed to sustain a Left wing movement.

In itself this failure is quite startling and betokens an ever more precipitous decline of present day “progressives.” Consider Obama’s massive betrayal of said “pwogwessives,” a coinage of the late Alex Cockburn, on every major issue from war to civil liberties to single-payer health care and the failure of the pwogs to rebel in any significant way. That is why the shrewd Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report labels Obama the “more effective evil” for his ability to pursue W’s policies while stifling dissent among the pliant pwogs.

Perhaps the reason for the failure of the pwogwessive Left is that there is little genuine Left or Left Radicalism remaining to drive the pwogs in a principled direction — but that is a more complex story.

The Emergence of the Anti-war Libertarians

Now for the second major event, the Ron Paul candidacy, an historic event if ever there was one. The curtain rang down decisively on that effort with the nomination of Romney and the closure of the Republican Convention. But here for the first time since Robert Taft in 1952, there was an antiwar candidacy and more importantly a movement against interventionism. Ron Paul drew thousands of young followers on campuses all over the country with his libertarian message of civil liberties and opposition to war and Empire. And Paul’s message went beyond that of earlier anti-interventionists in the Democratic Party, like Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. For Ron Paul and his followers opposed not only one war or several but the entire idea of intervention and Empire. Paul took up Martin Luther King’s slogan, “Come Home America,” with a vengeance. By August of this year even Grover Norquist, the politically savvy conservative skinflint, was speaking openly about taking the ax to the military budget. And conservative talk show hosts, many neocons at heart, were behaving politely to Ron Paul, although it irked them, because there are many Paul supporters in their audience and among those whom their advertisers and paymasters want to reach. That is surely a sign of libertarian clout. Ron Paul and libertarianism have become household words.

In New Hampshire in 2012 as in 1968 there were scores of young volunteers for Paul even as there were for McCarthy in 1968. Just a few years ago who would’ve thunk? In fact New Hampshire was a lost opportunity, for had Paul been able to win rather than come in second, his candidacy might have turned into a widespread grassroots insurgency within the Republican Party. But the mass media ignored or attacked Paul as did the neocons within the Republican Party. The last straw was the decredentialing of the Paul delegates at the Convention, or earlier as in Massachusetts, and the last minute ad hoc rules change to prevent Paul’s name from being put in nomination.

Ron Paul, much to his credit, has not endorsed Mitt Romney, thus putting principle over Party. And this was clearly no flash in the pan – Paul ran for president in 1988 on the Libertarian ticket as an antiwar candidate, before the Cold War had ended decisively. 2012 represents a return after nearly a quarter century, still opposed to Empire, but with the Cold War over and a perception that the GOP might return to its anti-interventionist roots. His on-line campaign publication, The Daily Paul, has transmogrified into The Liberty Crier, no longer controlled by Paul, but a vehicle for the anti-interventionist libertarian movement that Paul continues to build.

But the great significance of the Ron Paul effort is that he and his movement bring an antiwar message to the American people in terms of a philosophy and vocabulary that is as American as apple pie. Unlike the progressives, Paul is not asking for Americans to change their worldview but simply to see within that view an antiwar, anti-interventionist policy. That is a much easier task.

When we consider the Paul candidacy and the failure of the progressives to field an antiwar candidate within the Democratic Party, it is not hard to understand the ebullience of a libertarian friend of mine when he says of the antiwar movement, “We own it.”

The Future

The reaction of the progressive antiwar movement to the Ron Paul and libertarian efforts is striking. The progressives of the “Peace and Justice” movement overwhelmingly rejected the Paul candidacy and chose to keep the libertarians at arms length and definitely off the speakers’ platform at any event they controlled. How can they justify this to the victims of U.S. military adventures around the globe, which have caused the slaughter of millions of innocents in the last 20 years alone? Prominent exceptions did appear but only on the radical Left, for example in the person of the ever perceptive Alexander Cockburn, who wrote as he was battling a terminal cancer, that he would vote for Paul “given the chance.” “One has to draw the line somewhere, even though I don’t feel in the least Austrian” Cockburn declared.

2012 may or may not herald a seismic shift in American sentiment on war and Empire. But tremors there were, whether one chooses to ignore them or not.

John V. Walsh, @JohnWal97469920, until recently a Professor of Physiology and Neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for several independent media. Read other articles by John V..