Three years ago, Chantel Azadeh, 23, an antiwar activist at the University of California, Irvine, would never have imagined herself working on an electoral campaign. Ghafari, who belongs to an anarchist group called People Organized against War, Empire and Rulers, wasn’t exactly the incremental-change type–and she certainly didn’t see much difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. But 2004 may be different. “The last two years have done a number on a lot of people’s minds,” she says. “You might be surprised to hear this from an anti-authoritarian, an anarchist, but this election I plan on getting involved. I think it’s crucial that we get Bush out of the White House.”
Protests against Bush’s war on Iraq drew more students than any other recent protest movement, and they were younger, more working-class and more racially and geographically diverse. Now it looks as if that protest energy may provide momentum for the 2004 elections. The enthusiastic volunteerism of right-wing students played a significant role in electing George W. Bush. It stands to reason, then, that progressive students, if equally savvy, could help toss him out. Azadeh is now planning to devote herself to that project, joining many other antiwar students who have been skeptical about electoral politics in the past.
A survey of young people conducted for MTV by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found that one out of every twelve respondents had attended an antiwar protest–and many more said the war had affected their voting plans. Fifty-three percent of those eligible to vote planned to pull the lever in 2004, a dramatic increase over recent past elections. “We’re poised to see the highest [youth] participation yet,” says Jehmu Greene, executive director of Rock the Vote. Though two-thirds of the respondents in the MTV poll said they supported the war, 54 percent believed that those who protested the war were “acting patriotically” and only 41 percent said they would vote for Bush. These numbers suggest ambivalence about Bush and good will toward the antiwar movement–a real opening for young peace activists who want to build a voting bloc of their peers.
Though Rock the Vote took no position on the war, the organization views antiwar sentiment and the economy as the two most powerful vehicles for increasing youth voter participation this election cycle. A newspaper ad the organization co-sponsored with TomPaine.com, Peace Action and TrueMajority urged young people to register to vote, calling voting “the only peace demonstration the president can’t ignore.” It was illustrated with origami-style instructions showing how to fold an antiwar placard into a ballot.
This is far from an empty exhortation, given the surprisingly large field of antiwar presidential contenders. Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun took a stand against the war. The Rev. Al Sharpton became an antiwar activist himself, addressing numerous protest rallies. Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich was one of Capitol Hill’s most dogged voices for peace, sponsoring an antiwar resolution and now demanding evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Even moderate Vermont Governor Howard Dean is running on his antiwar record, drawing attacks from the Democratic Leadership Council. Before Bush, says Dean supporter Franz Hartl, 25, most young liberals weren’t driven to get involved in presidential politics because “things weren’t so bad.” But the Administration’s extreme conservativism and its pre-emptive war on Iraq have changed the calculation. Besides, he says, young people “don’t like to be lied to.”
Activists with the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition (NYSPC), which coordinated antiwar protests on hundreds of campuses this past spring, are working to mold that sentiment into an antiwar voting bloc. On May 6, following up on demonstrations and student walkouts the group organized before and during the war, NYSPC kicked off a campaign to urge fellow students to vote for candidates who would fund education rather than military adventures–and to make politicians take notice of this evolving constituency. Many students, from campuses as diverse as Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, New York, and Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, had classmates sign cards pledging to vote for “books, not bombs.” Some registered voters, while others lobbied their elected officials; during finals week, Philadelphia-area high school and college students organized a “study-in” in far-right Senator Rick Santorum’s office. So far, NYSPC has not endorsed any specific candidates, and is still discussing when–and whether–to do that.
Meanwhile, many antiwar students have already made their pick, with Dean drawing the most campus enthusiasm. He may perform unevenly in national polls, but students like his claim to represent “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and compare him to Gene McCarthy, the antiwar candidate in 1968. Activists on more than 200 campuses are campaigning for Dean–in his native Northeast, but also in South Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas–and more are signing up every week. “The growth has been tremendous,” says Yoni Cohen, 22, who ran Students for Dean at Washington University in St. Louis this past semester (now graduated, he’s working as an organizer for the Dean campaign). Dean supporters at Tulane University, in New Orleans, recently staged “Liberalpalooza,” a day of concerts and speakers, and elsewhere, student Dean boosters have been giving out free Vermont Maple Syrup and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, in playful reference to the political obscurity of their man’s home state.
This summer, many young volunteers have headed north for “Camp Dean.” They will knock on New Hampshire doors by day and camp out in local campsites with fellow politicos by night. In addition to this army of short-term campers, 150 student interns will canvass full-time throughout the summer. A spokesperson for the Dean campaign says the camp was designed to inspire students to organize for Dean on campus in the fall and also provide students with the training to do so effectively.
Hartl, together with several other recent college graduates, has formed Music for America, with the goal of using the influence of politically conscious musicians and the power of young voters to elect Dean. Music for America puts on small benefit concerts, raises campaign contributions online and will offer stipends to students and youth to canvass in early primary states in December and January.
Hartl was an antisweatshop activist at Boston College and more recently participated in several antiwar protests in New York City. But he found himself “disappointed that [protest] wasn’t having more of an effect.” He says he and his friends founded MFA because they realized that “every recently successful progressive movement has been a cultural one,” mentioning the recent victory of the Workers Party in Brazil. They book most of their shows in places like Siberia, a beloved, if grungy, Manhattan bar. The evenings combine political speeches with appearances by alternative icons in an effort to engage alienated sophisticates. At one June event, political hip-hoppers Arrested Development gave a reunion performance, and indie literary icon Neal Pollack has promised his support. “We’re hip, ironic,” laughs Hartl. “We’re using culture to show that Karl Rove and the Cato Institute are dorks and losers.”
Hartl, who voted for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000, says that until recently he “bought into the idea that there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans,” and he still despises DLC Democrats, who “keep going after the middle, instead of trying to excite people who’ve never voted before.” Few Naderites have abandoned their belief in third-party politics, but many, like Hartl, are far more terrified of the actual Bush Administration than they were of its prospects in 2000. Hartl expects the Dean campaign to ease some of the hostility between Greens and progressive Dems. Indeed, at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, leaders of the Campus Greens and Young Democrats are jointly coordinating the Dean campaign. Roey Rosenblith, 21, from the Green half of that duo, organized antiwar protests earlier this year and is adamantly opposed to the two-party system. But he says Greens must become more practical, which may mean working sometimes in coalition with progressive Democrats. Democrats, for their part, “should stop blaming Nader [for 2000] and say, ‘Maybe we should change what we’re doing.'”
Even though Dennis Kucinich was more fiercely antiwar than Dean, he is so far drawing much less campus interest. Faraz Waheed, 19, a student at Ohio State who has been active in the Campus Greens, on Palestinian liberation and against the war, has been struggling hard to drum up excitement about Kucinich at his school–located in Kucinich’s home state. “‘He’s not going to win.’ That’s the biggest objection we hear,” says Waheed. “There’s a trend toward seeing Dennis as a joke, and Howard Dean as a realistic choice.” In a recent Gallup poll, for example, Kucinich captured just 1 percent of Democrats.
Jessica Davis, 21, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati who is now the youth coordinator for Kucinich’s campaign, is undaunted by Dean’s competition for the antiwar student vote. She acknowledges that Kucinich’s campus campaign has lagged behind Dean’s, but insists, “We’re very new.” While the Dean campaign began in earnest in March, Davis only began organizing campus support for Kucinich at the end of the school year. The candidate has been traveling to campuses–Berkeley, UCLA, Grinnell College in Iowa, as well as colleges and universities in his home state–where he often draws more than a thousand students. “And at each event,” Davis says, speaking by cell phone from Stanford University, “students come up and say, How do I get involved?” Davis says students opposing the war are particularly excited about the candidate, but the challenge is that “they don’t know what they can do, where to start.” For many accustomed to organizing protests, an electoral campaign is something new.
Al Sharpton, the candidate most connected to the grassroots antiwar movement, is the top choice among black Democrats, but has yet to attract broader interest. When asked about his plans to mobilize young people for his campaign, he said he’d enlist pop stars. “You think it’s big when Jay-Z comes to Harlem,” he said, “how about when Jay-Z comes to Greenville, South Carolina?” But Jay-Z has yet to endorse Sharpton (“We’re talking,” the candidate says), and so far, Sharpton’s campaign has little campus presence. Calls to campaign headquarters for Carol Moseley Braun went unreturned.
Whether or not any particular presidential campaign attracts mass student support, Bush’s aggressive warmongering and perilous mishandling of the economy have undoubtedly drawn many young people into electoral politics. But as much as they want to defeat Bush, most are not willing to support a prowar Democrat. If Dean doesn’t win the nomination, Rosenblith says he’ll vote Green. Ben Waxman, who just graduated from Springfield Township High School in Erdenheim, Pennsylvania, and an organizer with NYSPC, says if the Democrats nominate Lieberman (that Gallup poll put him as the top choice among Democrats), he’ll abandon electoral work for protest and direct action.
Many young peace activists remain unimpressed by the pool of candidates and will be tough to recruit into electoral work. To them, participating in the Democratic Party is a distraction from building a long-term alternative to what Ralph Nader called the “Republicrats”–or building a mass movement that could make such an alternative viable. Yvonne Liu, a Columbia University senior who has been active in the campus antiwar movement and in several anti-authoritarian groups, predicts that many more young activists like herself will vote in ’04. But Liu won’t go to work for a candidate, which she says would mean “getting co-opted by our market democracy.”
Chantel Azadeh isn’t so sure. “Call me a sellout or whatever,” she says, “I know a lot of anti-authoritarians will. But it’s crucial to elect someone who will lessen the madness.” She will help out the Campus Greens this fall. As for presidential candidates, Azadeh says, “I like Howard Dean a lot. I think he would be a great President.”