On Friday morning, August 17, Nick Travis protested in Crawford, Texas, as George Bush arrived for a barbecue. “We were making sure there was some kind of protest,” explains Travis. “That he at least saw a sign. It was a presence.” There were four of them. One was arrested.
It’s been two years since Cindy Sheehan set up Camp Casey outside Bush’s ranch to protest the war in the name of her son, who was killed in Iraq. In those two years we have seen the Democrats take back both houses of Congress; the Iraq Study Group call for a pullback of US troops; and the public, punditocracy and political class all reverse their position on the war.
In that time we have also seen an escalation of US troops, no letup in the vast number of civilian and combatant casualties (including US troops) and the exodus of Iraq’s professional class. In short, in the past two years most people’s views about what needed to happen changed and what actually happened did not.
Given the outlook in August 2005, even this is no small feat. Back then, demonstrations in Crawford were about more than just a physical presence. They marked a political moment. All the polls suggested that public sentiment on the war had shifted from frustration to despair but had found inadequate and inconsistent expression in Congress and the press. The mainstream had effectively been marginalized.
Then along came Cindy. Packaged as an Everymother just looking for answers, she made the cable shows and supermarket magazine covers. She had in fact been around for quite some time. (The Nation had featured her on the cover four months earlier.) But now the word was flowing beyond our ideological shores. In the space of a month, Sheehan went from being an activist with energy and a compelling story to a household name who could spark 1,627 local vigils in solidarity.
In the absence of a cohesive, media-savvy antiwar movement, she became the face of protest. As such she did not so much lead public opinion as embody it. Her prominence illustrated the actual weakness of the left as much as it did its potential strength. In the American public, progressives had a receptive audience; but we have failed to meaningfully reach them. “It’s rare when people seriously publicly engage,” Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice, told me after Bush announced the “surge.” “They watch it on TV. They read about it in the newspapers. They get angry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they engage.”
That disconnect remains both our greatest challenge and our weakest link. We may toast Karl Rove’s departure and Bush’s woes and tout polling figures that show increasing backing for withdrawal and against occupation. But the fact that the Republicans are losing public support for the war doesn’t necessarily mean that we have won the argument against it.