Violent Protests Against the Iraq War
Richard Posner has an interesting but unconvincing post asking the question why there have been no violent, disruptive protests against the war in Iraq, as there were in 1968 over the Vietnam War. He suggests that in addition to “[t]he obvious answer that there is no longer a draft”, that there are five contributing factors that explain the absence of violent protests against the Iraq War:
[First], the opponents of the war in Iraq have the support of one of the two political parties…. [T]hey have less need to protest because they are aligned with a powerful political force. Stated differently, protests would have a modest incremental effect on ending our military involvement in Iraq, and perhaps even a negative effect.
Second, the opportunity costs of time are higher today than they were in the 1960s and early 1970s for potential protesters. This is partly because of higher wages, especially for educated people, and the fact that a higher percentage of women are employed. The greater competitiveness of the economy discourages people from taking risks with their careers by protesting. It discourages college students as well as the employed, because someone who gets the reputation in college of being a violent protester, or is suspended or simply gets very low grades because of the distraction of engaging in protest activities, will see his opportunities for a good job diminish.
Third, the great expansion of the electronic media, including the advent of blogs, gives people outlets to blow off steam that are much cheaper, in cost of time, than street demonstrations or acts of violence. The electronic media enable a message to be communicated to far more people than street demonstrations do, and at lower cost, so one expects substitution in favor of the media.
Fourth is a learning factor. The violent protests against the Vietnam war probably did not shorten the war, but instead helped Nixon become President….
[Fifth], [f]or many of the Vietnam war protesters, the war was a symbol of what they believed to be deeper and broader problems with the United States and the entire Western world. They thought the “system” rotten and entertained Utopian hopes of overthrowing it and substituting a socialist or anarchist paradise. This belief gave the war more resonance as a target. Partly because of the collapse of communism, partly because of greater prosperity, few Americans are hostile to the American system.
There is just one little problem with Posner’s thesis: Seattle. The violent, disruptive protests in November 1999 against the WTO ministerial meeting cannot be explained away based on the factors Posner presents. There was no draft at issue with the anti-globalist protests; many members of the Democratic Party were (and are) strongly aligned with the “fair trade” concerns of the protesters; there were opportunity costs and diminished job prospects attached to anyone who violently protested globalization; the electronic media was in full flower in the late 1990s and offered alternative avenues for communicating their message; and the violent protests against the WTO was a failed project, i.e., it did not dampen the general public’s enthusiasm for globalization and certainly did not help Gore defeat Bush in 2000. That leaves the fifth factor, which I will grant in the case of the WTO protests, it appears that the anti-globalists believed the capitalist, free-trade system was rotten to the core.
So by my count only one of Posner’s six factors explains why there were violent, disruptive protests in Seattle, but there have been no violent, disruptive protests over the Iraq War. This suggests that the more interesting question is why the protests against globalization but not the Iraq War? In short, why would one become more exercised about trade than war?