WASHINGTON—What do you get when you talk Pat Buchanan in a room in which every liberal peace and civil rights icon—from Gandhi to Rosa Parks to the Dalai Lama—is looking down like the immortals in a sort of benign judgment from a giant mural on the wall?
For one, the lightning doesn’t strike and the tables don’t clear with an angry clatter. In fact, the mostly liberal crowd that came to see the a panel about the prospects of a left-right alliance against war seemed ready to try anything to help the peace movement out of the dustbin of wasted energies in time for another drawn out presidential campaign cycle and the election of a new U.S. Congress in 2012.
The place: Busboys and Poets, in the heart of D.C.’s U Street Corridor and the city’s “cultural and activist” scene, which you can bet is not emblematized by bleeding liberty trees or minute men. Who? Ralph Nader, liberal activist, government watchdog and consummate third party provocateur; Dan McCarthy, editor-in-chief of The American Conservative magazine, a Republican Party insurgency, consummate paleo-conservative meets libertarian voice in the wilderness; Kevin Zeese, longtime liberal activist who began his career as an attorney for NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and a former Green Party Senate candidate; and I, who was seated on the “right” of the stage because of my freelance affiliation with FoxNews.com.
The evening was moderated by Baltimore radio talk show host Marc Steiner, and sponsored by Come Home America, the brainchild of Zeese. He sees a left-right alliance as the natural evolution of a peace movement that’s floundered as the longtime proprietary activity of liberal-Democratic America. Since Obama’s election in 2008, Democrats have conspicuously fallen off the peace train, making the antiwar movement more anemic than ever. According to a recent University of Michigan study, up to 54 percent of antiwar activists had been self-described Democrats during the last presidential election between 2007-2009. Now, less than a quarter of activists call themselves Democrats anymore.
While the lost Democratic activists pretend Libya is not a war and torture is really “enhanced interrogation,” Zeese is enjoining an expanding number of liberal and conservative voices who think grabbing common ground—especially now, when GOP members of Congress and even Republican presidential candidates against the war are rising—might just infuse the flagging movement, and put pressure on politicians to start rethinking the gargantuan defense budget and help bring home the troops from war faster. In other words, uniting against American empire abroad and the expansion of the national security state at home.
“There is no question we disagree on other issues,” Zeese told the audience of a hundred or so people on Sunday night, “but there are a lot of issues where we can find agreement outside of ending empire, too.”
The idea of such an alliance is hardly new, with plenty of debate over whether it is even possible, much less an attractive prospect to either side. Antiwar’s Justin Raimondo has talked about it at length, and even spoke at one of Come Home America’s inaugural events. Late last year, in a speech given for the Boston chapter of the group, Raimondo exclaimed:
Without a united front against war, a union of the left and the right, no effective opposition to the War Party is possible. No party or faction, be it conservative or progressive, liberal or reactionary, has a monopoly on the banner of peace. At one time or another, both right and left have been on different sides of that divide, and if the goal of the peace movement is to be reached it must transcend and stand above this kind of partisanship.
Much has happened since he gave that speech, politics-wise. Most notably has been the continued rise of libertarian influence within the Republican Party as the voice of fiscal restraint, here and abroad. While so far the congress has failed to translate this new tone into cutting or even holding the line on the federal defense budget, there has been a new bipartisan alliance against the war, most notably in the recent showing of Republicans on a pair of (failed) votes to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and a fresh bipartisan lawsuit against military operations in Libya, which the president insists is not war, and therefore not subject to the War Powers Act.
Newcomers to the movement like two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and freshman Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who rode the wings of the Tea Party into the House during the last election cycle, are now inhabiting the same space as longtime antiwar Republicans like Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) (who is again running for president) and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.). Whether the newbies are sincere—in other words, whether they’ll cling to their conviction it’s “unconstitutional” when a Republican is elected president and continues to bomb the hell out of third world countries in the name of the national security—remains unknown, but they are generating welcome headlines for the media-parched antiwar movement in the meantime.
The same goes for the Republican primary candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, who have been flirting with what would have been a no-go, pariah-making position in 2008—advocating military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Whether we are looking at political expediency or not, the moment seems to be pregnant with possibilities for this nascent left-right experiment. In other words, there might not be a better time than now.
“We must answer the knock of history which is knocking at our door right now,” said Zeese. He is helping to organize what he calls a Tahrir Square-style action in Washington, D.C., on October 6. Billed as “October 2011,” planners hope to bring a diversity of protesters to Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington in a show of non-violent opposition to the “stranglehold of corporatism and militarism” on the country today, underscoring especially the effect of the ongoing wars on the economic landscape at home.
“If on the first day three hundred of us are arrested, we want to come back again the next day and do it all over again,” Zeese exclaimed.
Zeese wants October 2011—which will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan—to be the ultimate coming out of this new left-right alliance. But does this alliance even have what it takes? This is what came out of Sunday night’s discussion:
The left and right have sound, shared instincts on the war, the media, Washington politics and runaway militarism. “We have an unaccountable government,” said Nader, who has been fighting city hall for nearly five decades. The Pentagon budget has been “declared inaudible,” Nader added, and the “military industrial congressional complex” protected not only by a phalanx of reliable leaders in the immovable two-party system, but by mainstream media, think tanks, and corporate America.
This talk is no different than say, the conversation among disenchanted Republicans who have been fighting vigorously within the party and out for an alternative to the neoconservative foreign policy implemented during the Bush Years. Opposition has ranged from The American Conservative’s groundbreaking debut in 2002 of the paleo-conservative position against the War in Iraq, to the “Ron Paul Revolution,” which, although Paul never left his party, has taken place largely outside of the two-party realm.
Sunday night, the discussion was not so much about promoting another third party movement, but using the tools of grassroots organization on both sides to make enough noise that politicians of every stripe have to listen—much like the Tea Party’s use of town hall meetings to affect the debate over health care two summers ago.
Nader suggested that it takes no more than 300 signatures on a letter to a congressional representative to get him or her to address a group of constituents in their district —creating the perfect opportunity for political theater and media attention. In other words, putting members’ feet to the fire at the local level. If enough people in enough districts do it, it might create a stir. And what better time to do this than before a critical election, when bread and butter issues like jobs and deficits are being directly effected by a 10-year war budget that has sent over a trillion dollars and counting down a rabbit hole overseas?
People in the audience Sunday night seemed to get it, that such activism, especially more recently on the right, “really has a pulse,” and the left could learn a thing or two about coherency of message and the use of the media—mainstream and otherwise—to get Americans angry enough to head for the polls. They also understand that as “misfit” factions—the anti-Obama liberals and anti-war right wing—they are delegitimized and discredited by the establishment and the mainstream media. Perhaps this hard road needs to be shared.
“I think we need (the alliance), not just on antiwar but on the environment and other issues. We’re all thinking about the good of humanity, not to mention the good
of the country here,” said audience member Nina Sommerfelt, a independent voter from Virginia who leans left. “We need to make an alliance … to break the stranglehold.”
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of suspicion and lingering caricatures that might get in the way of a productive partnership. Looking at the participants’ list of the October 2001 action, there are a few organizations and individuals who might elicit support if not fraternity from the antiwar right, but not many. So far. “A lot of the participants are people from the left, yes,” acknowledged Zeese, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an active effort today to bring the right on board. That’s what Sunday’s event at Busboys and Poets was all about.
One of the biggest obstacles to a left-right alliance has been, not surprisingly, the inability to transcend the deep ideological differences between the two sides. The antiwar right has long complained that today’s peace protests from the beginning have been dominated by a socialist agenda repellent to any potential conservative, libertarian or even mainstream interest. In other words, finding common ground or even transpartisanship, has been sacrificed for tribal activism, which invariably finds the movement on the left hitting a brick wall, with the right and everyone else struggling on the other side.
Of course, the same could be said about the liberty movement on the right and its own rallies, like those organized by the Campaign for Liberty. They’ve been invariably characterized as young and dynamic, but nonetheless devoid of most left-leaning antiwar or “progressive” elements, which are just as suspicious of the rallies’ government smashing, free-market themes as the Ron Paul revolutionaries are of the big-government, Marxist impulses on the other side of the fence.
Will October 2011 turn out to be another ANSWER-dominated protest, which, despite weeks of hard work and earnest energy, typically gets ignored by the press and the right wing interests that Zeese and others have been so assiduously courting?
McCarthy suggests that depends on how the organizers of this new movement talk to their targeted audiences. The first step: know the language. Next, try to keep everyone on the shared script. No one is going to listen for more than five minutes, much less turn out for what could be an act of civil disobedience, if the first thing they see is the caricatured, seemingly monochromatic sea of Che Guevara T-shirts and Free Mumia! signs (much like the liberals’ aversion to the prospect of armed, Gadsden Flag-waving patriots marching lockstep on the other side).
“It’s a matter of talking to them where they are, philosophically, intellectually,” and building trust within the conversation, noted McCarthy. Non-intervention and a healthy fear of the potential for government abuse is enshrined in Jeffersonian tradition and in the founding of the country itself, he added. “This tradition has been completely obliterated” by the current and previous administrations post-9/11. That is what the left and right can agree on—and take it from there.
Zeese agrees. “Everyone is paying a price for this—for the military empire. We need to unite over this issue.”
Normally, “only time will tell.” But there is not much of it. Come September, accelerating this alliance, if at all, becomes a practical matter. At that point, the presidential race will be in full gear, and it will take more than disparate voices from the misfit factions of the two parties to be heard over the political inanities to come.