Remember the antiwar movement? Not long ago, the Democratic Party's most loyal voters passionately opposed the war in Iraq. Democratic presidential candidates argued over who would withdraw American troops the quickest. Netroots activists regularly denounced President George W. Bush, and sometimes the U.S. military ("General Betray Us"). Cindy Sheehan, the woman whose soldier son was killed in Iraq, became a heroine when she led protests at Bush's Texas ranch.
That was then. Now, even though the United States still has roughly 130,000 troops in Iraq, and will have 68,000 by the end of this year in Afghanistan where Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen calls the situation "serious" and "deteriorating" antiwar voices on the left have largely fallen silent.
No group was more angrily opposed to the war in Iraq than the netroots activists clustered around the left-wing Web site DailyKos. It's an influential site, one of the biggest political sites on the Web, and during the Bush years, many of its devotees took an active role in raising money and campaigning for antiwar candidates.
In 2006, DailyKos held its first annual convention, called YearlyKos, in Las Vegas, Nev. Amid the slightly discordant surroundings of the Riviera Hotel and Casino, the Webby activists spent hours discussing and planning strategies not only to defeat Republicans but to pressure Democrats to oppose the war more forcefully. The gathering attracted lots of mainstream press attention; Internet activism was the hot new thing.
Fast-forward to mid-August 2009, when YearlyKos, renamed Netroots Nation, held its convention in Pittsburgh, Pa. The meeting didn't draw much coverage, but the views of those who attended are still, as they were in 2006, a good snapshot of the left wing of the Democratic Party.
The news that emerged is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have virtually fallen off the progressive radar screen. Kossacks (as fans of DailyKos like to call themselves) who were consumed by the war when George W. Bush was president are now, with Barack Obama in the White House, not so consumed. In fact, they barely seem to care.
As part of a straw poll done at the convention, the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg presented participants with a list of policy priorities like health care and the environment. He asked people to list the two priorities they believed "progressive activists should be focusing their attention and efforts on the most." The winner, by far, was "passing comprehensive healthcare reform." In second place was enacting "green energy policies that address environmental concerns."
And what about "working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan"? It was way down the list, in eighth place.
Perhaps more tellingly, Greenberg asked activists to name the issue that "you, personally, spend the most time advancing currently." The winner, again, was healthcare reform. Next came "working to elect progressive candidates in the 2010 elections." Then came a bunch of other issues. At the very bottom last place, named by just 1 percent of participants came working to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It's an extraordinary change in the mindset of the left. I attended the first YearlyKos convention, and have kept up with later ones, and it's safe to say that for many self-styled progressives, the war in Iraq was THE animating cause of their activism. They hated the war, and they hated George W. Bush for starting it. Or maybe they hated the war BECAUSE George W. Bush started it. Either way, it was war, war, war.
Now, not so much.
Cindy Sheehan is learning that. She's still protesting, and recently announced plans to demonstrate at Martha's Vineyard, where President Obama is vacationing.
"We as a movement need to continue calling for an immediate end to the occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) even when there is a Democrat in the Oval Office," Sheehan said in a statement. "There is still no Noble Cause no matter how we examine the policies."
Give her credit for consistency, if nothing else. But her days are over. The people who most fervently supported her have moved on.
Not long ago, some observers worried that Barack Obama would come under increasing pressure from the left to leave both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it seems those worries were unfounded. For many progressive activists, opposing the war was really about opposing George W. Bush. When Bush disappeared, so did their antiwar passion.