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The Mobilization of Middle America

Recently, something has happened in countless Middle American towns and cities across the country: the people who are usually anti-political have been politicized.

Scott Schaffer

Monday, February 17 2003, 04:25 PM

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I currently make my home, is not a hotbed of political activity -- ever. Until recently, the most contentious issue in town had to do with a landfill south of the city. Some of the city fathers were trying to expand using land that had changed hands under clouds of suspicion that could have produced a foot of snow. "Impeach Barley" stickers, fighting against the state representative implicated in the landfill scandal, were as contentious as things got, even when the best bartender in town, named Barley, had one. Elections here are rarely all that contested; in the recent midterm elections, there wasn't even a Democratic candidate for US House of Representatives.

Lancaster touts itself as the "oldest inland city in America" and prides itself on having been the capitol of the United States for half a day. Lancaster is thirty miles in the shadow of Three Mile Island, but is most generally known as the center of Amish Country, and thousands of tourists come monthly to the city to gawk at the "backward" Amish, shop at the Central Market, and blow cash at the outlet malls (yes, plural). It's predominantly Republican in its voting, predominantly Protestant in its religiosity, and class- and ethnically stratified. It is, put briefly, Middle America at its finest.

Yet recently, something has happened here that's happened in countless other Middle American towns and cities across the country: the people who are usually anti-political have been politicized. The recent anti-war protests in Washington DC and other locations across the country surprised pundits and observers of all political stripes by including not just the proverbial rabble-rousers who dissent about everything, but mothers, grandmothers, veterans, Greens, and just about any other demographic or interest group one can envision. The Bush War II has ended up finding a way to invoke the ire of just about every group in America -- save maybe those who will end up benefiting financially from control over Iraqi oil fields.

Lancaster is no different on this front. There have been weekly peace vigils at the county courthouse for two months now; weekly attempts by peace activists to meet with Representative Joe Pitts; even Republicans going to fundraising dinners where Pitts will appear order to convince him that his constituency doesn't want the war. A coalition of people who are against the war has blossomed here, drawing 150 people to its first meeting and maintaining similar numbers since then. Meetings of the local peace coalition include members of the Green Party, Wobblies, university professors, and die-hard Republican churchgoers. And at least 100 people made the two-hour trip to Washington DC for the anti-war rallies in mid-January, and just as many have planned to go to the rally in Philadelphia in mid-February.

How is it that we can understand this mobilization, especially in an area that elected to the governor's house the man who is now the Homeland Security Secretary and who voted almost overwhelmingly for Shrub?

Put simply, there are two things that have made it possible and necessary for members of these different groups to mobilize against the war: it has local ramifications, and this political stance appears non-political.

Having been through Bush War I and seen friends and peers paint on camouflage and pack up for the Persian Gulf, I know how hard it can be to go through the process of watching those you love leave to risk their lives. Only twelve years after Bush War I, my students -- and Lancastrians' children, husbands, wives and partners, lovers -- are packing up to fight another war. Twelve years ago, there wasn't the same kind of mobilization. We university students got in the streets to protest it, but did our grandmothers? So why now?

Bush War I was pitched in terms of liberation -- the United States had to go and free the Kuwaiti people from the ruthless rule of Saddam Hussein. Bush War II has been offered up as a nebulous threat prevention measure. Bush War I came to us as video games with a final level and an endgame; Bush War II is being sold to us as a never-ending story, a game with real bodies and real threats to the US. Bush War I happened at a time when the Fortress America myth was still intact, having won out over the Soviet Union; Bush War II comes on the heels of 9/11 and comes with a real sense of the US being vulnerable and a knowledge that if there are terrorists involved, it's not going to be a short-and-sweet, Missile Command-style conflict, but a long and drawn-out war. Frankly, Middle America doesn't want to sacrifice its sons and daughters for this one.

What's interesting about the response to this Bush war is that people are standing up to it. They're not doing it on the basis of any kind of political platform or party position. They're doing it on the one thing that unites most people in this country -- faith.

As Scott Kender, the outreach coordinator for the Lancaster Peace Coalition puts it, no politics have entered into the Coalition's planning and action. They've put aside the differences for the sake of unifying around the issue at hand -- the war -- and most of the people who are part of the Coalition are there because their faith compels them to be there. Combine a sense that to be Christian means to stand up to unjust wars with a sense that Bush War II is going to have more local consequences, and these people have decided that enough is enough, that now is the time to say "no more" to Shrub. Expand that to include adherents to other religions -- Judaism, Islam, pagans, and others -- and nationally, a well-organized anti-war force has begun to appear. They've found the one thing that unites them: the sense that their faith now demands action.

For those who study social movements, resource mobilization theory says that once a group of people develops a frame of reference that enables them to act and gain a sense that they can make a difference, they will begin to do just that. The question for us on the fragmented Left, then, is how to find a unity as solid as this faith-based activism, or even how to work with this type of activism?

We have a remarkable opportunity at hand. People who see themselves as apolitical or even antipolitical are now ready to get into the streets and express their dissent. Can we figure out a way to take that dissent and channel it against all the other ills in the world? We can if we rely on the two things that groups like the Lancaster Peace Coalition use as a tool for getting people into the streets.

First, we need to focus on the local ramifications of all the issues we on the Left care about: economic inequality, compulsory “bad faith” and a lack of accountability on the part of politicians, the development of direct democracy, and social justice for all. Too often, we pitch these ideas in the language of the theoretical or the distant -- "neoliberalism is bad because...", "justice for maquiladoras...", etc. We need to learn the language of the local, to speak to people about their local concerns in a way they can see in their daily lives. Second, we need to find a way to begin to unify people around a common set of concerns. Rather than highlighting only differences between the Left and "everyone else" (presuming that "everyone else" is non-Left), we need to show that what we see as important political issues and problems are actually everyone's problems.

Once we can speak to these commonalities in the name of change, we'll no longer have to worry about mobilizing Middle America. They will mobilize us -- as it should be.

Scott Schaffer teaches sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania,is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team, and still enjoys hearing Amish buggies pass down his street.

Copyright © 2003 by Scott Schaffer. All rights reserved.