I know this is highly subjective, but it seems to me that since roughly the 2008 presidential election, the American left has been placing less and less emphasis on issues relating to war and peace. During the Bush administration, the American left was very much defined by its opposition to the wars and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since 2008, these conflicts have tapered off, but the US certainly hasn't stopped playing its geopolitical games in the region. Yet, mainstream left-leaning sources of news and commentary seem to have shifted discussions of war and conflict to the back seat in favor of domestic issues. For example, Biden's recent bombing in Syria (Feb 2021) seemed to spark little in terms of public debate. I'd love suggestions for further reading on this shift, its causes and how the anti-war movement has changed in the last decade.

Edit: Divibisan points out in the comments that I'm sort of conflating the American left, the anti-war movement and the Democrtic party here. It's a good point. I guess I mean to ask:

  1. Why does the Democratic party seem less anti-war than it used to?

  2. Why do left-leaning media outlets seem less interested in reporting on war than they used to? (NYT, WP seem to have done this, but even Democracy Now has shifted somewhat)

  3. Is this shift even real or does it just seem this way to me?

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    Anti War != No War. Just because a group wants to avoid conflict doesn't mean it is going to stop all armed conflicts. If you look at the actions they are always in response to something. And being Anti War doesn't mean you can sit by and let others wage war or other similar actions.
    – Joe W
    Commented Mar 24, 2021 at 14:37
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    "Since 2008, these conflicts have tapered off" - Doesn't it make sense to spend an amount of time and money on something proportional to how big of a problem it is? If it's no longer such a big problem, why would they focus a lot on it?
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 1:44
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    I think what you are noticing is a broader shift in US politics from a focus on foreign policy to domestic policy. Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to write a well-researched answer, but I think Berni Sanders largely spear-headed this shift on the left.
    – jerlich
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 4:54
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    How does that not assume that the anti-war movement is purely a left-wing thing? Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 1:50
  • I'd argue that Sanders represented a pushback against certain aspects global financialism, of which war is a component and it's primary presence is rooted in corporatism. He and trump were similar in parts, with Trump instead largely instead focusing on trade and tangible productivity returning to the US as oppose to directly addressing disparities that corporatism natural creates. Trump instead wanted to prioritize creating enough wealth that the disparity doesn't matter.
    – Skyler
    Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 4:26

5 Answers 5


The "anti-war" rubric is mainly a conservative conflation of a lot of different Centrist, Leftist, and (non-authoritarian) Rightist positions. I mean, it is often blithely applied to wide ranging movements like:

  • Pacifism, which opposes mass violence for moral and/or religious reasons
  • Anti-draft movements, which oppose forcing young people to risk their lives for policies they do not understand or embrace, particularly when they have no influence over the political decisions that led to war: for example, the Vietnam war draft, which swept up men barely of voting age who were often sent into combat before being able to participate in any election
  • Opposition to 'oligarchic' or 'statist' warfare: war meant to secure economic interests or establish political hegemony, as opposed to national defense properly put or humanitarian intervention. Think the "No Blood for Oil" slogan of the W Bush era
  • The rejection of militarism as an end in itself, used to secure domestic political agendas, for the satisfaction of national pride, or to maintain the industrial production that supplies the military

The large anti-war movements of the '60s were mainly anti-draft movements (though there were elements of the other bullet points). However, the US military draft ended in '73, removing that source of political dispute. The somewhat smaller protests of the W Bush era were mainly related to the last two points, since many in the Center and on the Left saw the war in Afghanistan as authoritarian overreach, and the war in Iraq as a completely vapid political ploy founded on manufactured pretexts. And in general, outright war is likely to produce outrage and protests, because outright war involves large commitments of personnel and of material and economic resources over long periods of time. While protests may seem spontaneous, in reality they only occur after a decent amount of public outrage has simmered up to a boiling point. People need time to talk about the issue among themselves and build up a head of steam before the possibility of protests becomes realistic.

Singular military actions — as opposed to full-scale military commitment — generally have a different evaluative metric. Only ethical pacifists are likely to object to them consistently, while others on the Left, Center, and Right will approve or disapprove based on some assessment of need and appropriateness. Biden's bombing in Syria is a case in point: it was over and done before the news hit the media, and it was clearly retaliatory, with no sense that it would become a military commitment or established practice of his administration. People might fume about it, but such 'fuming' will remain as background noise unless it begins to look like this will be the 'norm' in Biden's administration, not a 'necessary exception'.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 8:22
  • +1 I generally agree with your sentiment. But regarding the difference between the Vietnam and the Iraq War protests: At least from a global perspective, the anti-war protests in February 2003 were (at the time) the biggest protests in history with perhaps 36 million people protesting all over the world. Were the numbers in the US really that much lower compared to earlier protests?
    – R.K.
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 8:41
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    "Think the "No Blood for Oil" slogan of the W Bush era" - That slogan was used in the HW Bush era as well, during the first Gulf War.
    – D M
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 9:39

I think this is another issue that could do with a Special Providence analysis.

According to Mead there are 4 competing schools of US Foreign Policy, basically divided via what their international goals are (trade, security, ideals, or US independence), which ultimately means they have different standards for when they want things ignored, when they want peaceful interventions, and when they want to fight.

We just went through 4 years under a Jacksonian (US independence) administration. Jacksonians are in general the least willing of all the schools to intervene in foreign affairs (right up until the moment someone attacks the US, at which point God help you because nobody down here can anymore). They tend to carry this attitude to extremes though, which means they don't want the US involved any any multi-party international treaties or agreements that might constrain US actions, aren't particularly willing to enforce any that exist, and could care less about some other country's actions, no matter how disruptive or immoral, as long as the US isn't directly hurt.

According to Mead, most ordinary Americans actually belong to this school. It should go without saying that international "bad actors" (dictators, despots, would-be conquerors) have a lot to gain while the US is under such an administration, and it certainly seemed to the adherents of the other 3 schools that some such actors were running rampant the last 4 years.

Where this may tie in with your view of "the left" is the following: The Republican party is effectively the Presidents' party while he's in office, which means for the last 4 years it has been committed to fighting for Jacksonian foreign policy ideals. The opposition party has to stand in opposition (that's its role), which means Democrats have largely been forced into the role of arguing against non-interventionism the last 4 years, and bemoaning how the mice have been playing while the cat was away (in places like Turkey, Syria, various besieged Russian neighbors, etc.)

As a coda, the new Administration is obviously going to change this dynamic somewhat. Which school Biden belongs to is not currently clear (and is perhaps even still up in the air at this point), however it is pretty clear it will not be Jacksonian. My current guess, based on how he ran for office would lean to Jeffersonian (security) like Obama, but that was just how he sold himself, not necessarily who he is.

  • 1
    Jacksonian: nuke’em till they glow in the dark and then shoot them by the glow.
    – jmoreno
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 22:03
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    @jmoreno - Also them yes. Once they decide you've started a fight, it's on like Donkey Kong.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 15:45

Obama got elected.

Long story short, you'll notice that the anti-war Left got really quiet right around the time that Obama got elected. With a Democrat in power, it was no longer in the interests of the Democratic Party to fund or organize rallies protesting the President, and as a result, the anti-war protests rapidly died away.

Unfortunately, I don't have any references for this to give you. I could cite the Wikipedia page for the Obama presidency, I guess, to show that there's the confluence between the timeline given and Obama's election. That it would no longer be in the interests of the Democratic Party to support things that would undermine their President should be self-evident.

That it didn't return under Trump is, I believe, a factor of Trump not being particularly pro-war (unlike Bush, who started two wars), and of the fact that the Democratic Party had plenty of other Trump policies to protest instead.

  • 1
    If you're going to downvote, I'd appreciate an explanation about why.
    – nick012000
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 0:37
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    Didn't downvote, and "Obama got elected" seems roughly correct, but then you're essentially claiming there's no anti-war movement, that it's all just a front for the Democratic party. I assume that sort of crazy-talk got the downvotes. Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 1:05
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about how connected the Democratic Party and the anti-war movement really are has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 29, 2021 at 14:52

You may not remember it, but the Iraq war was new horrors each month for years, and the government was in favor of keeping it going. It was very protestable and very newsworthy. Whereas today there's no war and everyone in power is against war. There's not much to protest or cover.

At first in the Iraq war, buildings with civilians got bombed. Later road-side bombs were so common we all learned what IED meant. The newspapers and nightly news had a list of daily dead. Then National Guardsmen got called in for extended tours with defective equipment. Each huge war bill made the news, followed by abuses of private contractors, then rapes, then Abu Ghraib's naked prisoner pyramids. Then the suicides as we all learned what PTSD meant. Sure, we didn't have rationing cards like WWII -- you could live your life normally and ignore the Iraq war -- but the news was all "fresh new terrible thing in Iraq".

And the administration really seemed to want to stay forever. They got all the WMD, then had to stay to get Hussein, then needed The Surge. They were always "turning the corner" in Iraq and had to stay just a little longer. After Bush, the 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, campaigned on adding more troops. The Republican party was pro-Iraq war.

Then Obama gets elected on an "out of Iraq" platform. There's the usual pressure to make sure he actually does it, but after a few years we're drawing down, the "killed in Iraq and Afghanistan" part of the nightly news is only a few names each week, and the suicide bombings seem to be falling off. We still get protests over drone strikes, but that's tiny compared to the war. Not much to protest and not much to cover.

To top it off, the next Republican, Trump, is even more anti-overseas-troops than Obama. He campaigns on getting out of both countries even faster, and tries to do it. He pulled out of the ISIS effort in Syria head-spinningly fast. He's eventually embraced by the Republican party, which means both major parties are now anti-war.

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    @Ricardo Thanks. I had to double-check since surely maverick ex-POW McCain had a more nuanced stance, but nope -- it was still pretty much "we should send more troops". Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 15:07
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    This answer seems to ignore the war in Afghanistan. Obama's first term included 4 of the deadliest 4 years of the entire Afghanistan war for U.S. troops. The issue was not that U.S. troops were not dying as often in overseas wars as this answer makes it seem, but rather just that the people who found it politically expedient to point out overseas combat deaths on a daily basis during the Bush administration no longer found it politically expedient to do so during the Obama administration. Data here: icasualties.org
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 17:04
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    @reirab for the Afghanistan war Obama at the least made it look like he wanted out but couldn't responsibly do it. The same goes for the Arab spring wars he apparently reluctantly got into rather than enthusiastically pushing for it (of course once the decision was made he also sold entering the war based on bringing freedom and stuff). Imho the core difference is that Bush failed to maintain the impression the war is just, justified and moral. While Obama could mostly do that (for the Arab involvements) and at least could argue that it was moral to stay in Afghanistan until it all has settled Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 20:24
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    @FrankHopkins Apparently he didn't do too good of a job at making it seem justified and needed, since Congress voted against authorizing the war in Libya, unlike the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which it voted to authorize. This made Obama become, as far as I know, the first and only President to violate the War Powers Act.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 25, 2021 at 20:41
  • 2
    @FrankHopkins Libya produces a lot more oil than Afghanistan does... Afghanistan produced no oil at all until 2012 and the production that began then was by... the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation. Honestly, the "The U.S. invaded for oil!!1!" thing has always been kind of stupid and completely unrelated to fact.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 26, 2021 at 0:26

One of the few things Obama and Trump had in common was that they were not interested in starting new foreign military adventures. I think there is not much point in protesting war if those in power are not actively seeking it.

  • As the president with the most initiated (not inherited) military interventions in US history (at least WWII depending on your definition) I think saying that President Obama was not interested in involved in starting new military adventures is categorically incorrect. 1)Libyan War of 2011, 2)Restarting the Iraq war (in 2014 after officially withdrawing in 2011), 3)Tight military cooperation with France in Mali, 4)Uganda, 5)Libya 2014 (a seperate conflict), 6) Yemen, 7)Somalia. Syria would have been in this list though it my be only due to intense public backlash this did not escalate to that.
    – Skyler
    Commented Mar 27, 2021 at 1:40

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