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US, Canada to make peace an election issue

David Langille — April 1984

“We’re not just going to change the politicians’ minds. We’re going to change the politicians.” That’s the slogan of Freeze Voter ’84, the national election arm of the nuclear weapons freeze movement in the United States. Freeze Voter ’84 (FV’84) offers striking comparisons with the Peace Petition Caravan Campaign (P2C2), which is presently underway in Canada.

Both campaigns are concentrating on a pre-election canvass as a means of translating majority public opinion into effective political leverage. However, each campaign reflects the particular political structure and circumstances which confront peace activists on either side of the border. Consequently, while there is much that P2C2 can learn from the scale and sophistication of the FV’84 campaign, many of its features are uniquely suited to the US political system.

Freeze Voter ’84 emerged from a growing recognition by leaders of the US freeze movement that direct political action election work – was needed in order to translate pro-freeze public opinion into public policy which would actually slow the arms race.

As the FV’84 literature says: “We’ve marched. We’ve held rallies. We’ve carried petitions. We’ve put the freeze on the ballot in 10 states.

And won in 9 of them. We’ve talked with the politicians in Washington. All of them. And still the arms race continues: The MX. The Pershing II. The cruise. The B-1. The stealth. the laser weapons. The space weapons. “

The US freeze movement has reason to be both proud of its achievements and frustrated by its lack of success. Some 11 million Americans voted. for the” freeze. in state referenda. And one million signed freeze petitions. Freeze resolutions have passed in nearly 500 city and county councils, 446 town meetings, 15 state legislatures, 5 state houses, 3 state senates, 10 state (and D.C.) referenda, and the US House of Representatives (with 280 votes).

The freeze has been endorsed by 156 national and international organizations and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Opinion polls now show that 70% of the American people favour a freeze. Ironically, however, .those same people may also re-elect President Reagan and further strengthen the military-industrial complex.

For this reason, freeze supporters have launched a campaign to “win the White House, elect a pro-freeze majority in the Semite, and strengthen the freeze majority in the House of Representatives.” They are undertaking an unprecedented national grass-roots effort to enlist voters in a “Freeze Force,” and to raise money to help elect a pro-freeze President and Congress.

American laws governing election financing stipulate that any group intending to raise or spend more than $1000 to elect or defeat a candidate for federal office must be registered as a Political Action Committee (PAC). Consequently” when Freeze Voter ’84 was established last June,.. it was set up as an autonomous organization, separate from the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign itself.

Whereas the National Clearinghouse for the Freeze Campaign is located in Saint Louis, the electoral arm has its headquarters in Washington D.C. FV’84 has its own Board of Directors elected from across the country, with Randall Forsberg, author of the original, freeze resolution, as President.

The Freeze Voter ’84 PAC has projected that it will raise $1.5 million from major donors (none of whom are allowed to give more than $5000), a direct mail campaign, phone solicitation and door-to-door canvassing. This money will be spent on voter registration drives, the preparation of materials for the press and the training and support of political organizers.

Although funds will not be given directly to candidates, FV’84 will provide trained volunteers, pollsters, speech writers, lawyers and media experts to assist in targeted campaigns. Between 50 and 75 field organizers are expected to be at work full-time by this spring.

Meanwhile, FV’84 PACs are being established in nearly every state. These state PACs are expected to raise a further $500,000.

This electoral network has already conducted door-to-door canvasses in over 100 cities. Their goal is to recruit a Freeze Force of one million volunteers and contributors in 1984.

The key to the FV’84 organizing strategy is the door-to-door canvassing. This technique mobilizes the enormous “human capital” of the disarmament movement.

Most of the canvassing for FV’84 will be done in teams of ten volunteers who gather on a Saturday morning for a short training session and then blitz a chosen neighbourhood for the day, recruiting contributors, volunteers and voters to the Freeze Force. Ten such canvass days have been planned, one every four weeks in the period leading up to the November 7 election.

This method of canvassing is designed to suit the volunteers’ time schedules and to get them started early on canvassing so as to raise money and recruit more volunteers for an ongoing effort. In this way, the most fruitful neighbourhoods will be targeted at the beginning of the campaign in order to build toward a broader canvass just before election day.

In a similar fashion here in Canada:, the P2C2 is organizing its petition canvass as a means to help build and strengthen the peace movement on a neighbourhood basis. . organizing a sizeable block of voters in each riding around a common set of demands, P2C2 organizers will be better able to convince the Member of Parliament and opposition candidates to support their position. At the same time, they will be establishing an ongoing network of known contacts, sympathizers and financial supporters for future disarmament activities. Despite the fact that the petition is a useful educational and organizational device, it could be argued that it detracts attention from the importance of actually. casting one’s ballot for a pro-disarmament candidate. Moreover, unlike FV’84, the P2C2. neither endorses nor supports any particular candidates.

These characteristics of the P2C2 campaign can be traced to the fact that it is far more difficult to identify and endorse pro-disarmament candidates in Canada than it is in the United States.

The major obstacle to endorsement lies in the Canadian tradition of strict party discipline. While our Parliamentarians are free to argue their own point of view within their ‘weekly caucus meetings, they are expected to adhere to the prevailing party line when. voting in the House of Commons or speaking to the public or the media. Certainly no governing party would willingly submit itself to the embarrassment of having its backbenchers revolt and vote against the Cabinet. For this reason, the P20 is more likely to have Canada declared a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone than it is to bring about a free vote in Parliament which goes against Government policy.

In addition, P20 endorsement of specific candidates at this time would be unwise strategically, since the only party with a pro-disarmament stance, and therefore the only party whose candidates are free to support pro-disarmament policy, is the minority NDP.

While the anti-cruise position of the NDP is actually more in step with public opinion than the positions of the Liberals or Conservatives, the two major parties have so far maintained a pro-cruise consensus. Therefore, rather than support the anti-cruise factions within these parties, or give overt support to a party whose platform is sympathetic but whose prospects are poor, the Canadian peace movement has generally concentrated on educating the electorate about the issues involved in the arms race.

The premise of this strategy appears to be that the movement cannot yet dictate the mainstream policy agenda. Moreover, it is unwilling (and cannot afford) to commit itself to a minority faction.

Rather than support one party or even endorse a multi-partisan slate of pro-disarmament candidates, P20 will therefore encourage members of the public to make their own decisions. While not foreclosing any options or risking very much, this strategy is not apt to be very decisive. It will also provide few concrete results for which the movement can take credit. However, it may be the best option for the present time, given that the movement cannot yet reach a consensus on such matters, and has not yet, organized a more decisive intervention into the electoral process..

South of the border, it is a relatively easy matter to judge an individual candidate by his or her voting record. However, a good voting record will not be the only factor to qualify a candidate for endorsement by FV’84. Endorsements will mainly be made in races where: there is a clear distinction between the candidates over the freeze and other arms control issues, and where Freeze Voter ’84 can expect to make a difference in the outcome of the race. These will probably be districts where the race is apt to be very close and where there is a sizeable core of freeze supporters.

Another important factor will be the committee appointments of incumbent candidates – whether the candidate plays a decisive role in defence appropriations or foreign relations.

On the basis of these factors, FV’84 expects to endorse about 30 candidates for the House of Representatives, six to ten aspirants for the Senate, and one of the Democratic Presidential nominees. FV’84 has held off on making a Presidential endorsement until its organizers across the country develop a clear consensus on the preferred candidate. So far there has been a mixed response to the 1000 questionnaires its organizers have mailed. While both Hart and Mondale have taken good positions on the freeze, it remains to be seen which one has the better chance of defeating Reagan.

Whether the freeze movement will ultimately have much impact on the 1984 elections is still an open question. The movement is only four years old; hundreds of the smaller groups have only been founded within the last year; and serious election planning. had only begun quite recently in many areas. By some estimates, FV’84 may be able. to pick up twelve seats in the House, and perhaps end Republican control of the Senate. However, the peace movement :has already had a significant impact on the-Presidential race by having forced all the Democratic candidates to make clear their positions on a whole package of arms-related issues which in past campaigns would have failed to catch the interest of the press corps.

Certainly there are steps the US could take which would have a greater impact on the nuclear arms race than the freeze. However, there is minimal support for more drastic steps. Although this article is not the place .for an extended evaluation of either of the two objectives – the freeze or the Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone – it is worth noting that the freeze need not be a nebulous concept but could be defined in very precise terms so as to distinguish the real doves from the hawks. Although the freeze concept is being clarified, it is likely to remain a lowest-common-denominator approach, compared to the concrete proposals of the P2C2. On the other hand, it is more likely to be implemented in the short term than are the P2C2 proposals.

In keeping with its lowest-common-denominator appeal, the campaign tabloid prepared by FV’84 certainly makes the effort to “show the flag” and pander to middle-America – red, white and blue, stars and stripes everywhere and a placard announcing that “peace is patriotic.” The Peace Petition Caravan householder, in stark contrast to this hype, deals primarily with the issues at stake.

Given the American role in the escalation of the arms race, it may be worth the compromises to elect a pro-freeze government in Washington even if many of the Democrats still support their military-industrial complex. By focussing on the freeze, the US peace movement could make a decisive impact because the freeze can be used to inject the issue of disarmament into the middle of a close electoral race.

On balance, Freeze Voter ’84 is the product of a more developed campaign which displays greater organizational skills. This is fitting when one considers that FV’84 has further to go politically and that the political structure it has targeted has a greater responsibility for the arms race. Canadian peace activists can take some pride in being able to engage in a more in-depth discussion of the issues. However, they are unlikely to have a truly decisive impact on elected representatives until they develop better organizational structures capable of forging a national consensus which is endorsed by the majority of all three major political parties.

Meanwhile, if we are to avoid Star Wars in space, we’d better trust in P2C2 and hope that the Freeze Force will be with us.