America doesn’t really have a two-party system. It has a one-and-a-half-party system, where one party at a time tends to dominate the national agenda while the other becomes a half-party—one that might hold onto the House of Representatives and some state governments, but that isn’t trusted by voters to run the country.
The Republicans are America’s half-party today. This is a reversal from a generation ago, when the GOP typically held the White House—for all but four years from 1969 to 1993—and occasionally the Senate, while Democrats, despite a 40-year majority in the House of Representatives, were the party Americans deemed incompetent to govern at the national level.
The root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war—Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP. This may sound implausible: every political scientist knows that Americans don’t care about foreign policy; certainly they don’t vote based on it. But foreign policy is not just about foreign policy: it’s also about culture.
That the “culture war”—as well as the “War on Drugs”—assumed its present shape in the wake of the Vietnam conflict is no accident. Vietnam polarized, realigned, and radicalized cultural factions. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, Republicans in Congress were still more likely than Democrats to support civil rights legislation. Attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality did not clearly divide left from right: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and even William F. Buckley favored liberalizing abortion laws in the early 1960s, while as late as 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Thomas Eagleton were antiabortion. Few mainstream figures in either party supported gay rights, but it was clear enough from their social circles that right-wingers such as Reagan, Goldwater, and Buckley were not about to launch any witch-hunts.
Nor were attitudes toward drugs a mark of partisan distinction: Clare Booth Luce was an early evangelist for LSD. She urged her husband, Time proprietor Henry Luce, to try it, and he “did much more to popularize acid than Timothy Leary,” in Abbie Hoffman’s opinion. Buckley, of course, was a longtime supporter of marijuana decriminalization.
One could find many more right-wingers who took the opposite views—but one could find just as many Democrats who did as well. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution had supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle.
And in the early ’60s, Democrats still had a reputation for military prowess. Their party had led the country against Nazi Germany, and while Republicans blamed them for losing China to Communism, John F. Kennedy gained more traction against Richard Nixon in 1960 when he accused the Eisenhower administration of letting a (fictitious) “Missile Gap” open up with the Soviet Union. Republicans certainly weren’t the only party considered competent to handle foreign affairs.
That changed with Vietnam. President Johnson seemed to have started a war he couldn’t win or even end. It split his party and transformed the American left: until then, labor muscle and social-democratic brains were the left’s principal organs. They tended to support the war and oppose the cultural upheavals that coincided with it—positions diametrically opposite those of the student movement and nascent New Left. “Cold War liberalism was forced to choose between the two terms of its definition, and chose war,” recalled former Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
But that was only the beginning of how losing the Vietnam War would lose the Democrats America as well. There were concrete connections between the conflict abroad and increasingly radical social movements at home: veterans came back from Indochina having tried, and in some cases being addicted to, drugs. (“During fiscal year 1971,” according to Gitlin, “for every hundred soldiers… twenty smoked marijuana frequently, ten used opium or heroin regularly.”) Blacks wondered why they were being drafted to fight in the name of freedoms they didn’t enjoy. Young radicals who refused to go to war, meanwhile, in rejecting the military rejected everything associated with it: the haircuts, the university system (and administrators’ place in loco parentis), and in some cases the norms of bourgeois life itself. The war and its failures put the lie to everything.
Radicals were not the only ones who felt this: ordinary Americans also had to contend with the unsettling questions an unsuccessful war raises. A disastrous conflict can shatter a nation’s faith, as attested by the effects of World War I even on Europe’s nominal victors. Patriotism and authority in all forms come into question—which is not to say that the answer most Americans arrived at was to reject such concepts. But clearly if they were to be reaffirmed, they had to be purged of the war’s pollution.
Democrats thus became not only the party of strategic ineptitude but also a symbol of defeats beyond the battlefield. Moderates or conservatives in the party were caught in a pincer: Democrats were branded with unmanliness and lack of patriotism—and radicals in the party (as well as outside of it) actually embraced these extremes. The party’s remaining Cold War liberals could not exorcise the ghost of Lyndon Johnson: their ideology had failed in practice in the eyes of the public and was rejected in theory by their own side’s brightest young minds. Yet non-left Democrats secure in House districts and state governments had a hard time understanding this. They were just safe enough not to have to admit the magnitude of their catastrophe.
An opportunity now arose for the right to strike a sharper contrast with this New Left than had ever been possible with the old Democratic Party. The radicals themselves had made the personal political, and now the quiet social tolerance of old-guard conservatives like Buckley and Goldwater was unfashionable—indeed, treasonous. The New Right that emerged in the 1970s around figures such as George Wallace and Jerry Falwell was proud to be everything the New Left was not: pro-white, Protestant, heterosexual, and all-American. This was a very different style and emphasis from that of the old National Review set, who had been embarrassed by too much talk about race or sex, were disproportionately Catholic and Jewish, and tended to be heavily Anglophile when not actually European by birth.
More important than the radicalization of the right, however, Republicans were now able to claim the nation’s center ground—the GOP became the party of simple military competence, patriotism, and national unity. This was what Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” was all about. Nixon was not a New Right president—the New Right would be much more right-wing than Nixon had been—but he did attach some of the New Right’s identity-based politics to the only faintly ideological middle American voter. Normal now meant center-right and Republican. The Democrats were by 1972 very obviously the party of abnormality: of acid, amnesty, and abortion.
Democrats struggled to glue their coalition back together, but the South was permanently lost, and the New Left couldn’t be reconciled with many of the old social democrats—some of whom began migrating into the Republican camp as “neoconservatives.” These mostly Jewish New York intellectuals might seem strange bedfellows for Southern evangelicals. But admirers of George Wallace and Scoop Jackson could come together over what Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz identified as “the two ruling passions of neoconservatism—its anti-Communism and its revulsion against the counterculture.”
Through the 1980s, both alternate Democratic brands—Johnson-style Cold War liberalism and peacenik McGovernism—were tainted by Vietnam and the war’s cultural aftershocks. The party could not shake its reputation for defeatism and radicalism merely by nominating a Southern Baptist like Jimmy Carter or an old-line laborite like Walter Mondale. And even though America had become mildly antiwar—Nixon got out of Vietnam and Reagan never launched an intervention on such a scale—it was not antiwar in a way that the Democratic Party’s left could capitalize on.
Instead the Republican Party, for all its anti-Communist rhetoric, adopted a conflict-averse Realpolitik exemplified by Nixon’s opening to China and Reagan’s negotiations with Gorbachev—maneuvers that cemented the GOP’s reputation for adult leadership among centrist voters. The long-remembered excesses of the New Left and the reality-based policies—especially foreign policy—of the Republican Party reduced Democrats to role of half-party for almost a quarter of a century.
That’s a role Republicans might have to get used to today, thanks to the Iraq War and prolonged occupation of Afghanistan. And like the Democrats of the ’70s and ’80s, Republicans of the 21st century not even begun to grapple with the magnitude of what their foreign-policy follies mean for the culture. Instead of the causes of gay rights and black power being tied to the party that started a war in Vietnam that it couldn’t finish, the causes of traditional marriage and tax cuts are now tied to a party that started wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that it couldn’t finish.
Already by 1992 Republicans had become complacent about their post-Vietnam identity. Not only had the foreign-policy landscape changed with the end of the Cold War, but the cultural associations of the Vietnam defeat were fading. For Baby Boomers, memories of the Vietnam era were inseparable from feelings about racial politics and sexual morality—the alignments brought about by the war had set the template for a generation’s understanding of left and right.
Younger voters not only had no memory of the war itself—an 18-year-old first-time voter in 1992 was born the year after Nixon withdrew most U.S. forces from Indochina—but its cultural aftermath didn’t and couldn’t evoke the same feelings as for Boomers. Young voters had no reason to see the social movements associated with the Vietnam War as radical or un-American. The sexual revolution had been background noise for them since the day they were born.
The “culture war” that Pat Buchanan spoke of at the 1992 Republican convention was, among other things, a symptom of Vietnam syndrome: a chance to right the wrongs of the 1960s and 1970s, if not in the rice paddies of Indochina then in the hearts and minds of Americans, turning back the clock to a more wholesome time before the war and its cultural coattails.
For younger voter cohorts, this couldn’t make sense. They were a postwar generation, culturally as well as militarily, and the idea of winning back what had been lost in the wars of the 1960s was emotionally incomprehensible. These voters lacked the psychological backdrop that pulled the Boomers toward the GOP after Vietnam. And over the next 20 years, as talk radio and Fox News continued to pitch the Republican message to Boomer ears, Americans born after 1975 simply tuned out.
That might only have made Millennials and their older siblings a neutral cohort, had it not been for the Iraq War—which has not only done to the GOP what Vietnam did to the Democrats as a party, but has also done to conservatism as an ideology what Vietnam did to the social-democratic left.
America has been at war in Afghanistan for the entire adult life of any voter under 30. For still younger Americans, every living memory is of a country with troops in combat overseas—and for what? The wars haven’t brought prosperity: just the opposite. They haven’t reaffirmed traditional sex roles or Christianity or family values, all of which are challenged by veterans coming home with missing limbs or mangled minds. The cultural resonances of this decade of war are the opposite of those of Vietnam; they’re closer to those of Great Britain after World War I. Britain, too, won its war and wondered what that meant.
Republicans split over Bush’s wars as deeply as Democrats once split over Vietnam. The raw numbers aren’t similar—the antiwar right is not as numerous as the antiwar left once was—but the philosophical depth of the divide is as great. And it’s a generation gap. Boomer Republicans are still refighting old wars—Benghazi is the new Khe Sanh, and they’ve adopted Israel not only as avatar of the lost South Vietnam but as symbol of the Providential favor and military virtue our nation lost in the 1960s. Yet even the younger evangelicals—let alone Ron Paul’s youthful supporters and the neo-traditionalist “crunchy cons”—don’t buy it.
The GOP never learned to talk to the post-Vietnam generation in the first place; over the last decade, it compounded the problem by launching wars that, far from resolving the unfinished business of the Vietnam era, only made clear that those who are refighting the conflicts of that time are oblivious to today’s realities.
While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future—in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq—however reluctantly—and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Obama is winning the culture war because that war continues to be fought by the right in the terms of the Vietnam era. That mistake, coupled with the natural credit a leader gets from keeping the country out of quagmires, gives the president’s party a tremendous advantage among the rising generation. (Sixty percent of voters under 30 supported Obama in 2012, as did 52 percent of those age 30–44.) And older conservatives, seeing that generation’s disdain for the culture war, are apt to write them off completely. If you’re not outraged by same-sex marriage, how can you be any kind of conservative?
But the reason even young conservatives aren’t interested in those kinds of battles is that they’re fighting others closer to home. Americans born after 1975 have grown up in an environment in which, Todd Gitlin admits, “only the most sentimental ex-hippie could fail to recognize the prices paid on the road to the new freedom: the booming teenage pregnancy rate; the dread diseases that accompanied the surge in promiscuity; the damage done by drugs; the undermining of family commitment…”
Young adults who have come from home backgrounds marked by divorce, or from intact families that nonetheless never sat down at a dinner table, want to form stronger bonds than their parents did. Boomers who view post-Boomer attitudes toward sex in light of a “revolution” are doing it wrong. It was the Boomers, or at least a key cohort among them, who believed in free love as a salvific concept. Young American have grown up with promiscuity and knowledge of drugs, aren’t panicked about these things, but don’t see them as possessing redemptive significance either. Even most young progressives do not believe in personal “liberation” of the sort that was at the core of the ’60s left—just as no one today believes in the kind of “liberation” once associated with Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.
The Republican Party may not be able to escape its McGovern phase, even if Democrats screw up (as they will) and we briefly get a Republican Carter. The party and the ideology soaked into it have lost their reputation for competence, and they’ve lost the emotional resonances that come with being the party of America: victory, prosperity, normality. Instead the resonances that come from the War on Terror are of a party and an era marked by resentment, recession, and insecurity. Although the party still sees Ronald Reagan when it looks in the mirror, what the rest of the country sees is George W. Bush—much as post-Vietnam Democrats continued to think of themselves as the party of Franklin Roosevelt when in the minds of most Americans they had become the party of Johnson and McGovern.
Until the Republican Party can come to grips with its failure, the Democrats will be the party Americans trust to govern.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.