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The GOP’s Vietnam

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.

March/April 2013 [1]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.

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89 Comments (Open | Close)

89 Comments To "The GOP’s Vietnam"

#1 Comment By Brian Thornton On March 21, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

This was an absolutely brilliant article.

#2 Comment By bushvgore On March 22, 2013 @ 11:05 am

“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.”

I liked the article except for this one paragraph sticking out like a sore thumb. In the early 60s a male and female living together were practically pariahs, today thanks to those “most sentimental ex-hippies” it is accepted across all strata of society including the oldsters. . . . while the majority of marriages fall apart including among the most sanctified of Christian demographics.

The author also fails to notice that drug use among the young is more casual than ever. Very few of them think twice about popping a tab before going to a rave, and that includes many that the author would consider conservative politically because times either make them willing or forced to put their nose to the grindstone in order to have any kind of economic future.

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On March 23, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

The Culture War has nothing whatever to do with Iraq. The Culture War was lost before it began.

#4 Comment By CDW On March 23, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

We only have 2 halves of parties that don’t add up to a whole. The GOP may be down, but the Democratic Party hasn’t found a mind of its own and it emits only glimmers of independent thinking from time to time so the future looks bleak for the rest of us.

#5 Comment By robcrawford On March 24, 2013 @ 5:26 am

Though the article over-emphasizes the impact of foreign policy – Irak didn’t receive anything like the coverage that Veitnam did – and badly underestimates the scale of the GOP meltdown, it is very interesting.

The glaring omission, however, is his failure to question whether the ideas of the new right ever made much sense. We need to question the tenets of Reaganism, i.e. once we stopped sharing the fruits of (ever-declining) rises in productivity, we turning to increasing the way we leveraged debt.

#6 Comment By Richard Parker On March 24, 2013 @ 7:13 am

“I agree that Bush Cheney will stain the country forever.”

Forever is a long, long, long time.

Richard Nixon died an elder statesman.

#7 Comment By Francis Murphy On March 24, 2013 @ 8:01 am

Very happy to have come upon this excellent article via a NY Times OpEd piece. I am a 61 yr old Boomer and agree that my generation has been very selfish and inept politically and in warmongering and more importantly demographically. I see all around me white woman of my generation with no children. As has been pointed out by the Professor and others: demographics is destiny. I am at a loss to understand why the culturally rightwingers have not hammered this point home and advocated for 3+ children per family to reverse the tailspin. We are fat and lazy with a single minded, if unspoken, goal of achieving Type II diabetes and then oblivion.

#8 Comment By Alex M. On March 24, 2013 @ 8:18 am

The main problem with the “argument” is that it assumes everything comes from above: If Bush hadn’t gone into Iraq then we wouldn’t have gay marriage. This is absurdly ahistorical.

In fact, gay people have been fighting for decades for civil rights, at least since the 1950s. I was living in Massachusetts, in college, when gay marriage was legalized there in 2003. It had zero to do with Bush or Iraq, and everything to do with 40 years of the LGBT community organizing and fighting to achieve the goal.

It is true that the GOP has squandered its two main selling points: fiscal restraint and national security. This was done by Republicans massively expanding the deficit through massive tax cuts together with expensive failed wars and new entitlements like Medicare drug benefits. And people are not as stupid as TAC seems to assume: we know what is going on more or less, Republicans are for the wealthy and the elderly, and against everybody else.

I am one of those under-30 voters who cannot imagine ever supporting a Republican. I find the GOP’s anti-gay bigotry deeply disgusting, especially when coupled with hypocritical spouting of “Freedom.” I find the conservative antipathy towards science repulsive. And I learned some math, so the GOP “low tax+big war” rhetoric is transparently absurd to me.

#9 Comment By BobbaTree On March 24, 2013 @ 9:34 pm

A strong conservative voice that espouses constitutional principals of LIMITED federal government would go a long way. The federal governmanet should stay out of issues that are state limited and focus on it’s basic mandate, which is protecting and defending the principals of freedom (in all its forms) that are delineated in the Constitution. Stay away from social tinkering because we and the states do not want or need the medling!

#10 Comment By Richard Wagner On March 24, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

Though the Iraq “war” created nowhere near as much of a social upheaval as the Vietnam “war”, the comparison works well enough. The Republican Party’s reputation will wreak of Iraq for at least as long as mainstream Republicans insist on trying to justify the “war”. If Republicans cut off that which offends, they will then be able to at least partially remove themselves from the blame by pointing out that, at first, over half of the Congressional Democrats also supported the war, and there were at least some Republicans who opposed it from the start. In 2016, if the Republicans are smart, they will nominate for the POTUS race a critic of the “war”, even if he initially supported under false pretenses of “weapons of mass destruction”. Tom Coburn would be a good choice.

#11 Comment By LauraNo On March 25, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

I would think conservatives will also have to acknowledge the dismal performance of tax cuts for the very rich = economic growth and trickling down actually gushing up. Demonizing unions was not the best idea they ever had, either. The war on drugs is another conservative shibboleth they should ‘fess up about.

#12 Comment By Bob Nunes On March 25, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

Frankly, the GOP must become much more of a non-intervensionist party. Little or no interference from government domestically and become an anti-war party.

#13 Comment By Dave Burton On March 25, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

Well, the U.S. death toll in Vietnam was about 9 times the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

In the meantime, the American family is collapsing like a punctured balloon. More and more of those American babies who do not die by “choice” are born out of wedlock; it’s now at 41% overall, and over 50% for mothers under age 30.

If you don’t have a problem with that, You Might Be A Democrat (YMBAD).[tm]

If you don’t have a problem with the federal gov’t borrowing 40-45¢ of every dollar it spends, year after year, then YMBAD.

If you aren’t horrified that a quarter of American babies die by “choice,” then YMBAD.

If you don’t mind that most children learn to curse before they learn to spell, YMBAD.

If you aren’t troubled that, as Joe Sobran noted, “in 100 years, we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college,” YMBAD.

If you don’t care that the American “shining city on a hill” is collapsing into a pile of socialist rubble, then you must surely be a Democrat, if you are an American at all.

And if none of those things bother you, but you’d be deeply offended if someone called any of them “sins,” you’re definitely a Democrat.

#14 Comment By RIchard Parker On March 26, 2013 @ 2:31 am

RE: Graphic for this article

Was the artistic consciously or unconsciously channeling Menard’s famous map of Napoleon’s invasion and retreat from Russia in 1812?

#15 Comment By Sean Scallon On March 28, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

“If Bush hadn’t gone into Iraq then we wouldn’t have gay marriage. This is absurdly ahistorical.”

War has a way of making social progress go a lot faster than it normally would have. Remember in 2004 anti-homosexual marriage laws were used on state ballots to drive-up turnout in favor of Bush II re-election. What a different world it is now in the aftermath of war. Now homosexuals can openly serve in the military and women will be able to serve in combat roles as well. Again, all made possible in quick fashion due to war.

#16 Comment By David Naas On March 28, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

My message to both Tea Party and Republican Establishment would be , Beware of Boomers Who Have, “nothing left to lose”.

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#18 Comment By rob nj On April 30, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

That was one of the most impressive articles i’ve read in quite a while. I do however think the author has somewhat understated the degree of the Boomer counter-radicalism and party-line rigidness that has taken the fringe of the John Birchers and their ilk to the forefront of the GOP. Conservatism today in the US has went from pro status quo to radical reactionary dystopianism mirroring the rigid Marxist dogma the left has finally shaken off, contrary to the opinions of said neo-Birchers. The Democrats have actually become more conservative regardless of supporting reform slowly for gay marriage at pace with the public voice, which has actually been traditionally what democracy and America represent at it’s best times. As a nation, we were reformers and progressives from our conception (see: Our Amendable Constitution, public elections and Revolutionary War for further evidence). I am a Millenial and my moral code and status quo is much more in sync with today’s left which I see as having the Burkean and Goldwater spirit, while the GOP is the counter-New Left of crotchety, nasty reactionary vindictiveness, and without an iota of the prudence, elegance or honest American spirit they seem to believe they represent. I don’t like either lot, but only one is currently a groteque shell filled with it’s own antithesis and is willing to push us to the brink of dangerous divide with media pumping rhetoric that sounds like the ravings of a caged madman spewing toxic venom at ghosts of Communism, New Leftism, and other things that “go bump in the right”..we need to return to pre-war sanity…now

#19 Comment By Hassan On May 24, 2013 @ 8:50 am

I always spent my half an hour to read this website’s articles or reviews all the time along with a mug of coffee.

#20 Comment By STJ On December 29, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

Mr. McCarthy’s analogy works but I think it’s a stretch to say that it all comes down to the wars. I say this mostly because these wars have been “out of sight, out of mind” for the majority of their existence. However, the points about Republicans having lost the trust of America due to these wars, not talking to post-Vietnam generations, fighting over the past, and failing to deal with their own shortcomings are spot on.

#21 Comment By WorkingClass On December 29, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

I served under Johnson and Nixon. From my perspective they were EXACTLY the same. Today the D’s and R’s differ on guns gays and abortion. Any other differences are a matter of degree or purely rhetorical. They are effectively one party and they don’t work for us. They are for sale to the highest bidder. That any American still supports either party is a tribute to the power of the propaganda we all are marinated in from birth. This piece may be a useful analysis of red and blue electoral politics. But red state/blue state is a game that is obsolete. Our task now is to throw off the tyranny of corporate owned one party rule. Please withdraw your support from the legacy parties. They have ruined, are ruining and will ruin the country.

#22 Comment By channelclemente On December 29, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

Interesting, insightful, and creatively critical.

#23 Comment By JonF On December 29, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

Dave Burton,
I see you belong to the “Learn nothing and forget nothing” faction, for whom it is always 2004, or maybe even 1980.
One thing you should learn is that government is incompetent to micromanage people’s personal lives. Leave the sermons to the churches, whose job that in fact is.

#24 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 29, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

The only thing the two duopoly parties aren’t bipartisan on, is who gets to rule. On that point are all the other battles fought – and when the smoke clears policies that serve the elites are the ones in place. Think Feinstein and Rogers in their shilling for the profoundly unAmerican activities of the secret unaccountable police state they aren’t just apologists for, but shameless mendacious promoters of.

#25 Comment By Chris 1 On December 29, 2013 @ 9:44 pm

Iraq merely cemented the reputation that the GOP had with young people, that of a party that does not care about them or their lives.

Having watched families and communities destroyed by the economic “creative destruction” championed by the GOP, and then watching their friends and family sent off to war without sufficient materials or support (“You go to war with the Army you have…” said the Secretary of Defense whose job is to make sure that there’s sufficient materials and support and manpower) they saw that the GOP was not in service of their generation, but only of a small handful of very wealthy donors.

And this is the GOP’s problem. In the 1960s it was a party of mainstream America. In the 1990s it declared a culture war in an attempt to hold onto that mainstream, but then sold out its front line at every opportunity to “special interests” that weren’t unions or employees or church-going Christians, but were multi-national corporations and Wall Street manipulators and the scions of great wealth.

Until and unless the GOP recognizes that it is now seen as the party of the über-wealthy, that its incompetence is because it serves the interests of a very few and sacrifices everyone and everything else, it is doomed to 1/4 standing, if that.

Which is sad, because America needs a conservative party, just not one dedicated to creating a landed aristocracy in America.

#26 Comment By Lee On December 30, 2013 @ 1:28 am

An interesting article, but I think you underestimate the impact of Johnson’s signing of the civil rights act as the impetus for party realignment.

Vietnam did a lot to shatter the Democratic party, and deservedly so, but the main reason the white south flipped to the Republican side was the Democrat’s civil rights stands.

#27 Comment By Kurt On December 30, 2013 @ 1:48 am

Mr. McCarthy, you leave out an important part of the equation when you suggest the dems will become the party of “victory, prosperity, and normality.” President Obama’s economy is far from prosperous and the current jobs market far from normal; even dems acknowledge as much while blaming the GOP for it,

#28 Comment By Joseph A. Miller On December 30, 2013 @ 6:36 am

I’m sorry, but the author lost me when he began using the tired, cliched, sweeping generalization known as “Baby Boomers” or “Boomers. This term, as is the case with all other “generational” terms, is deeply misleading. There were so-called “Boomers” who were passionately pro-war in the Vietnam era; there were so-called “Boomers” who were passionately anti-war. There were others who were largely indifferent. The same can be said of the “younger generations” in regard to the events with which they grew up.

In fact, the whole concept of “The Baby Boom Generation” is a fiction. There was a strong upsurge in births following the Second World War. This is an interesting demographic phenomenon, but it did not magically create a distinct “generation”. Humans tend to have a great deal in common with other humans of whatever age. They are also influenced by a dizzying array of historical and cultural factors. Those born between 1946 and 1964,the parameters of this so-called “generation”, are a tremendously diverse set of people to whom few generalizations apply.

The use of such terms (Boomer, Gen X, Millennial) obscures the complex causes of social phenomena, and reduces individuals to caricatures in an editorial cartoon. History unfolds for many reasons, and it takes careful study–not reliance on stereotypes.

#29 Comment By HeartRight On December 30, 2013 @ 8:00 am

Kurt,true enough, but there are things being done [ or attempted] that people do approve of, and will get favourable mention ven if they don’t quite pan out.
Those who support those things will support those things will be credited, those who don’t wont.

Think mimimum wage raise – which a vast majority of GOP voters support.
Cheerleading it rather than saying nay ought to be no-brainer.

And of course, no matter what causes the next growth in America – no matter how small – good news will be deemed vindication of a policy the public wants. With kudos for the Party[s] that support it.

#30 Comment By Dan On December 30, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

To me the biggest problem Republicans have is their complete and utter hypocrisy on pretty much any issue you can think of as I’ve been alive. (I’m 33)

Republicans always talk about being the party of fiscal responsbility. I’ve never seen anything remotely related to that in my lifetime. In fact, I’ve seen nothing but insane debt spending and a complete lack of taking any responsibility for it at all. The fact that so many Republicans continue to hold onto economic ideas that have obviously completely failed makes them look incredibly incompetant. Most Americans do believe in economic freedom, but not many think Republicans actually believe in economic freedom at all, but handouts to their well connected friends.

What saddens me the most is Republicans complete failure of being an example on the social front. I’m a small town guy, and I believe in family, community, and respecting the dignity and inherent worth of every human being as an individual. That being said, while freedom as an individual agent is important, it’s when we all work together and become interdependent can we gain the most freedom. When we work together and take care of our problems within out families and communities first, we can keep our freedom from having to be dictated by Washington.

Republicans, for my whole life though, have been so wrapped up in hate filled insecurity that they pushed away and actually deprived people of a positive example they could so desperately benefit from. I’m from a white, hardworking, Catholic, middle class background, all Republican family. There’s a lot of virtue, understanding, love, respect and independence in that type of environment. Instead of reaching out and sharing the virtues with people on the fringe, the people who need that the most, Republicans, rather than understanding the larger themes at work, took things at their most base and defiled the very values they professed to love.

Family First!!! Except for blacks, except for Mexicans, except for gays, except for the poor, except for the unmarried, except for anyone that doesn’t look like us, dress like us, talk like us, think like us…

Rather than be an inclusive example of love and individual respect where people could experience the inherent dignity in being recognized as an individual with unique virtues and appreciated for what they can bring to the group, Republicans became a symbol of all that was bitter, angry, and spiteful. Not only did this drive people away from the supposedly espoused economic values and the party, it even further eroded the perceived value of family and community.

I see people my age and younger all the time, filled with an emptiness they can’t understand, not knowing how to create self worth even though they’re all told to have it in spades. Sure they’ll say they do, but you see people all the time drowning in drugs, sex, booze, the internet, video games, or whatever addiciton they may have, to bury this existential angst. They’ve never seen family values, and those that claim to have it tell them they’re pieces of garbage and don’t deserve it. How does that help anyone? I grew up in a a small town, accidentally moved to the ghetto in a big city, learned a lot, screwed up a lot, got in a lot of trouble, and eventually came back to the smaller town and reintegrated the small town and the big city inside my own head. What I’ve learned is that rather than excluding those on the fringe, those people need to be embraced and loved more than anyone if we’re going to fix things. They may never see small town conservative values or understand why they work the way most conservatives do, but if those who claim to have them can’t even be happy living them, how is that supposed to convert anyones values and ideas? If you spazz out and just wave a Bible if someone questions why your values have merit, and you can’t communicate it to others on their terms, can you really say you even embrace your own beliefs or are you just scared? Do you even know WHY Christian values are good? If you can’t get people to believe in the God, can you get people to at least see the benefit of your way of being? Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid of their own shadows. They should be proud and knowledgable and comfortable in their own skin making thier own choices.

Along those lines the abortion debate in this country as well has made Republicans look like fools. One, it doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or not. It’s going to happen. As I understand it it was outlawed because women were dying in back alley operations with no supervision. How about instead of worrying about whether or not it’s legal, you start worrying about the problems that abortions are symptoms of. Why do people feel this is their best option? What can you do to change that? Have an abortion, and the response is “go to hell murderer”. Have the kid, and the response is “go to hell you poor skank, why should I help you and your bastard child.” How does any of that help anyone or actually grow support for your cause.

I consider myself conservative, and for that reason Republicans seem so vile to me. At least the Democrats aren’t typically as big of hypocrites. They’re proud of their bad ideas. For people of my generation, maybe the democrats have sucked at their jobs most of the time,no different than Republicans, but they’re half as much the lying self righteous a-holes the Republicans have become. What’s worse now though, is that the Right Wing has gone so crazy the Left is there now too in response to where the whole thing has devolved.

If Republicans want to actually gain the future rather than hang onto a slowly dying off minority they need to quit with the spite, quit hanging onto the past someone in a bad codependent relationship, and embrace the future and the people in it. You don’t actually have to not be conservative for that. You just have to recognize that being conservative means you should be your own shining city on a hill inspiring others to make thier lives better too, not the source of the sewage running down the hillside into their living rooms.

Ah… I feel better now.

#31 Comment By EarlyBird On December 30, 2013 @ 3:08 pm

This is an absolutely fantastic essay.

#32 Comment By EarlyBird On December 30, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

Just today a Pew Research Center poll shows that only 43 percent of Republicans accept the theory of Evolution, down 11 points from 2009.


I am skeptical that this is a sincerely held belief (or doubt) for most respondents. It strikes me as a political position one takes in order to “hold the line.”

Allow that the Creation story is allegory, and you promote immoral left wing atheism. Allow that there may be such a thing as man made global climate change, and Al Gore will take away your SUV. Allow that high capacity semi-auto carbines are inherently more dangerous than bolt action rifles, and there goes the 2nd Amendment.

And on and on.

By digging in and holding the line on every issue, the GOP finds itself taking stands which are ideological for ideology’s sake. At best then, they become irrelevant to voters. More often than not, they are seen as rejectionists not just of reality but governance itself.

#33 Comment By Bet Mulligan On December 30, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

Thank you for your thought provoking article. Yes, Republicans are fighting the last culture war. They need to stop it, right now, and get a clue.

Here’s a hint: jobs, jobs, jobs.

#34 Comment By philadelphialawyer On December 31, 2013 @ 12:37 am

There are a lot of dubious arguments and assertions in the article, but, to me, the main problem is using the Second Iraq and Afghanistan wars to explain everything. The Dems retook the White House in ’92, long before either of those wars. And most folks thought that the Afghanistan war was justified, at least at the start. And both wars were fought with relatively small, volunteer forces serving multiple tours. Neither was anything like Vietnam, in their effect on America.

I do agree that the Republicans are becoming the minority party mostly because of the “culture war.” As time goes by, folks who have any problem with gay marriage, let alone contraception, are simply dying out. “Millenials” may not believe that sex or “free love” or music or pot or acid or any other drug is going to “liberate” them, but they don’t want the government telling them what to do in these areas either. Nor do they want the government empowering religious leaders. Sure, children of divorce may not see the no fault divorce laws as an unalloyed good, same with children of single mothers and the end of the stigma thereon. But they hardly are receptive for some sort of 1950’s restoration. Abortion, which is probably the “best” of the culture war issues, from a GOP perspective, is still viewed by most people, including young people, as an issue calling for a moderate, Roe-type approach. NOT the kind of “abortion is mass murder” mentality that dominates the discussion boards even on this sophisticated conservative website.

With the Cold War over, and the Vietnam War pretty much forgotten, the idea of the Dems as “soft” on foreign and military policy just doesn’t wash anymore, or carry much freight even when it does. Most younger folks realize that whatever it is we are fighting for in the Mideast and elsewhere, it is not our existential freedom or any such thing. And the Dems have been more or less on board anyway. So that issue is out. Even without the Iraq debacle, the foreign/military policy would not be the winner it was for the Republicans during the Nixon, Reagan and Bush I years. Indeed, many, many people were relieved in 1992 that they could, FINALLY, vote for what they wanted in the Presidential election (ie a somewhat “liberal” Democrat) without having to worry that he was going to either give the store away to the Russians or get framed with that rap even if he didn’t.

On the economics issue, the standard laissez faire Republican rhetoric not only makes less and less sense in an increasingly connected and interdependent society and world, but the party, at least as much as the Democrats, is so tainted with crony capitalism and special deals and special interests and state capitalism (in the form of the MIC) that even believers in yet more deregulation and giving even more sway to the market are not buying the GOP as their vehicle. And for anyone with so much as a shred of communitarianism that involves money and the economy, the GOP is a total non starter.

Which leaves the GOP with only one leg of its traditional, effective three legged stool. No Cold War and no real belief that the GWOT has taken its place destroys the military/FP leg. The discrediting of laissez faire and the failure of the GOP to even live up to that discredited philosophy pretty much knocks out that leg. Leaving only social conservatives. Hence the endless noise about the gays and contraception and abortion and rap and porn and sex and Miley Cyrus and teen pregnancies and drugs and so on.

To me, the GOP resembles the Federalists in the early 1800’s. The world has passed them by. Their issues don’t resonate with most people anymore. They are clinging to an old line, old school view of the world. They are seen, and rightly so, as elitists. And are increasingly isolated geographically and ethno culturally. Hence they fear democracy. And so rely on courts, on gerrymanders, on money, on, in short, all sorts of anti majoritarian procedures (like the filibuster) and institutions (like for profit corporations, “think tanks” funded by billionaires, etc) to bolster their waning influence. And become ever more obstructionist and shrill. All they can do is say “no” and try to oppose. They have no real positive agenda of their own. And their rhetoric, to which they are becoming increasingly captive, becomes more and more outré. Obama, like Jefferson, can’t just be wrong, no, he must be unpatriotic. Even that isn’t “good” enough, as he must be the Anti Christ or the Devil himself!

The quagmire wars, particularly Iraq, certainly did not help the GOP any, but to focus on them is to miss the point, IMHO.

#35 Comment By philadelphialawyer On December 31, 2013 @ 12:55 am


“I…think the author has somewhat understated the degree of the Boomer counter-radicalism and party-line rigidness that has taken the fringe of the John Birchers and their ilk to the forefront of the GOP. Conservatism…in the US…went from pro status quo to radical reactionary dystopianism mirroring the rigid Marxist dogma the left has finally shaken off…The Democrats have actually become more conservative regardless of supporting reform slowly for gay marriage at pace with the public voice, which has actually been traditionally what democracy and America represent at it’s best times. As a nation, we were reformers and progressives from our conception (see: Our Amendable Constitution, public elections and Revolutionary War for further evidence). I am a Millenial and my moral code and status quo is much more in sync with today’s left which I see as having the Burkean and Goldwater spirit, while the GOP is the counter-New Left of crotchety, nasty reactionary vindictiveness, and without an iota of the prudence, elegance or honest American spirit they seem to believe they represent. I don’t like either lot, but only one is currently a grotesque shell filled with it’s own antithesis and is willing to push us to the brink of dangerous divide with media pumping rhetoric that sounds like the ravings of a caged madman spewing toxic venom at ghosts of Communism, New Leftism, and other things that ‘go bump in the right’….”


“I consider myself conservative, and for that reason Republicans seem so vile to me. At least the Democrats aren’t typically as big of hypocrites. They’re proud of their bad ideas. For people of my generation, maybe the democrats have sucked at their jobs most of the time, no different than Republicans, but they’re half as much the lying self righteous a-holes the Republicans have become…If Republicans want to actually gain the future rather than hang onto a slowly dying off minority they need to quit with the spite, quit hanging onto the past someone in a bad codependent relationship, and embrace the future and the people in it”

I think these two young people’s posts (including the parts beyond what I have quoted) prove out what I was trying to say. The GOP has become a toxic, shrill, virtual self parody of itself. And younger people see right through its rhetoric, and see it as preposterous. As being almost comical, if it wasn’t so dangerous and disruptive and hate-filled. Even folks who view themselves as conservative personally and politically just can’t stomach what the GOP has become. It is like it is Frankenstein’s monster, taking over from Frankenstein himself and now running amuck, terrorizing the villagers.

#36 Comment By aware On December 31, 2013 @ 5:59 am

What’s worse, believing in your party or believing there are 2 parties?

#37 Comment By Sean Scallon On December 31, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

Outstanding article Dan.

I don’t think many Americans fully understand how war impacts a culture, especially a long term or particularly bloody war. If war is the highest form of human endeavour, as Patton once said, then it has to affect the culture in some way. For example, without World War II, there would have been no civil rights movement, no feminist movement, not even a gay rights movement. There wouldn’t have been “Boomers” at all.

Republicans and conservatives may well have patted themselves on the back in 2004 for putting an amendment on the Ohio ballot to prohibit same-sex marriage and thus claim the state for Bush II but they ignored the fact the election was so close to begin with that it would come down to Ohio. Indeed, what proved to be more culturally powerful? A referendum or the fact the military was still expelling homosexuals, some of whome were Arab language translators in the “War on Terrorism” (and in Iraq as well)? Such contradictions cannot last in wartime, any more than a segregated military fighting against the proponents of the “Master Race”. How can one fight against a religious fanaticism abroad which killed thousands of Americans on 9-11 and yet find millions of Americans continue to replicate it at home? You cannnot and those who promoted the wars and those whose foreign policies helped to lead up to 9-11 and the wars that followed because of their constant meddling around the world, are ultimately responsible for the downfall of the ideology they supposedly championed. If you want to know who is just as responsible for homosexual marriage sweeping the country and those on the Left, the writers and editors of the Weekly Standard and Commentary and Wall Street Journal should receive the credit due to them.

Rise of such “movements” in the 1960s may have been inevitable but Vietnam was not. It was a war of choice and with millions drafted to fight it could not help but be placed dead center in the cultural vortex of the time. Likewise, Iraq was a choice as well and by making that choice the GOP and conservatives have to accept the consequences of a war gone not according to plan and, like Vietnam, the negative aftermath which follows. Thus the cultural has changed and if conservatives want to still play the game then they must accept this reality until enough time passes and events take place which change everything again (like the end of the Cold War for example). If not, then solitude and exile await but at least that’s an honest choice compared to fighting the last war with M-16’s compared the to enemy’s predator drones.

#38 Comment By Ed On December 31, 2013 @ 4:00 pm

Good article. I look forward to finishing it eventually. Two things in the meantime:

1) Younger voters would have shifted to the Democrats even without Bush’s wars. The economy had gone south, and social conservative themes didn’t have as much appeal to younger urban or suburban voters. They hadn’t lived through the experience of the 60s and 70s and didn’t feel the conflicts that came out of those years in the way that older voters did.

2) While there definitely were differences between National Review conservatism of the 60s and 70s and the conservatism of later years, which was heavily influenced by evangelicalism or fundamentalism, I don’t think I’d say that the NR team was all that Anglophile.

They certainly had a strong attachment to what they took to be the Western tradition and to Western culture, and had been exposed to British political history. Some may have aped Bill Buckley’s mannerisms, but I’m not sure England or Britain in itself was all that much of a focus for them.

#39 Comment By Buckley4Ever On March 13, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

LOL at Buckley favoring more liberal abortion laws! Don’t think he would agree with you making that claimon firing line…