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Wars And Culture Wars

Daniel McCarthy’s TAC cover story about how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have damaged the GOP in the minds of young voters is now live. Key point: the essay is not about how young voters dislike the GOP’s foreign policy, but rather how being tied to a failed war tends to discredit the entire party. Excerpts:

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 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 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.

Read the whole thing.

I agree with the proposition that Iraq and Afghanistan have done incredible damage to the GOP’s reputation, and I think that’s a brilliant point about how the Republicans still falsely see themselves as Reagan, just as the Democrats back in the day falsely saw themselves as Roosevelt. That said, I am not sure that the debacle of Bush’s wars pushed us as far down the road to same-sex marriage as we are. Insofar as culturally conservative positions are tied to a losing war and the party most identified with it, well, yes, it doesn’t help. There’s something a bit post hoc, ergo propter hoc about this, however.

I don’t know how many social conservatives I speak for, but Iraq and the GOP’s handling of the economy neutralized me as a reliable GOP vote. As a general matter, it is very hard for me to pull the lever for a Republican for national office, given that I have zero trust in the party’s ability to competently manage foreign policy, national security, and the economy, even as I have zero trust in the Democrats to handle social policy competently. It’s hard to get behind a party that, while on the right side of the marriage and abortion issues (for now), is far more likely to involve the country in a damaging war.

Which is perhaps Daniel’s point, even if it’s not precisely the one he makes: if younger Americans don’t share culturally conservative views on same sex marriage, abortion, and other hot-button issues of the last 40 years, the collapse of the GOP’s reputation for competent foreign policy management has left them with very little reason to vote Republican. So they don’t.

And this is not the future:

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, long considered a frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 2016, told a packed audience at opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, that the Republican Party doesn’t need any new ideas in order to succeed. Explaining that he wanted to preempt liberal critiques of his speech, one of which (he predicted) was his lack of new ideas for the Republican Party, Rubio declared, “We don’t a new idea. The idea is called America, and it still works.”

USA! USA! USA! Wash, rinse, repeat.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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