Rod Dreher and Noah Millman both misread me in the same way, which means an important part of my argument in “The GOP’s Vietnam” wasn’t clear enough. Rod says, “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,” while a similarly skeptical Noah is “unconvinced that Vietnam is the key reason why the Democrats lost their status as the majority party.” My argument, though, isn’t that attitudes about war directly translate into attitudes about either political parties or particular issues. I envision a two-step process: war shapes a culture, and reaction to that culture as well as to the war itself rearranges politics.

Take the case of Vietnam. The war clearly did dent the Democratic Party’s reputation in foreign policy. The party and its Cold War liberalism seemed inept to some Americans; they seemed criminal to some on the left; and the left’s reaction further undermined Cold War liberalism by creating the impression that it couldn’t keep its coalition in line (or its very children). That couldn’t help but undercut the party’s reputation for competence even among voters who might have been conflicted about or somewhat supportive of the war. That’s a complex enough picture already, and that’s just the stuff directly related to the war: add overlapping developments in racial politics and the youth counterculture, and the lines of cause and effect become tangled indeed. That’s why I emphasize the intensifying and polarizing effects of the war rather than making simple claims about causation. The Vietnam War did not create the counterculture (certainly not alone) but made it much more of a problem for the Democratic Party than it might otherwise have been. And the war and the counterculture together tainted the party’s brand at the national level for a generation.

Just as Vietnam did not create the counterculture, liberalizing attitudes among younger people toward, say, gay marriage did not begin with a reaction against the Iraq War. What I believe the war has done, however, is bring Republican and conservative good faith into question across the board. The party has lost a great deal of trust. My hunch is that the effect of seeing a war prosecuted unsuccessfully tinctures how one views the party in other areas. I’d go so far as to propose that this can happen even among supporters of the war. Look at someone like David Frum, who still thinks the war was right but clearly feels some cognitive dissonance—he says the war was mismanaged, but he doesn’t radiate the confidence of someone who thinks it really reasonably could have been managed much better.

Such an impressionistic psychological argument conveniently cannot be tested empirically. But not everything in life can be—human psychology and the complexities of our interactions have to be understood with some degree of hypothetical inference. Data tell a story—or rather, a set of possible stories—they don’t tell the story, or the definitive set of all possible stories.

As far as specific objections go, Noah’s right to note that 1968 was a was a pivotal year in youth politics well beyond the U.S.—but then, the most dramatic youth uprising of them all, in France, took place in a country that had lost wars in Indochina and Algeria not long before. Noah’s also right to say that lost wars can make populations more nationalistic and militaristic rather the conflict averse. Certainly true: what I argue, in fact, is that the Vietnam experience made Americans both more and less pro-war. More pro-war in that the GOP defined itself against the antiwar left; less pro-war in that the GOP doubled down on realism and never wholly embraced the “rollback” approach favored by the pro-war right since dawn of the Cold War. That older Americans are both more pro-Republican and more critical of the Vietnam War actually fits this account.

I wouldn’t say, by the way, that the GOP is guaranteed to make a comeback if it goes antiwar now. It’s more complicated than that. Democrats didn’t return to power with McGovern, after all. Now that a bad war and unfavorable cultural circumstances have combined, the GOP faces a real struggle to redefine itself. This, again, is exactly where I see the parallel with the post-Johnson Democrats. My piece is about how the GOP got into the maze more than how to get out, though I do say it has to escape the shadow of Iraq. I’d be completely wrong if the GOP’s path back to power ran through celebrating the Iraq War or calling for more wars just like it.

Daniel Larison has noted the effect Iraq has had on young voters’ party identification. Yet the seemingly anomalous point that Noah raises about young voters being relatively pro-war still stands. Not only are young people today more likely to look favorably on the Iraq and Vietnam conflicts than older Americans are, but during the Vietnam era itself young people tended to be more supportive of the war. That did not, however, lead to them becoming lifelong Democrats. Was it that the post-Johnson party was just too antiwar for them? Yes—yet they’re also the voters who are least enthusiastic about the Vietnam and Iraq wars today. This paradox can’t be easily explained, which is why my explanation is rather complex.

Let me synopsize as follows: a failed war damages a party’s reputation; that damaged reputation makes a deep impression on young people, as does the war itself and the domestic cultural backdrop during the war. How these elements interact with one another can spell doom for a party over an extended period. Vietnam took place in an era when cultural upheavals were already gestating (or in some cases, born); Iraq also took place during a time of cultural change—ironically, as I point out, at a time when the changes that flared during the Vietnam era were reaching their point of completion and institutionalization. The domestic cultural backdrop during Iraq was thus the reverse of that during Vietnam, as was which party launched the unsuccessful war. The fact that young people are relatively pro-war in general is less important than the absolute effect each war has had on their partisan and cultural perceptions. Hence the appearance of moving in two directions at once, and the apparent contradiction between support for war and partisan trajectory.

As a result of all this, today’s youth may very well be primed to support Democratic wars, but I suspect that the Democrats would be safer to do what Nixon and Reagan did and refrain from launching any conflicts on the scale of Vietnam then or Iraq today.