The wars in Vietnam and Iraq aren’t the same, of course, but there’s an eerie feeling of similarity between what happened in the early 1970s and what is happening now. Only this time, a conservative political coalition is crumbling, instead of a liberal one.
In 1971, when I moved to rural Wallowa
County in Oregon, a national liberal coalition held sway. This
movement had its roots in New Deal programs that brought jobs,
unemployment and retirement benefits and affordable housing to the
masses. It reached its moral high mark with the civil rights
legislation of the mid-1960s.
The war in Vietnam changed
everything, from party politics to how and where an entire
generation spent its youth. Thousands of young people fled to
Canada to dodge the draft; thousands of embittered veterans came
back to face hostility and resentment. The war also dimmed the
luster of the civil rights movement. And it turned me away from a
possible career in the State Department to a rural community
development job with the Extension Service.
energy also ended the old coalition of civil rights advocates,
labor unionists and small farmers. Along with social service
providers, academics and intellectuals, this loose alliance had
kept a lock on government for a quarter of a century.
the liberal coalition frayed, conservative movements, though varied
in their aims, found each other. The economic and
limited-government conservatives who had rallied behind Republican
presidential candidate Barry Goldwater; the social conservatives
who were upset with the legal interpretations of the Warren Supreme
Court; an evangelical Christian movement that preached a national
return to its version of basic values — all of them joined
forces in a broad conservative coalition.
often wondered how some of these groups could manage to stay in the
same room together. Chuck Gavin, for example, my old Extension
Service boss, was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican; he hated
environmental groups and regulations, yet had no use for organized
religion. I have friends who would go to the wall over gun rights
but think the war in Iraq is a mistake.
Still, when times
were good, the various factions each got enough of what they wanted
to let them overlook their party-mates’ views on other
matters. In the same way, populist Southern farmers once put up
with the civil rights advocacy of Democrats, back in the old days.
Now, however, the various conservative factions are no
longer comfortable in the same room, and they have begun to admit
it. Columnist George Will, a "limited government" conservative,
complained recently that "federal spending ... has grown twice as
fast under President Bush as under President Clinton."
Charles Krauthammer, a leading conservative columnist who has been
outspoken in support of President Bush’s foreign policy and
the war in Iraq, said that we are in "a fight over evolution that
is so anachronistic and retrograde as to be a national
embarrassment. ... Intelligent design may be interesting as
theology, but as science it is a fraud." And Rich Lowry, the editor
of the conservative National Review, said that Republicans are
"associated with an unpopular war ... beset by scandal — and
appear to have run out of ideas."
The different members
of the conservative coalition got along fine, until the wave of
prison scandals, torture stories and ethical transgressions —
combined with rising war costs and increased American casualties
— began to pull them apart. Meanwhile, the Democrats have
been too busy checking the political wind speed and enjoying a
rousing blame game to hammer out coherent positions for remedying
the mess we’re in. All of this contributes to that
déjà vu-all-over-again feeling.
Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one in Wallowa County.
Local offices such as sheriff and the county commission were
partisan and most office holders were Democrats. Just a few years
later, many locals were voting for Republicans and re-registering
as Republicans. Over the past 35 years, local registration has
become three-to-one Republican, a phenomenon common to much of the
But, as Bob Dylan sang, "the times they are a
changin’." A decade or two from now, we may look back at the
Iraq War as the cause, and 2005 as the year, that the conservative
coalition broke apart. The interesting question is: What kind of
coalition is going to pick up its pieces?