The wars in Vietnam and Iraq aren’t the same, of course, but there’s an eerie feeling of sameness to what’s happening now and what happened in the early 1970s. Only this time, it’s a conservative political coalition that’s crumbling.
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 in the civil rights legislation of the mid-‘60s.
It was the unpopular war in Vietnam that changed everything, from party politics to where an entire generation spent its youth. The war created the "draft lottery" to choose who went and who didn’t go to war, and thousands of young people fled to Canada. The war dulled the civil rights movement and confused and embittered veterans who came back to an often hostile environment. It also chased me out of a possible career in the State Department to a rural community development job with the Extension Service.
Anti-Vietnam energy dominated music and culture in the 1970s. It gave rise to a youth movement that didn’t trust its elders, and it brought an end to the old coalition of civil rights advocates, labor unionists and small farmers. Along with social service providers, academics and intellectuals, this loose alliance had held a lock on government for a quarter-century.
As the liberal coalition frazzled, conservative movements, though varied in their aims, found each other. Economic and limited-government conservatives who had rallied behind Republican Barry Goldwater, social conservatives upset with the legal interpretations of the Warren Supreme Court, and an evangelical Christian movement preaching return to one version or another of basic values — all became members of a broad conservative coalition.
I’ve often wondered how some of these groups could gather in the same room. Chuck Gavin, my old Extension Service boss, was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who hated environmental groups and regulations. But he also had no use for organized religion. I have friends who would go to the wall over gun rights but who think the war in Iraq is a mistake. When times were good, conservative factions each got enough of what they needed to let them look away from their party-mates’ views and positions on other matters, just as populist Southern farmers put up with the civil rights advocacy of Democrats.
Now, the conservative factions no longer seem to fit in the same room, and they are admitting 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."
Various parties to the conservative coalition got along until prison scandals, torture stories, rising war costs and American casualties pulled them apart. Meanwhile, Democrats, busy checking the political wind speed and finding their satisfaction in a blame game, have failed to hammer out coherent positions to remedy the mess we’re in. All of which contributes to that deja vu all-over-again feeling.
In 1971, Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one in Wallowa County, a hangover, I’m sure, from New Deal farm programs. Local offices such as sheriff and the county commission were partisan back then, and most office holders were Democrats. A few years later, many locals were casting their votes for Republicans and re-registering as Republicans. Over the 35 years, local registration has become three-to-one Republican, a phenomenon common to much of the rural West.
But, as Dylan said, "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, the conservative coalition broke apart. The interesting question is what kind of coalition will pick up its pieces.