Scandal and war fracture conservative coalition

  • Rich Wandschneider


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.

Anti-Vietnam 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.

As 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.

I’ve 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.

In 1971, 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 rural West.

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?

Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph, Oregon, where he directs the Fishtrap gatherings of writers and community activists.

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