Conservatives (religious and cultural) addicted to the notion that ideas have consequences are tempted to interpret the current trend toward the acceptance of gay marriage as the outworking of secularization and its moral relativism. This assessment seems to go with the philosophical cast of mind that afflicts both neo-Calvinists and Roman Catholic apologists, both of whom have found each other (as they did in 19th-century Netherlands) as allies in the contemporary “culture wars” against secularism.
But Daniel McCarthy’s piece in the current issue of the American Conservative lends support to my suspicion that the shift toward support for gay marriage has much less to do with marriage or tolerance than with a rejection of the Religious Right. Gay marriage is a perfect rejoinder to “family values.” Let’s see how firm your commitment to marriage is when gays want to become families. This was a move the Religious Right did not see coming. Whether the domestication of homosexuality, which used to thrive on being anti-bourgeois and counter-cultural, will last in its “family values” form is another matter. (Could it be that Jerry Falwell really did get the better of Andrew Sullivan by prompting gay advocates to follow Christian conventions of domesticity?)
Dan McCarthy extends this intuitive sense to compare the consequences of the Vietnam War for Democrats and the Iraq War for Republicans.
The root of the GOP’s problem now is the same as that of the Democrats in 1969: the party’s reputation has been ruined by a botched, unnecessary war—Vietnam in the case of the Democrats, Iraq for the GOP. This may sound implausible: every political scientist knows that Americans don’t care about foreign policy; certainly they don’t vote based on it. But foreign policy is not just about foreign policy: it’s also about culture.
That the “culture war”—as well as the “War on Drugs”—assumed its present shape in the wake of the Vietnam conflict is no accident. Vietnam polarized, realigned, and radicalized cultural factions. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, Republicans in Congress were still more likely than Democrats to support civil rights legislation. Attitudes toward abortion and homosexuality did not clearly divide left from right: Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and even William F. Buckley favored liberalizing abortion laws in the early 1960s, while as late as 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Thomas Eagleton were antiabortion. Few mainstream figures in either party supported gay rights, but it was clear enough from their social circles that right-wingers such as Reagan, Goldwater, and Buckley were not about to launch any witch-hunts.
Nor were attitudes toward drugs a mark of partisan distinction: Clare Booth Luce was an early evangelist for LSD. She urged her husband, Time proprietor Henry Luce, to try it, and he “did much more to popularize acid than Timothy Leary,” in Abbie Hoffman’s opinion. Buckley, of course, was a longtime supporter of marijuana decriminalization.
One could find many more right-wingers who took the opposite views—but one could find just as many Democrats who did as well. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution had supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle.
And in the early ’60s, Democrats still had a reputation for military prowess. Their party had led the country against Nazi Germany, and while Republicans blamed them for losing China to Communism, John F. Kennedy gained more traction against Richard Nixon in 1960 when he accused the Eisenhower administration of letting a (fictitious) “Missile Gap” open up with the Soviet Union. Republicans certainly weren’t the only party considered competent to handle foreign affairs.
That changed with Vietnam. President Johnson seemed to have started a war he couldn’t win or even end. It split his party and transformed the American left: until then, labor muscle and social-democratic brains were the left’s principal organs. They tended to support the war and oppose the cultural upheavals that coincided with it—positions diametrically opposite those of the student movement and nascent New Left.
McCarthy goes on to argue that the culture wars are simply hangovers from the Vietnam era and only make sense to baby boomers.
The “culture war” that Pat Buchanan spoke of at the 1992 Republican convention was, among other things, a symptom of Vietnam syndrome: a chance to right the wrongs of the 1960s and 1970s, if not in the rice paddies of Indochina then in the hearts and minds of Americans, turning back the clock to a more wholesome time before the war and its cultural coattails.
For younger voter cohorts, this couldn’t make sense. They were a postwar generation, culturally as well as militarily, and the idea of winning back what had been lost in the wars of the 1960s was emotionally incomprehensible. These voters lacked the psychological backdrop that pulled the Boomers toward the GOP after Vietnam. And over the next 20 years, as talk radio and Fox News continued to pitch the Republican message to Boomer ears, Americans born after 1975 simply tuned out.
This is why President Obama may be the real successor (for Democrats) to Ronald Reagan:
While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future—in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq—however reluctantly—and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Obama is winning the culture war because that war continues to be fought by the right in the terms of the Vietnam era. That mistake, coupled with the natural credit a leader gets from keeping the country out of quagmires, gives the president’s party a tremendous advantage among the rising generation. (Sixty percent of voters under 30 supported Obama in 2012, as did 52 percent of those age 30–44.) And older conservatives, seeing that generation’s disdain for the culture war, are apt to write them off completely. If you’re not outraged by same-sex marriage, how can you be any kind of conservative?
But the reason even young conservatives aren’t interested in those kinds of battles is that they’re fighting others closer to home. Americans born after 1975 have grown up in an environment in which, Todd Gitlin admits, “only the most sentimental ex-hippie could fail to recognize the prices paid on the road to the new freedom: the booming teenage pregnancy rate; the dread diseases that accompanied the surge in promiscuity; the damage done by drugs; the undermining of family commitment…”
Young adults who have come from home backgrounds marked by divorce, or from intact families that nonetheless never sat down at a dinner table, want to form stronger bonds than their parents did. Boomers who view post-Boomer attitudes toward sex in light of a “revolution” are doing it wrong. It was the Boomers, or at least a key cohort among them, who believed in free love as a salvific concept. Young American have grown up with promiscuity and knowledge of drugs, aren’t panicked about these things, but don’t see them as possessing redemptive significance either. Even most young progressives do not believe in personal “liberation” of the sort that was at the core of the ’60s left—just as no one today believes in the kind of “liberation” once associated with Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.
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. . . .
Ross Douthat agrees largely with McCarthy’s interpretation:
In a similar way, even though Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney weren’t culture warriors or evangelical Christians, in the popular imagination their legacy of incompetence has become a reason to reject social conservatism as well. Just as the post-Vietnam Democrats came to be regarded as incompetent, wimpy and dangerously radical all at once, since 2004 the Bush administration’s blunders — the missing W.M.D., the botched occupation — have been woven into a larger story about Youth and Science and Reason and Diversity triumphing over Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.
Of all the Iraq war’s consequences for our politics, it’s this narrative that may be the war’s most lasting legacy, and the most difficult for conservatives to overcome.
Sometimes it makes more sense to look at what actually happened than at what people think.