Vietnam and Watergate are seminal events for almost all liberals my age. Vietnam taught them to distrust the use of force by our military, and to despise leaders who aggressively use military force in the name of the national interest. Watergate confirmed that a leader who projects military force overseas for that purpose can be expected to usurp power at home.
These “lessons” were rejected by most baby-boomers even at the time of Vietnam and Watergate. And despite the dominance of Vietnam and Watergate-obsessed boomers in academia, subsequent generations have found the lessons even less worth learning.
The Democratic party, however, has not just learned the lessons, it has internalized them. And to its great detriment. The electoral tide turned against the Democrats during the Vietnam era, and hasn’t turned back. One can argue that the Vietnam/Watergate syndrome — fear of the exercise of American power based on profound distrust of our military, our government, and our motives — is the main cause of the decline of the Democrats.
Many liberals seem not to dispute this. In fact, they acknowledge the “failure” of most Americans to embrace “harsh truths,” and see this as further evidence that something is wrong with our country (“what’s wrong with Kansas?”). We witnessed this phenomenon quite vividly last November following the defeat of John Kerry — perhaps the purest messenger of the Vietnam/Watergate lessons. Like some conservatives of the past, many liberals seem to relish their minority status as a badge of intellectual superiority.
At the same time, most liberals long to be vindicated in the public mind. If Americans were belatedly to embrace the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate, this would simultaneously confirm liberal superiority and restore liberal dominance.
Liberals look at Iraq, “torture,” and now domestic spying, and can taste full public vindication. And therein lies their problem. If Iraq is Vietnam, it will soon enough confer great political advantage on the Democrats. But the Democrats (Hillary Clinton aside) are psychologically incapable, after so long in the wildnerness, of “letting the game come to them.” Or perhaps they understand that Iraq is not Vietnam. Thus, they overreach — being too quick to compare Iraq to Vietnam, to eager to insist that we are failing there, and too quick to cry foul over domestic spying that targets mass murderers, not Larry O’Brien and Daniel Ellsberg. And the public recoils.
It’s not surprising that the failure of many liberals to have learned anything truly new since 1974 constitutes a huge political disadvantage. But I’m fascinated by the ways in which this failure continues to confound them.