Why do Democrats swoon over men in uniform?
Ghosts of the 1960s linger in the relationship between the military and the left
Michael Kinsley asks this question
in Slate today, trying to answer why Democrats seem to be so taken with retired-Gen. Wesley K. Clark.
The notion that liberals disdain people in uniform was always a bit of a myth. Even during Vietnam, concern for the loss of young American lives was probably the anti-war movement's most powerful motivation. Since then, sneery right-wingers have had it both ways about liberals and the military: When liberals oppose military action, conservative voices accuse them of betraying our fighting men and women. When liberals support military action, they are accused of callous indifference to the lives of American soldiers.
But the current liberal swooning over (retired) generals is truly something new. A widespread fantasy among liberals who loathe the Bush administration, for example, is that Colin Powell will resign as secretary of state and "say what he really thinks." This will bring down the whole house of cards, these liberals believe. What he really thinks, they think, is more or less what they really think.
There is not much basis for this belief. Powell is skilled at distancing himself from certain policies without seeming disloyal. But if he really were as opposed to the administration he serves as these liberal fantasists imagine, a resignation at this point would come much too late to have any moral force.
Then there is Gen. Wesley Clark. Much of his support comes from people who think they haven't swooned themselves but believe that others will do so. But most of these people are in a swoon whether they realize it or not. They think that Clark has the best chance of defeating George Bush, and that nothing else matters. Their assessment is based on what seems to me a simple-minded view that you can place all the candidates on a political spectrum, then pick the one who's as far toward the other side as your side can bear, and call it pragmatism.
That's one piece of the puzzle. Another more personal account comes from Robert Poe in "Prisoner's Dilemma
", which ran in the October issue of The Washington Monthly. Mind you, not every Democrat was a draft resister who was sent to prison, and not every Democrat bears the guilt for those who did so. Nonetheless, I think some of these issues continue to plague the left to this day, and Mr. Poe's account adds a voice not often heard to this debate.
While Bush's poll numbers have been plummeting, the drop reflects worry over the continuing chaos in Iraq more than any growing anger at administration members for ducking service in their youth. Partisan Democrats may be furious that a president who sidestepped combat now poses as a war hero. But what really drives Democrats crazy is that Bush seems to have paid no political price for doing so. The puzzle's still not complete
This tolerant public attitude did not begin with Bush. In fact, in the last three presidential elections, a candidate who had served in the regular military was defeated by a candidate who had not (Clinton v. Bush in ' 92; Clinton v. Dole in '96; Bush v. Gore in '00). It has now become unremarkable for those who in their youth avoided putting themselves on the line for their country and their ideals to successfully impugn the patriotism of political opponents who served with honor. Think of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). He got out of Vietnam with a bum knee, but unseated former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, with ads attacking Cleland as soft on national security. Somehow, in the public mind, the ancient link between physical courage and patriotism has been broken in this country.
One can imagine any number of reasons for this shift. One obvious factor is the end of the draft in 1973, which no longer forces every young man to consider the possibility of military service. Another is the triumph of individual market thinking in this country--the growing sense of personal freedom and individual entitlement in modern life, and the corresponding fading of the notion that one has a duty to anything outside one's self and family. But there is another, related factor for which liberals--especially those of my generation, who came of age in the late 1960s--bear heavy responsibility. Too many of them opposed the Vietnam War in ways that required no personal sacrifice, while at the same time successfully grabbing the banner of high idealism by growing their hair long and marching in anti-war protests. Though they may not want to admit it, members of the anti-Vietnam War movement, who today dominate the opinion-making class, helped erode the connection in the public's mind between patriotism and courage, idealism, and sacrifice. And that change in public attitude has let today's so-called "chicken hawks" off the hook.
* * *
In 2003, it turns out that my questions about the anti-war movement do again matter. The reality of a major war launched by the Vietnam generation for reasons that, just as with Vietnam, didn't quite make sense, finally drove me to think through the implications of Lompoc's missing activists. I quickly concluded that the anti-Vietnam War liberals and the pseudo-patriotic neocons were more alike than different. Both embodied a privileged elite claiming to be paragons of idealism and patriotism, while hiding behind college or medical deferments to avoid putting themselves on the line, either in rice paddies or in prison. Indeed, there's a case to be made that, for conservative draft dodgers, one of the biggest benefits of the war with Iraq has been its extreme (and certainly intentional) divisiveness, which helps obscure how closely, in terms of character and integrity, they resemble anti-Vietnam War draft dodgers.
But more important, I realized that the success of the anti-war movement in selling itself as idealistic, while never showing up to do the hard time, directly paved the way--in fact, pioneered the techniques--for neocons to sell themselves as courageous patriots, after having never shown up for service in Vietnam. And with neocon draft dodgers now trying to prove their patriotism at the cost of American lives, that leaves anti-Vietnam War liberals with a lot to answer for.
. I think that Mr. Kinsley and Mr. Poe add two important parts of the picture, but there's more to be written.
First, Mr. Poe's right that the Vietnam War set in motion a number of dynamics which affect partisan politics to this day. After the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973, the Vietnam War had an enormous impact on the self-selection of America's "best and brightest" for military service. No longer did the George Herbert Walker Bush's, John F. Kennedys and Al Gores of America's elite join the military, as they did in WWII and Vietnam respectively. Indeed, neither did the young conservatives of the 1970s, who opted instead for the fast-track to money and/or power (see, e.g., Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Tom Delay, Richard Perle, etc)
Fast-forward thirty years, and suddenly you have an elite on both
sides of the aisle with a dearth of military experience. The number of veterans in Congress has dropped over the last 30 years; so too has the number of veterans appointed to the bench or executive positions. Unfortunately, this dynamic affects the Democratic Party more, because of the self-selection inherent in an all-volunteer force. Values and attitudes towards the military translate across generational lines into the choices made by children. More than ever, with our all-volunteer force, these choices shape the military's composition, which in turn produces the pool of eligible veterans to serve at high levels of our government.
My experience, growing up in liberal Santa Monica during the 1980s, was that most parents did not encourage their children to consider military service -- even for a brief tour, even for the educational benefits. A lot of this traced, in my opinion, to the attitudes harbored by my friends' parents who grew up during the 1960s, and held certain attitudes towards the military as an institution. Those attitudes were passed onto the children of my generation, who have had the opportunity to choose or refuse military service in the absence of a draft. These attitudes were enough to shape school choices and career choices, and steer the overwhelming majority of my friends away from uniformed service. Those who did serve usually had some specific reason, like college financial aid or a service academy appointment. Most went off to college, found a career, and moved into adulthood without a serious glance towards military service.
The result is an ever-increasing divide in American society between those who've served and those who haven't. I have no data to back this up, but my emprical observation is that this divide correlates quite well with political attitudes and socioeconomic status, with both liberals and the wealthy shunning military service. (One caveat: these same groups that shun military service often flood other forms of public service. I think that fact deserves mention, although for obvious reasons, such public service doesn't carry the same credential for issues of national security.) Again, fast-forward 30 years after these decisions were made, and you see a liberal and wealthy elite that contains disproportionately less veterans.So what? Why does veteran status matter in politics?At the end of the day, this boils down to the politics of identity
. A white man cannot criticize affirmative action with the same credibility as a black man; he even risks being called a racist for his views. An old man cannot criticize the right to choose an abortion without being labeled a hypocrite and worse. Similarly, a non-veteran cannot advocate for military action -- or the lack thereof -- with the same credibility as a veteran. I don't think this is the most intelligent want to assess credibility; I don't think someone's c.v. necessarily affects the quality of their ideas. But the American public does not see it that way. These credentials serve as shorthand for the American public; they enable voters to make decisions about credibility and trustworthiness.
The recognition of this fact is why I think that Democrats swoon over men in uniform. It's more than guilt over opposition to Vietnam; it's more than trying to offset the political advantage of the incument president. This swooning is about demonstrating credibility on issues of national security where the Democratic party currently has -- rightly or wrongly -- less credibility than the GOP. Wes Clark and John Kerry both realize this, and have each tried to leverage their military records for political gain. Whether their war records will make any difference in how they serve as Commander-in-Chief is a matter for debate. (FDR did well as a wartime President with no uniformed service; LBJ did a less than stellar job despite service in WWII.)
I don't like the politics of identity, and I suspect most politicians don't either. But the Democrats have to play the game, and that means appealing to voters in 2004 on national security issues. If winning takes putting a veteran on the ticket, I wouldn't be surprised to see Dems doing what it takes to win. I'm okay with that. After all, candidates have been picked for decades because of their geographic value, religion, age, and other "important" reasons. In 2004, the key constituency may not be Southerners or moderates or the elderly -- it may be Americans who care about their security. If that's true, why not pick a veteran?