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Ross Douthat Is Wrong About Liberalism's Rise

The Iraq war had little to do with it

The Iraq war is “responsible for liberalism’s current political and cultural ascendance.” That’s Ross Douthat’s provocative argument in his Sunday New York Times column, in which he claims the war energized grassroots progressives, tied cultural conservatism to the Bush administration’s unpopular foreign policy, and ended the conservative base’s acquiescence with centrist “compassionate conservatism,” thereby crushing the Bush administration’s second-term agenda and giving Democrats the political space to move to the left. The Iraq war undoubtedly did severe damage to the GOP, but it is not responsible for the ascendance of liberalism in its current form—the financial crisis and generational change are.

"History is too contingent to say that had there been no Iraq invasion in 2003, there would be no Democratic majority in 2012," Douthat writes, but adds that "the Democratic majority that we do have is a majority that the Iraq war created"—the implication being that Democrats have the war to thank for winning, and keeping, the White House. But perhaps the central finding of modern political science on American elections is that economic growth substantially affects the outcome of presidential contests. The economy was already in recession in 2008, making Democrats a clear favorite to take back the presidency. The onset of the financial crisis that September would have led to a decisive Democratic victory, regardless of failure in Iraq or the broader perception of incompetence (Hurricane Katrina, scandals in Congress, and weak economic growth had already cemented the view that the GOP was not an effective governing party).

Douthat argues that the netroots and Democratic establishment would have been divided for a decade if the Iraq war had gone according to plan, and that the former rejuvenated an “ossified” American liberalism and powered Obama’s “juggernaut” campaign apparatus. While true that the war was critical to the rise of the netroots, it is unclear how divisions between the establishment and grassroots progressives would have hampered the party’s eventual electoral success—especially given the significance of the financial crisis. While the establishment might have seemed “ossified,” the Gore campaign’s get-out-the-vote was superior to Bush’s in 2000. And despite the sophistication of Obama’s well-funded and high-tech machine, there isn’t much evidence that his campaigns moved the needle very far in either 2008 or 2012.

Even a quick glance at the electoral map proves as much: In 2008, Obama's improvement over Kerry’s performance in Montana and New Mexico, where the Obama campaign expended considerable resources, was no better than in Utah and Vermont, where the campaign expended far fewer resources. In 2012, Obama maintained his support in the battlegrounds of Virginia and North Carolina, but also in non-competitive Georgia and South Carolina. His support faltered as much in Nevada, where Romney and Obama campaigned vigorously, as it did in New Mexico, where only Romney-aligned Super PACs aired advertisements. If demographics explain state-by-state variation between elections, then it is difficult to argue that Obama’s campaign apparatus was decisive.

Douthat’s most novel argument is that the advance of cultural liberalism was facilitated by incompetence in Iraq, which allowed liberals to caricature conservatism as “Old White Male Faith-Based Cluelessness.” But the rise of cultural liberalism is more easily attributed to inexorable cultural changes than association with the Bush administration. Support for gay marriage was on the rise long before Bush. In 1990, 15 percent supported gay marriage. That jumped to 30 percent by 2000 and 45 percent in 2010. With just two exceptions, support for gay marriage increased at a steady pace of one to two points a year: It declined in 2004, as Republicans went on the offense and Democrats, fearing political backlash, refused to defend it; then, support rose rapidly over the last two years, when public discourse shifted in the opposite direction as Republicans backed down and Democrats went on offense.

Bush’s second-term agenda may have been hampered by Iraq, but it’s hard to argue that Social Security reform would have passed otherwise. More importantly, the collapse of compassionate conservatism wasn't necessary to create the political space for Democrats to move left and pass health-care reform. Democrats never considered it an ideologically bold proposal, and it seemed likely to attract bipartisan support until a conservative, grassroots revolt in the late summer of 2009. And even if “compassionate conservatism” could have forced Democrats to the center in the 2008 presidential election, Democrats would have been emboldened by large majorities in Congress to enact health care reform, just as Bill Clinton was emboldened to push universal health care after winning the presidency as a “new Democrat.”

To be sure, catastrophe in Iraq helped liberals. One could argue that the war boosted the party's margin of victory in 2006. But even then, stagnant income growth, Katrina, keeping Terri Schiavo alive, the failed push for Social Security and immigration reform, and House scandals could have easily given Democrats control of the House and big gains in the Senate. And since Democrats ultimately passed the Affordable Care Act through reconciliation, a few extra seats from Iraq in 2006 might not have been necessary, anyway. It’s hard to imagine Obama winning the Democratic nomination if Senator Hillary Clinton had never voted to authorize the conflict, but it’s equally unclear how the last four years would have gone differently.

To blame the Iraq war for the ascent of liberalism is to suggest that the public hasn't really repudiated conservatism: Americans' judgment was simply clouded by a single, albeit enormous, Republican-led misstep. In reality, we're witnessing the rise of a new, diverse, and socially moderate generation—one that has allowed Democrats to keep the presidency despite governing as liberals and dividing the electorate along the lines of the two Bush elections. After all, Romney won voters older than 30 (who were eligible to vote in 2000) by 2 percentage points in 2012, but the millennial generation tipped the scales in favor of Obama. These younger voters didn’t just make the difference in 2012, they also cast the decisive ballot in the culture wars. Obama himself might not have reached the White House without the Iraq war, but those who supported him still would have decided the last two elections—and they'll decide the next two, too.