Ross Douthat
Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times

How New Wars Have Brought Back Old American Divisions

For all the ways that our political coalitions have changed over the last few generations — Southern Democrats joining the G.O.P., Northeastern Republicans turning Democrat, “Reagan Democrats” moving right, suburban Republicans voting for Joe Biden — there are patterns that persist across the generations.
That’s what we’re seeing in foreign policy right now, where Democrats and Republicans are dividing over Israel-Palestine and Ukraine-Russia, respectively, in ways that would have been familiar to the version of each party that existed 50 or even 75 years ago.
The Democrats, first, are replaying their Vietnam-era divisions in the split between the Biden administration and the pro-Palestine left. Again you have an aging Democratic president struggling to modulate a conflict with no certain endgame. Again his left-wing critics represent his party’s younger generation, their influence concentrated on college campuses, their power expressed primarily through disruptive protest tactics.
The language of the protesters is similar across the two eras, albeit with “settler colonialism” replacing “imperialism” as the favored epithet.
So is the internal dilemma of the left — namely, to what extent is it possible to oppose a military campaign against an insurgent force embedded in a civilian population without becoming dupes for the insurgency’s authoritarian (in Vietnam) or theocratic (in Gaza) politics?
While the Democrats replay the 1960s, the Republican split over Ukraine funding has revived debates that would have been familiar to anyone watching the G.O.P. from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Now as then, we have noninterventionists pitted against hawks, Jacksonian populists against internationalists, an updated version of the party’s old Robert Taft wing against the contemporary equivalents of Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey.
The fact that Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, the most prominent spokesman for the populist side, represents the same state as Taft is a nice little historical brushstroke. If you wanted to push the analogy further, you could even say that the recent shift by the embattled speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, from skeptic of Ukraine spending to supporter of a big aid package, resembles the switch that the leading Republican senator, Arthur Vandenberg, made across the 1940s, from isolationist to Cold Warrior.
Of course history doesn’t repeat that neatly, especially when you move from America’s internal divides to the actual foreign policy challenges. Putin’s Russia isn’t Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, Israel isn’t at all like South Vietnam and American troops are not committed to either conflict yet.
Moreover, seeing continuities across different eras doesn’t tell you who’s correct in this one, or reveal how today’s crises will ultimately end.
Especially when the crises are concurrent, and others loom ahead. One interesting aspect of the current situation is that each intraparty debate feels somewhat separate from the other. You could imagine right-wing non-interventionism undermining Republican support for Israel as well as for Ukraine, but so far right-wing critics of Israel like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens don’t have a big constituency in Congress. Likewise, you could imagine antiwar activism on Israel-Palestine encouraging a left-wing case for making peace with Russia. (If Israel is expected to bargain with Hamas, why not Kyiv with Moscow?) But those arguments aren’t a big part of Democratic politics at the moment.
Perhaps there will be more cross-pollination if the two conflicts drag on. Or maybe current debates will be transformed and superseded by events in Asia. For now, anxiety about our position vis-à-vis China offers potential common ground for the Republican factions, with Vance and his hawkish foes at least notionally agreeing that we need to be doing more to deter Beijing. In the Democratic coalition, meanwhile, the China question isn’t getting much attention at all.
But that could change quickly, especially if you believe that the current period of global conflict is only “hardening” the Chinese regime’s “intent to execute an act of aggression similar to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” (to quote a new analysis from Mike Studeman, a former commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence).
In that case China will go from occupying a second-order role in our debates to rewriting them entirely — maybe by discrediting both left-wing and right-wing skepticism about American overseas commitments, the way isolationism was abandoned when the simmering crises of the 1930s gave way to World War II.
Or maybe by heightening and shaking up today’s divisions, so they feel less like reruns and more like the new debates of an era when the American empire may be fighting for its life.

The New York Times