01/11/2007 09:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting Past Vietnam-Era Condescension & Insecurity

There seems to be a pervasive and not-so-subtle streak of anger among 50-60 something pundits who describe themselves as "liberal" and yet who constantly attack the left for opposing the Iraq War, and then lecture the left about how we should have learned a lesson from Vietnam - this lesson being that progressive opposition to the war in the 1960s was terrible because Democrats proceeded to lose the presidency in the 1980s and Congress in the 1990s. To these 50-to-60-year-old cloistered, mostly male pundits, opposition to the War in Vietnam wasn't an act of courage - it is only portrayed as something horrible and never to be repeated because somehow we are all expected to believe it was the only reason for election losses decades later. Not surprisingly, almost all of the people pushing this narrative never served on the battlefield, and so the worst possible tragedy to them in their comfortable lives is not their arms or legs being blown off, but the party they nominally affiliate with losing elections - even though they have no evidence whatsoever to prove that those elections were lost because of the reasons they say they were.

Joe Klein is probably the most explicit in pushing this Vientam-inspired theory that opposition to the Iraq War is horrible, though he certainly not the only one. In his initial Time Magazine blog post, Klein attacked those who oppose the war as "illiberal leftists and reactionary progressives" who are "rooting for an American failure." A little later, Klein discussed Iraq further saying: "Liberals were 'right' about Vietnam, but they have paid a price ever since because they were so obnoxious."

His message is very clear: Klein is saying that while progressives may be right about opposing the Iraq War (even though Klein himself went on national television on the eve of the war to support the invasion), it is wrong for progressives to actually turn that opposition into real action because to do that would definitely lead to election losses for Democrats. Klein assumes this as fact because he is convinced - without any proof, of course - that progressive opposition to the Vietnam War led to election losses for Democrats decades later.

Klein and his "liberal" pundit friends are very, very good at using stereotypes to describe "the left." I was recently a recipient of a series of angry email screeds from Klein calling me a "crypto-socialist," a “left-wing BS artist" and likening me to people he knew in Students for a Democratic Society (and yet he somehow also likened me to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh - I really think Klein may not a stable/rational/functioning member of normal society). But in fact, it is Klein and the pundits who have actually become the worst cultural stereotypes of liberals they detest.

A 50 or 60-something year-old saying that because his generation supposedly acted/reacted one way means that the world can never act/react a different way is the very kind of self-centered arrogance and condescension liberals are regularly criticized for. That is, after all, the entire thinking behind this Vietnam obsession: that because progressive opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s supposedly was fully responsible for Americans voting Democrats out of office in the 1980s and 1990s, it automatically means that progressive opposition to the Iraq War in 2007 will be responsible for Americans voting Democrats out of office in the future (2010? 2020?).

Such theories, in short, assume that ordinary Americans are inherently stupid and unable to learn/adapt from history and reward a party for ending a war that the public opposes. This is the very kind of looking-down-the-nose-at-the-commoners behavior liberals are always ridiculed for. After all, these pundits aren't (at least openly) arguing that the Vietnam War should have continued - most acknowledge Vietnam didn't work out so well. Yet,what they are arguing today is that America didn't learn anything from that experience - that America, in fact, is too stupid to learn anything and react differently the next time around.

Klein yesterday spitefully claimed that after the Vietnam War, "liberals proceeded to see Vietnam in every American military initiative." But it is 50-to-60-something pundits who can't let go of Vietnam. I'm not sure why, frankly. Maybe its because they feel bad they didn't serve in the Vietnam War, and need to feel tough now by putting on a thug act and attacking anti-war efforts. Maybe it's because most of these pundits helped push the war in the first place and are too conceited to admit mistake. Maybe it's totally unrelated - maybe it's because people like Klein have worked their entire lives to achieve a dream of becoming a political columnist at a major magazine, only to realize that political columnists at major magazines are becoming increasingly irrelevant, ridiculed and exposed as dishonest frauds by the progressives who are empowered by new media.

Ultimately, I really don't care what the reason is. But I do know this: Americans are inherently smart people who can adapt and who do learn from history, no matter how much Joe Klein and the pundits assume we are stupid. This isn't to say that history can't teach us lessons, but it is to say that we are not automatically held hostage by history - and especially not by historical revisionist tales of anti-war efforts being singularly responsible for the downfall of the Democratic Party.

Just because the Joe Kleins feel bad they didn't serve/are too conceited/know they have blood on their hands/feel irrelevant doesn't mean this country is destined to repeat national security mistakes forever. Just because the Joe Kleins are too intellectually incapacitated to get past their Vietnam-era insecurities doesn't mean this country is unable to end a misguided war without punishing the party that helps end that war. Just because the Joe Kleins think they are smarter than everyone and that America is stupid doesn't mean the Joe Kleins actually are smarter than everyone and that America actually is stupid.

Democrats contemplating whether to use the power that voters just gave them, or behave like wimps and merely pass non-binding resolutions, should not fall into the trap of looking down on America like the pundits - they should have faith that when the public delivers an election mandate, the public wants action, and will reward that action with support.

UPDATE: Stoller has a graph of pulblic opinion data factually debunking the entire narrative that progressive opposition to the Vietnam War supposedly hurt Democrats' public image on national security and thus lost them elections decades later.