Persons concerned about separation of church and state, equal rights, and civil discourse have good reason to be worried by the candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan in the Republican presidential primaries. He has a decade-long record of intolerance and insensitivity on issues of race, religion, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, and civility. He is the quintessential demagogue for the TV age, whose undeniable charm, selectively displayed, disarms serious scrutiny of where his brand of right-wing populism would lead the country.
Having read scores of Buchanan columns dating back to the mid-1980s, I think it is fair to conclude that his ideal citizen is a straight, white, conservative Christian male whose ancestors came from northern Europe. Everyone else is biologically, culturally, or politically incapable of carrying forward the torch of civilization. Buchanan's brand of scapegoating and demagoguery is toxic to democracy, but in a mass-media age where electronic and print pundits are more concerned with reporting elections as sports contests or Machiavellian intrigues, Buchanan until now has easily sidestepped serious questions about his ideology.
The biggest myth about the Buchanan campaign is that his fiery rhetoric at the 1992 Republican Convention, along with the speeches by Pat Robertson and Marilyn Quayle, cost the Republican Party the votes that elected Bill Clinton. This is false. According to political scientist John C. Green, distaste for these speeches was not as significant a factor in the defeat of Bush as were fears over unemployment and the general state of the economy. On balance, he believes, the Republicans gained more votes than they lost in 1992 by embracing the rhetoric of the theocratic right.
Another myth is that nobody expected Buchanan to do well in the primaries. Not so. Among those who feared the success of Buchanan's scapegoating and right-wing populism were David Corn writing in The Nation, Adele M. Stan in Mother Jones, Sara Diamond in Z Magazine, and Holly Sklar in her columns and her book Chaos or Community?: Seeking Solutions, Not Scapegoats for Bad Economics.
Some of us, including Fred Clarkson and the staff of the Institute for First Amendment Studies, tried to the raise the warning flags. We have been building a pro-democracy movement because we saw the growing dangers of theocracy, scapegoating, and demagoguery. The book Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, available through the IFAS bookstore, is one outcome of that collaborative effort, as is the new Democracy Works online project of the Institute for Alternative Journalism (IAJ), and a new democracy curriculum unveiled at the recent IAJ conference on media and democracy.
Unfortunately, Buchanan's politics still leave many people confused. On some issues he seems to lean to the right, on some issues he seems to lean to the left. He is against abortion but for protectionism; he wants to open the doors to teaching creationism while closing the closet doors on gays and lesbians. One reason for this confusion is the false notion that when looking at the political right, there are conservatives and neo-Nazis — and nothing in-between. As readers of Freedom Writer Magazine know, however, there is a tremendous range of political viewpoints between conservatism and neo-Nazism, and it is to those audiences that Pat Buchanan has pitched his rhetoric, especially the religiously orthodox theocratic right, racialist nationalists, right-wing economic populists, and authoritarians.
Theocratic rightists. Buchanan clearly has the loyalty of a large segment of theocrats on the Christian right. He has also attracted the support of a tiny portion of the Jewish community with ultra-conservative political views or orthodox religious beliefs. His base among conservative and right-wing Catholics is also strong. Buchanan's attacks on reproductive choice and defense of creationism are celebrated among theocrats, even though leaders of the Christian Coalition have urged that such hot button issues be de-emphasized in favor of base-building pragmatism around conservative stands on taxes and jobs. Many of these theocrats are reactionaries — part of a backlash against the 1960s social liberation movements that sought more equal distribution of wealth and power.
Racialist nationalists. Buchanan exclaims: "We are old right and old church" to describe his support for what has become known as the paleoconservative movement, with its emphasis on hierarchical social structures, Eurocentrism, isolationism, orthodox Christianity, and male dominance. He quickly defended the paleoconservative think tank Rockford Institute after one of its own staff was fired for suggesting the organization was insensitive to anti-Semitism. Racial nationalists are often concerned with national sovereignty, and resist the internationalism of major global corporations by calling for protectionism, isolationism, and unilateralism in overseas military involvement. Buchanan's stump speech attacking the New World Order attracts support from this sector, as does his opposition to immigration based on race:
"The burning issue here has almost nothing to do with economics, almost everything to do with race and ethnicity. If British subjects, fleeing a depression, were pouring into this country through Canada, there would be few alarms.
"The central objection to the present flood of illegals is they are not English-speaking white people from Western Europe; they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean."
Right-wing economic populists. The difference between regressive economic populists and progressive economic populists lies in their perception of how an exploitative relationship developed between the mass of the population and the business and political elite. Progressive populists tend to see institutions and systems as having caused the disparity, and seek a more equitable distribution of wealth and power through structural changes. Regressive populists tend to see corrupt and evil individuals as having created the disparity, and seek to "throw the bums out" and restore the previous balance of power that is pictured as more equitable.
Regressive populists often mobilize genuine middle-class and working-class anger over economic distress toward scapegoats at the top and bottom of the political system. This scapegoating is called producerism, which portrays deserving hard-working people in the middle as the victims of a squeeze play between wealthy parasites on the top who manipulate the economy, and lazy parasites on the bottom who receive undeserved benefits — welfare, jobs, special privileges — from the parasites at the top. Buchanan's attack on global elites and Wall Street brokers sounds the alarm for persons who embrace regressive populism.
In a 1992 article praising Pat Buchanan as anti-establishment, the John Birch Society magazine The New American cited with approval the Buchanan column where he blasted "The Trilateral-Council on Foreign Relations, Wall Street-Big Business elite" and those who support a New World Order with its "one-world, collective-security, UN dream." No surprise then to find the same Milliken family that owns textile mills that would benefit from trade protectionism not only buying full-page ads in Birch publications for a decade, but also supporting the current Buchanan campaign.
Authoritarians. Buchanan appeals to the authoritarian impulse among those who see dissent and demands for social change as not resulting from actual grievances by the dispossessed and impoverished, but as caused by cynical subversive agents stirring up trouble. Swift and strong authoritarian government action against the subversives and their liberal allies will fix what is wrong with society. Buchanan praise for the death squads in Argentina is one example of his appeal to authoritarians:
"Faced with rising urban terror in 1976, the Argentine military seized power and waged a war of counter-terror. With military and police and free lance operators, between 6,000 and 150,000 leftists disappeared. Brutal, yes; also successful. Today, peace reigns in Argentina; security has been restored."
In a column dismissing the importance of democracy, Buchanan once wrote: "The world hails democracy in principle; in practice, most men believe there are things higher in the order of value — among them, tribe and nation, family and faith."
In real life the ideas spread by these core sectors of the hard right overlap to varying degrees in any individual voter. But Buchanan's coded rhetoric also appeals to more zealous sectors of the hard right including the patriot movement, the armed militia movement, as well as far right race hate groups such as Aryan Nations, the Christian Patriots, Christian Identity, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazi organizations. These groups support Buchanan because he is seen as standing up for the white race against the secret power brokers, the globalists, the Jewish bankers.
But it misses the point — and smacks of guilt by association — to analyze Buchanan's right-wing philosophy simply by reporting that some of his aides, campaign workers, and supporters have ties to the far right. Buchanan hangs himself through his own words that show why the far right supports his candidacy.
One reason that Buchanan's reactionary views were overlooked for so long by the major news media is that the entire political spectrum has shifted to the right over the last 15 years. As author Holly Sklar has observed, by today's standards, the policies of Richard Nixon would be viewed as liberal. The agenda of the John Birch Society in 1964 when it backed the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, Jr. is now woven into the Republican Party platform. Even Goldwater has distanced himself from the right wing of the Republican Party, and some of the Party's most passionate critics are loyal long-standing Republicans who want to return their party to its core themes of conservatism, rather than see it promoting the ultra-conservatism of a Bob Dole, or the outright reactionary views of a Pat Buchanan.
Much confusion has resulted from the fact that Buchanan undeniably has friends and supporters who are Jews or people of color. True. But this does not resolve the question of his political bigotry; it confuses good manners with the political outcomes of his agenda. There is a difference between personal bigotry and political bigotry. And we must note that Buchanan's promotion of xenophobia and racial nationalism is different from the promotion of naked race hate and murderous genocide, but it is objection able, nonetheless. On the basis of his written and spoken record, Buchanan is a racist, an anti-Semite, a sexist, a homophobe, and an authoritarian. That there are more vicious and virulent proponents of these views is true, but this fact does not answer the criticisms being leveleled at Buchanan.
Even conservative William Bennett once said Buchanan flirts with fascism, but we will not defend democracy by calling Buchanan a fascist, an extremist, or resident rogue of the radical religious right, as personally satisfying as these terms may be. We must speak to our neighbors about real issues including our fears about the future. As activist Loretta Ross of the new Center for Human Rights Education has pointed out, we must confront the right wing backlash with "a larger set of values" that is more inclusive and patient, more tolerant of political differences, more respectful of cultural diversity ...values that recognize all forms of injustice including personal and political bigotry as well as unfairness in the economic and political system. We must move our nation through hard times into the 21st century not by blaming scapegoats, but by building consensus about what it means to seek equal rights for everyone — nothing more, but nothing less.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts. He is the editor of the recent book Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right-Wing Backlash.