IFAS | Freedom Writer | April 1996 | clueless.html

The politics of cluelessness

By Barry Lynn

Just a year ago, I was sitting in a broadcast studio with Pat Buchanan for about nine hours each week co-hosting "Buchanan & Co.," his nationally syndicated radio show. It was clear that he saw the program as a vehicle to locate and mobilize the troops for a nearly inevitable return bid for the White House. My association with Pat led to many media interviews after his quixotic campaign began to flourish.

I'm very good with "sound bites" on most subjects, but Buchanan isn't easy to explain that quickly. He appeals to much that is deeply disturbing in the American psyche. But, for me, Buchanan's politics are driven more by naivete than by hatred. Pat has a crude inability and unwillingness to understand those who diverge from the narrow path that he follows himself.

One of the most interesting hours of the show was the day the renowned African American scholar Cornel West joined us. His book Race Matters had just been reissued and he was on a book tour. West's thesis, greatly simplified, is that race still makes a tremendous difference in how people are treated that it still "matters" in the United States of the 1990s. Abandoning my usual role of combatant, I said almost nothing that hour and mainly listened to West attempt to explain his view to Pat. It was as if people from two different astral planes had met. Buchanan doesn't merely claim to believe he does believe that all races are now on the same playing field with equal-quality equipment and ready to compete. No number of studies on bank-loan redlining or experiential testing where otherwise comparable black and white couples are shown different potential homes for purchase by realtors, can persuade him otherwise. He dogmatically insists that the truth is equal opportunity and any test to the contrary is either poorly designed, improperly executed, or biased.

Even worse, he seems to believe that even by the 1950s things weren't all that bad for non-whites. Buchanan grew up in what he regards as the "golden age" of Washington, D.C., when, although largely segregated, people of different races lived happily separate lives. To many of us, this romantic mythology is ludicrous, but it deeply informs Buchanan's view of race.

I never heard anything, even off the air, to suggest that Buchanan is a white supremacist, that he believes in some inherent inequality of races. He has a considerable sense of humor but never ventured into objectionable territory. Why then do Ku Klux Klan members and skinheads support him? Frankly, they don't care what motivates him, but only where he would take the country. A Buchananesque America would have no affirmative action programs, limited enforcement of civil rights law and eventually the repeal of civil rights statutes. That would obviously give white males even more power than they wield today, so Pat is their man.

Buchanan's views on public schools also come from his virtually nonexistent experience with them. His entire education occurred in Catholic schools, and since he has no children, he did not even need to consider public education during his adult life. Thus, his entire "understanding" of public schools is informed by right-wing claptrap from pseudo-experts. Without refutation or even skepticism by him on the show, he listened to the former president of the Vista, California school board explain that children should be taught that one theory about why the dinosaurs died was that they were too large to fit into Noah's ark. Similarly, he absorbed the view of a Maryland writer that schools might soon implant computer chips in students to keep tabs on their political, religious, and family background.

When gay activists came into the studio, Pat would chat with them, shake their hands (some right-wingers will not), and then argue with them about everything they stood for. When they left, he would never use a derogatory word. He might say, "I don't understand why people would want to live that way." Aside from the obvious question this should raise of whether people do or do not "choose" their sexual orientation (Pat clearly believes they do), it evinces confusion and annoyance more than hatred. There is no doubt that he positively loathes the sensational tactics of radical activists and believes gay men and lesbians are living a deeply sinful and perverse lifestyle. What bothers him most, though, is that they disrupt his sense of order.

Buchanan has a personal border every bit as inviolable as he would like to make the United States' geographical border. Diversity is not something to be championed; he wants "assimilation." Some people, like atheists, gays, and "radical feminists" are too far-out to be "assimilated." The only hope for dealing with them is to marginalize them. He has toyed with the idea of putting criminals on isolated islands where they would have only each other to maim and plunder. He knows you can't do this to other groups, but you can limit their rights and make them feel like second-class citizens. You can try to amend the Constitution so that women have no reproductive choice, with the inevitable negative economic consequences of losing options. You can support Amendment 2 in Colorado, which actually limits the ability of gays to engage in the political process on the same footing as others. Again, what is most important is not whether Buchanan has some personal animus against women and gays, but the damage to funda mental rights that his policies would do.

Buchanan consistently flirts with the most anarchic substrata of populism: Tenth Amendment advocates who believe that if a state legislature passes a resolution of sovereignty, it does not have to follow most regulatory mandates of the federal government; people who feel that the principal reason to preserve gun ownership is to defend one's family, not against criminals, but the federal government (to them every American could be Randy Weaver; every church, Waco); secessionists who want to remove wealthier sections of New York City from the bothersome problems of the Bronx and upper Manhattan. The good news is that the primary season has demonstrated that such cranky fringe thinking is not motivating much of the GOP. This thing needs appropriate rebuttal, but it looks like we've got some time.

Finally, Buchanan has lately seemed to meld his orthodox Catholicism with some order of "end of history" theological move in line with the teachings of Pat Robertson and even Reconstructionists. He told the Christian Coalition convention that we will soon need to "gird ourselves and take that long march up to Armageddon to do battle for the Lord."

Pat Buchanan's horseback charge to the White House, on the pony of economic populism and the stallion of the Religious Right, seems to have come to an impassable moat. Never able to achieve the support of more than about 25 percent of Republican voters, his campaign was doomed as alleged "moderates" coalesced behind the candidate they saw as their only hope, Bob Dole, and abandoned temporary flirtations with flat taxes and plaid shirts. As his campaign now flounders, he promises to go to San Diego and "break down the doors" of the Republican Party. He wants his supporters to know he will fight on because he is the only real hope for a cleansed America preparing for her final days. But the fight will soon lack a major arena.

The GOP is likely to view this as barbarism at the gates and find ways to minimize Pat's appearances at the convention. He was never enamored of third party politics and probably will not be part of one because he sets a high priority on booting Bill Clinton back to Arkansas. Despite all the sound and fury, this time next year, we'll all be to able to watch Pat argue with Geraldine Ferraro on "Crossfire."

Barry W. Lynn currently serves as executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This article solely reflects his personal viewpoint.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.