Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Who Is Pat Buchanan?

Luis Lugo


March 4, 1996

Who is Pat Buchanan? Politically, I mean. And why are so many conservative Christians jumping on his bandwagon? Most pundits haven't a clue where to locate this guy on the political spectrum. And Buchanan himself seems to relish the confusion he's causing: "They can't figure out where we are—right, left, New Deal," he told the cheering crowd after his New Hampshire primary victory. But it's really not all that hard to get a fix on Buchanan's "conservatism of the heart." He is a nationalist with a strong populist streak.

Ask yourself: what's the thread that binds his anti-immigrant, anti-free trade, and anti-internationalist agitations? Isn't it the great fear of losing America's sovereignty—its sacrosanct borders, its predominant economic position, its complete freedom of action? So he promises to build fences on our borders, pull us out of the World Trade Organization, and defund the United Nations. "Fortress America" is Buchanan's answer to the enemy without.

Ask yourself further: what ties together his anti-Washington, anti-Wall Street, and anti-elitist messages? Isn't it the great fear of losing America's soul—its local self-government, its middle and working classes, its traditional values? So he promises to eliminate the Department of Education, stick it to large corporations, and fight the cultural elite on issues from multiculturalism to homosexuality. "Christian America" is Buchanan's answer to the enemy within.

This is a powerful combination, one that allows Buchanan to appeal to two significant blocs of voters: the economically insecure and the socially anxious—the "little guys" who feel buffeted by the economic dislocations of a post-industrial age or who fear that this society has lost its moral compass. Both groups perceive large alien forces battering the country, and are convinced that they, the real Americans, are bearing the brunt of the damage.

Conservative Christians are especially attracted to Buchanan's social message. It's not just that Buchanan speaks with conviction on social issues of great importance to these voters. It's also that he couches his message in the appealing language of American civil religion. Campaigning in Georgia last week, he said: "We've got to become one people, one nation, under God again." But civil religion, the great seducer of the Christian Right, is a dangerous confusion of nationalism and allegiance to God.

Buchanan has called our attention to some legitimate issues, but he comes up woefully short when it comes to offering coherent policies for addressing them. That doesn't seem to matter, though: the party's leading candidate is so bereft of ideas that Buchanan looks like a policy wonk by comparison. Buchanan evidently has decided to borrow Bill Clinton's formula for success: offer the voters sympathy in place of coherent programs. "I feel your anxiety" is his answer to Clinton's "I feel your pain."

Whatever its past associations, the Republican Party long ago turned its back on isolationist and protectionist ways. And a wing of the party has also tried to make it more racially and ethnically inclusive. Does it really need a Pat Buchanan (an Irish Catholic, of all people!) to stoke the embers of the old nativism? Most Republicans seem to be resisting Buchanan's politics of defensiveness and exclusion. That makes it doubly regrettable that Christian conservatives are now emerging as a major base of support for a candidacy built on such misguided appeals. The agenda of social conservatism demands serious attention, but Buchanan's populist nationalism is not the way forward.

—Luis E. Lugo, Associate Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”