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Patrick J. Buchanan: a Populist, Not a Conservative

by Kevin Smant on Oct 13, 2000

         Patrick J. Buchanan will soon receive his party's $12.6 million,
thanks to the Federal Election Commission, which ruled in a recent 5-1
decision that Buchanan, the former aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, is
the Reform Party nominee.

         Buchanan is basing his campaign on two themes. First, he is
running as a fighting populist who believes rich and influential elites
have too much sway over government and society. Second, Buchanan is
borrowing some very old themes and positions from Republican Party history.
His success will depend upon whether these Republican roots are dead or
just buried beneath the surface of public debate. Buchanan speaks as if
they are ready for new growth, but historical parallels suggest that their
time has passed.

         In criticizing the International Monetary Fund, for example,
Buchanan claims that support for the IMF means "to make the world safe for
Goldman Sachs." Whether this approach will work in today's prosperous
economic times is very much open to question. The history of both populism,
and of Buchanan and the GOP, will help us to understand the Buchanan
campaign and its meaning.

         Why is Patrick Buchanan a populist? It comes from the fact that he
has always seen himself as a rebel doing battle against an establishment
elite. For example, after college at Georgetown University, Buchanan went
to graduate school, where he found himself an outsider. He became one of
the few outspoken conservatives at the Columbia School of Journalism. He
thought himself surrounded in such a place by hostile liberal journalists
and from then on distrusted the news media.

         Modern American conservatism characteristically contains a dash of
anti-elitist, anti-establishment thinking. The course of Buchanan's career
is an excellent example of this. In 1964, for instance, he and other
conservatives watched sadly as their candidate, Barry Goldwater, was beaten
soundly by what they viewed as a liberal establishment distorting
Goldwater's positions. They never forgot it.

         In Richard Nixon, Buchanan and other conservatives found a man
who, although his views were more moderate than they wished, agreed with
them that there was a liberal "establishment" to be fought at all costs. In
the Nixon White House, Buchanan fed this belief. He helped write Nixon's
daily "News Summary," in which he pointed out the biases of those in the
print media and television networks. He wrote speeches for Vice President
Spiro Agnew and cheered on Agnew's attacks against antiwar intellectual
"snobs," as did most conservatives.

         For some time, despite his inherent populism, Buchanan remained a
mainstream conservative. But now he is out of step with many Republicans.
This is partly explained by changing times. Yet it also reflects the fact
that Buchanan has tapped into long-submerged Republican Party traditions.

         At the end of the Cold War, Buchanan asserted that American troops
need not be deployed in far-flung places around the globe, reconnecting the
Republican Party with its isolationist roots. Prior to World War II,
conservative Republicans, led by Senators Robert Taft and William Borah,
often opposed foreign aid and criticized American entanglement in European
affairs. Buchanan's recent book, "A Republic, Not an Empire," echoes the
sentiments of the America First Committee, which opposed American aid to
Britain in 1940 and 1941.

         Similarly, Buchanan became convinced that American trade policy
had something to do with the economic recession of 1990-1991. Here too his
growing opposition to free trade springs from a long Republican tradition.
In the late 19th century, Republicans in Congress, such as future president
William McKinley, led the charge for higher tariffs. In 1930, the
Smoot-Hawley tariff, one of the largest expansions of tariff rates in
American history and blamed by many for exacerbating the Great Depression,
was largely the Republicans' idea.

         So Buchanan mixes his populist themes of today with echoes of old
Republican positions. He uses traditional anti-communism in order to attack
the Republican position on China as "groveling towards Beijing"– yet he
also describes today's China policy as "selling out to the Business
Roundtable." But a cutoff of aid to China would also fit in nicely with
past Republican non-interventionism.

         Buchanan is also surely aware that denunciations of the rich have
played well in America. Even Vice President Gore understands the appeal of
attacks on the wealthy. Look at his claim in the current campaign to stand
up for "working families" against the "powerful."

         There are also parallels between Buchanan and the 1968 campaign of
George Wallace. Wallace denounced "pointy-headed bureaucrats" and
liberalism in general. Buchanan today does the same.

         The question remains, of course, as to whether this approach will
yield any results for the Buchanan candidacy. Previous populist movements
made gains largely in response to economic crises. George Wallace found an
audience in a country worried by inflation and economic stagnation and
divided by war. There is no such crisis this year. It is hard to see what
will serve as the fuel for the Buchanan Brigades.

         It is doubtful that Buchanan will ever return to the Republican
Party. Times have changed. The majority of Republicans embrace George W.
Bush's modern "compassionate conservatism." Bush speaks of his extensive
use of e-mail and is comfortable with increasing trade in a global,
technological marketplace. Although cautious in his stance on military
engagements overseas, Bush does not rule out such commitments. By contrast,
Buchanan urges a return to the days of high tariffs and near-isolationism.

         Come what may, Buchanan will not quit. He has always seen himself
as a populist and a fighter. Only now, the "elites" he sees himself
battling against have changed. The usual result of the battle, however,
likely will not.

Dr. Kevin Smant teaches history at Indiana University South Bend and is a writer for the History News Service.