Patrick J. Buchanan: a Populist, Not a Conservative

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.