Pat Buchanan Versus Conservative America

Ken Masugi

April 1, 1996

As Pat Buchanan says, his cause is about more than just a man. Though the primaries have effectively long since been over, the effects of his candidacy on American politics continue to make themselves evident. Insofar as Buchanan has been able to define conservatism on his terms, he distorts its place within the American political tradition and the influence it ought to have on contemporary politics.

“Pitchfork Pat” is troublesome on account of this one fact alone: His conservatism is not American conservatism; it is derivative from a class-based European political theory. Though a protectionist, “economic nationalist,” and supporter of limits on immigration, he has adopted alien ideas. True, Buchanan speaks a populist rhetoric, reminiscent of Southern Democrats. But it must be kept in mind that he is an intellectual, who has adopted a populist style. Indeed, it could be argued that this candidate is more at home in the world of ideas than any national politician since the days of Woodrow Wilson.  But the quality (and pedigree) of those ideas are suspect.

“The peasants are coming with pitchforks,” declares a chuckling Buchanan at his rallies. He compares his opponents with “knights and barons, riding into the castle, pulling up the drawbridge.” At his rallies some dress up as peasants (complete with pitchforks)–a romantic, European image. But recall that in Europe the pitchforks were eventually replaced with guillotines. Is the pundit who loves to quote the British father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, in fact a student of his great enemy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the spiritual godfather of the French Revolution?

Whatever influence the natural law teaching of Thomas Aquinas once had on Buchanan, Rousseau now appears to have captured his soul. Rousseau’s simple peasants, deliberating under an oak tree–these are Buchanan’s “conservatives of the heart.” This is the romanticism of the “lost cause” of Southern rebellion that he enjoys taking up. Buchanan does not recite the Founders’ “We hold these truths to be self-evident”–not John Locke but rather “lock ’n load!”

In his classic Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville praised the decentralized American political parties and abjured the European parties, which resembled armies. “Most Europeans,” Tocquevile observed in 1835, “still regard association as a weapon of war to be hastily improvised and used at once on the field of battle.” Note how Buchanan refers to his “brigades” as “soldiers.” Military images abound in his speeches. And he insisted on hoisting that rifle.

Buchanan may think he is returning the country to God and the Constitution, but in fact he is seducing his followers to a certain romantic image that has little to do with the arduous task of self-government. He compounds the modern disease of government as a flatterer of passions (economic and psychological) by offering another manner of gratification. He is in line with Ross Perot and George Wallace, who offer a kind of cathartic therapy, which ultimately preserves the disease that rages–the centralized administrative state. In truth, Buchanan endorses such an active government, whether through tariffs or “living wage” laws.

The Europeanized politics of class and resentment that Buchanan has practiced anticipate the most devastating charge against him: anti-Semitism. His professional press colleagues (including those of the left) have strenuously defended him against this charge, and many of his critics have hurt their cause by making irrelevant comments (for example, one otherwise worthwhile study noted his German ancestry). Norman Podhoretz summarizes the leading indictments in the indispensable Weekly Standard (issue of March 11).

In sum, the charges of anti-Semitism relate to Buchanan’s criticism of Israel, his preoccupation with defending ethnic Americans charged with having Nazi ties, statements that appear to support Holocaust revisionism, and caustic attacks on the “Jewish lobby.” Buchanan has somehow made Israel an instigator in the Gulf War, when the cause of American intervention was clearly oil (and all it represents materially and strategically) and the preservation of world order in a post-Soviet era.

Buchanan’s anti-Semitism, such as it is, is merely the logical culmination of the Europeanization of American politics that he calls the “conservatism of the heart”–in reality the politics of Old World classes, peasants and nobles. Such a “conservatism” led in Europe to a moral anarchy that Hitler exploited, once the supports of Church and Crown disappeared. As George Washington noted early in our nation’s history, the cause of toleration for Jews followed from the natural rights political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence which recognized the dignity of human beings as human beings. Even the civilized regimes of western Europe lacked such a basis and succumbed to anti-Semitic practices, in varying degrees.

But America has always had a conservatism of the whole human soul, with mind and heart both included, in the majestic lyrics of Abraham Lincoln. Here, in the teaching of human equality that we are both divine and beastial, is the basis for self-government of free men by free men. Fellow Republican challenger Alan Keyes pressed this very point against Buchanan: In addition to the Bible and the Constitution as political-moral foundations one needs the Declaration of Independence. The defenders of moral government must not advocate a sectarian religious government. As Lincoln taught, the Declaration is no “merely revolutionary document” but contains, in the teaching of human equality, the “father of all moral principle” in us.

Despite many personally attractive qualities and incisive (and compassionate) arguments on key moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality, Buchanan does not reflect the all-American qualities of a Tom Sawyer. He more resembles the Duke and the Dolphin–pseudo-Europeans who would steal our most important legacy, the self-evident truths of human equality and liberty of the Declaration of Independence.

Ken Masugi, editor of On Principle, is also a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center.