(The following remarks were delivered in a panel discussion, “The New Shape of Politics,” at the International Conservative Congress in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 1997)
First of all, I want to thank John O’Sullivan for asking me to take part in this panel, and secondly I want to issue a fair warning to my colleagues on the panel as well as to many in the audience. Many of you—perhaps most of you—will not agree with what I have to tell you about the new shape of American politics, and some of you may actually find it repellent. For some years I have been known, for lack of a better term, as a “Buchananite” conservative (at least that is one of the less objectionable things I have been called), and it is a fair description. But my allegiance to “Buchananism” goes beyond support for the Buchanan presidential candidacy in the last two elections. In my newspaper column as well as in my monthly columns in Chronicles (many of which are now collected in a new book called Revolution From the Middle, which has been sedulously ignored by the conservative press), I have argued that the Buchanan candidacy is but the formal political expression of a deep social and cultural transformation I have called the “Middle American Revolution,” The essential concept and, to some extent, the term are derived from the studies of the late Donald Warren, a sociologist, whose 1976 book. The Radical Center, analyzed the underlying social and political forces that make up the Middle American Revolution.
Professor Warren identified a distinctive group in American society that he called “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs, who are essentially middle-income, white, often ethnic voters who see themselves as an exploited and dispossessed group, excluded from meaningful political participation; threatened by the tax and trade policies of the government; victimized by its tolerance of crime, immigration, and social deviance; and ignored, ridiculed, or demonized by the major cultural institutions of the media and education. MARs possess objective statistical characteristics, but these are not their defining features. Warren identified as their defining feature an attitudinal characteristic: they view themselves as sandwiched between—and victimized by—an elite (in government and politics, the economy, and the dominant culture) that is either indifferent to them or hostile to them, and an underclass with which the elites are in alliance and whose interests and values the elites support at the expense of the interests and values of Middle Americans.
In Professor Warren’s original analysis, MARs were the backbone of George Wallace’s national political following, but in later years the categories of “Reagan Democrats,” “Perot voters,” and—more recently—”Buchanan supporters” are largely identical to them. In my own development of Warren’s work. Middle American Radicals represent both the central political base of the American right, from at least the time of George Wallace and probably going back to Joe McCarthy, and the core or nucleus of American culture and the American nation. Any movement of the right that wishes to succeed in national polities must mobilize Middle American forces, as both Nixon and Reagan did and as George Bush, Bob Dole, and Jack Kemp failed to do.
A convenient statistical definition of Middle Americans is that they are the middle-income categories, making between $15,000 and $50,000 a year, a group that comprises about 50 percent of the voting electorate. Exit polls show that Reagan won an average of 57 percent of this category in 1980 and l984, while in 1992 and 1996 Bush and Dole won only an average of 37 percent—a precipitous decline of 20 percentage points. If the Republican Party continues to ignore MARs, it will find itself reduced to minority status and may even eventually cease to exist as a major party; and if the conservative movement continues to ignore them, it too will dwindle in cultural and political significance. The “crisis of conservatism,” the “conservative crack-up,” that Beltway and Manhattan conservatives today fret about is due precisely to the alienation of Middle American Radicals from the mainstream and neoconservative right. If however, the American right seriously wishes to govern, it will have to base its ideas and policies on Middle American Radicalism or Middle American Populism and incorporate the interests and values of MARs into its own political agenda.
My time is brief, so I will merely list some of the main issues that currently and in the foreseeable future are important issues for Middle Americans, illustrate why they are important, and how conservatives and Republicans have managed to blow them. The first and perhaps the most important issue that conservatives and Republicans have failed to address is immigration, both illegal and legal. There has been a fairly consistent trend in national opinion polls showing that large percentages of Americans of all ethnic and class backgrounds generally oppose immigration and want it reduced or stopped. Last year a Roper poll showed that some 83 percent of the public favors reducing or halting immigration. I think this poll speaks for itself; you cannot get public responses on most polls better than 83 percent. During the Persian Gulf War, when President Bush’s popularity rating was about 90 percent. Bob Dole joked that the remaining 10 percent probably didn’t know who the President was. Based on the Roper poll on immigration, it is probably fair to say that Americans who don’t oppose immigration probably don’t know that immigration is a problem or an issue.
Yet the Republicans have consistently failed to take up immigration reform. Virtually the first thing Bob Dole did last year after securing the party nomination was to repudiate the GOP platform plank on immigration, and Jack Kemp has long been notorious among immigration restrictionists for his unqualified support for immigration. Prior to his attempt with Bill Bennett in 1994 to sabotage California’s Proposition 187, Kemp was actually in favor of both illegal and legal immigration, and as HUD Secretary he refused to allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to enforce federal laws against illegal immigrants in federal housing projects.
This year the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration is Senator Spencer Abraham, who refuses to countenance any effort to reduce immigration; and the great fear within the Beltway right is that by even mentioning immigration, the Republicans will alienate the Hispanic vote—a concern that tends to confirm Middle American perceptions that political elites are allied with an underclass against the middle class. Hence, the trend of thought within the Republican Party and among its Beltway strategists is that the Republicans should do nothing whatsoever about immigration, except to restore welfare benefits to immigrants as the Republican Congress did earlier this year.
In addition to the immigration issue, there is also the very salient Middle American issue of trade policy. I understand this is not just controversial but actually anathema to most conservatives, but the fact is that last year Buchanan acquired some of his most impressive vote counts in areas harmed by current trade policies. Well after Dole had effectively secured the nomination in the primaries, Buchanan won nearly 34 percent of the vote in the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries, both states where crossover voting is allowed and both manufacturing states now facing economic decline because of foreign competition. On the same day, March 19, in the 17th congressional district of Ohio (Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, also a center of Middle Americans who hold or have held manufacturing jobs), Buchanan took 40 percent of the vote, again well after Dole had effectively won the nomination. Trade and economic nationalism, therefore, are key Middle American issues that can help regain for the Republicans the Reagan Democrats forfeited by the 1992 Bush-Quayle and 1996 Dole-Kemp tickets.
Once again, Republicans and mainstream conservatives have blown these issues, just as they have immigration. Clinton was able to enact NAFTA only with Republican help, and today he stands to win passage of fast-hack legislation and the extension of NAFTA, again with Republican help. Although polls indicate that 54 percent of the public opposes fast track, as do 67 percent of self-identified Republicans, fast track has been editorially endorsed by virtually all leading conservative newspapers and magazines and by the Republican leadership in Congress, and free trade ideology remains dominant among most conservatives everywhere.
I could go on with a variety of issues that are of vital importance to Middle Americans on which Republicans have either refused to act or actually come out on the other side of—affirmative action; Second Amendment rights; perceived erosion of national sovereignty not only through NAFTA and the World Trade Organization but also in the enhancement of United Nations peacekeeping operations and the continuous, needless involvement of the United States in foreign conflicts irrelevant to our national interests; and the whole range of cultural issues from the failure of the Republicans to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts to the actions against the Confederate flag by South Carolina Republican Governor David Beasley. On issue after issue, the Republicans have failed to support Middle Americans. Instead of taking these issues seriously and trying to address them, what we hear from the Republicans is the Beltway policy-wonkism of the Contract with America, and we are now advised by GOP pollster Frank Luntz to avoid all issues, to mouth merely sound bites that make voters think their concerns are being addressed and make them feel good. Meanwhile Bill Kristol tells us, in a sentence worthy of Leonid Brezhnev, that you cannot love your nation if you hate its government and, as Mr, Kristol told E.J. Dionne a couple of weeks ago, that conservatives should have no problem with Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. With advice like that, no wonder there is a conservative crack-up, and it would be interesting to know why there should be any conservatism at all or why it should ever have existed.
It is therefore no wonder that GOP presidential candidates lose Middle American allegiances and with them also lose elections; that we see the emergence of third party rivals; and that a fringe is turning to groups like the militias, talking seriously about secession, and endorsing the most bizarre conspiracy theories about the government and its leadership.
What we are seeing in this alienation of Middle Americans from mainstream conservatism and the Republican Party is, in my view, essentially the emergence of a new paradigm in American politics —not James Pinkerton’s new paradigm and not the Third Wave of Mr. Gingrich, but a paradigm that is essentially nationalist rather than “right” or “left” as we have historically known those labels. Immigration, trade, sovereignty, and cultural issues all revolve around national identity, and the new shape of politics in the future will see the emergence of a new nationalism: not Bill Kristol’s nationalism, which is denuded of all content, but one that will demand that these issues be addressed. It may not be Pat Buchanan who carries the new paradigm to political and cultural power, but someone will. Mainstream conservatives and Republicans can either take up the issues that the Buchanan campaigns have identified or they can ignore them, as they have done and are doing, and eventually expect to vanish from the national political scene.