In January, I was tasked by the London Daily Telegraph to track Rick Santorum through the wilds of New Hampshire. Following his impressive gains in Iowa, many were giving Santorum good odds for winning the Granite State’s presidential primary. His appeal was a mix of religion and class war. At an Elks Lodge in Salem, I heard him talk about the link between God and blue-collar jobs. “The values of the American Constitution are found in small towns,” he claimed,
and when those small towns die those values die, too. Look at the electoral map and you’ll see that all the small town areas are red and all the urban areas are blue. As the manufacturing jobs fall, so the small town dies and the urban areas grow. If we’re not careful, we could end up seeing an America where the values of Obama are more popular than the values of Santorum.
The Washington Post opined that Rick Santorum was “channeling Pat Buchanan.” It reminded its readers that “Buchanan scored an upset win in New Hampshire’s 1996 primary by consolidating a group of working-class voters stressed over threats to manufacturing jobs and a smaller bloc of anti-abortion Catholics. That’s the alliance Santorum is seeking to put together.” If Santorum really was pursuing this “populist conservative” strategy, it didn’t work. He took just 9.4 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and came in fifth.
In the 1990’s, Pat Buchanan ran three presidential campaigns that tried to unite conservative Republicans, angry Democrats, and disaffected independents into a new, post-partisan force. Along the way, he gave us plenty of good quotations that testified to his everyman appeal. Buchanan is the fellow who called Deng Xiaoping a “poisonous, chain-smoking dwarf” and who wouldn’t criticize Dan Quayle because “I don’t want to be accused of child abuse.”
Despite the fond memories that many journalists and conservatives have of those campaigns, which is partly why they keep cropping up in 2012 commentary, Buchanan never made it to the Oval Office. In 1996, he managed to place second in Iowa and win New Hampshire, but the Republican nomination still went to the colorless centrist Bob Dole. In 2012, it has proved just as difficult for conservative populists like Rick Santorum or Ron Paul to stop Mitt Romney, despite the success of the Tea Party and the right-wing swing in the 2010 midterms. Why, if the populist Buchanan strategy holds so much allure, has it failed us yet again?
The answer to that question lies in the changing nature of American society. The conservative populist strategy relies on the existence of a demographic of virtuous citizens large enough to nominate a genuinely conservative candidate and then put him in the White House. However, a survey of Buchanan’s own career reveals that this demographic has shrunk or splintered to the point of irrelevance. In 21st-century America, the values of Obama are far more electorally potent than the values of Santorum.
In the 1960’s, Pat Buchanan was one of the architects of Silent Majority conservatism. He helped invent the strategy while working as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, and its application came down to this: “Divide the country in two, and we’ll take the bigger half.” Although Nixon was an instinctive moderate, he used popular revulsion at lawlessness and libertinism to carve out two election victories, in 1968 and 1972. Ronald Reagan connected more naturally with the Silent Majority, and it formed the bedrock of his 1980 and 1984 landslides. He also admired Buchanan’s “hardball” politics enough to appoint him White House director of communications. Buchanan urged Reagan, whenever asked a question by a liberal journalist, to reply, “No comment. And that’s off the record.”
Buchanan’s conviction that the United States was basically a conservative country was reflected in his belief that all the Republican Party had to do to win the presidency was nominate a real conservative. Therefore, the battle for the GOP nomination was more important than the presidential election itself. For this reason, he shook off his unease about campaigning and entered the 1992 primaries with the goal of dislodging incumbent Republican president George H.W. Bush. Right-wingers were angry about a tax hike that the President had signed into law as part of a budget-balancing deal with the congressional Democrats. Some were also concerned about the growing influence of neoconservatives—big-government ideologues with a passion for war—within the administration.
Given the oppositional nature of Buchanan’s candidacy, it was only when campaigning in New Hampshire that he developed a coherent agenda. His social conservatism—uncompromising and laced with wit—got a predictably warm reception. When asked “Do you support any form of gun regulation at all?” he replied, “If it requires a truck to pull it, it should be banned.” But the big issue in New Hampshire wasn’t guns; it was jobs. Between 1988 and 1992, one in ten locals fell behind with their mortgage payments, the unemployment rate tripled, the number of personal bankruptcies rose sixfold, and the state lost ten percent of its jobs. Buchanan had never come face-to-face with the human cost of an uninhibited free market before. What he found shocked him. He arrived at a paper mill in Nashua only to discover that the entire workforce had been laid off that morning. As the snow fell and he shook a few hands, one man said to him, “Save our jobs.” The Buchanans drove back to Manchester in tears.
Logic and compassion dictated that Buchanan’s nationalism in international affairs should be extended to protecting American jobs from foreign competition. Buchananism—a mix of social conservatism and economic protectionism—was born. And it quickly found a demographic. Buchanan took 37 percent in New Hampshire, winning a majority of independent male voters. He did best among poorly paid, religious families. He went on to capture between a quarter and a third of votes in all the primaries that followed.
The class-based nature of Buchanan’s vote was disguised by press reaction to his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. In it he declared a “cultural war” on the Democratic Party, arguing that the Cold War had been replaced by a new conflict between permissiveness and tradition. It was a great speech that actually helped the renominated Bush jump seven points in the polls. But its harsh tone allowed Democrats and moderate Republicans to dismiss him as an antediluvian crank. Newt Gingrich called the speech “counterproductive.” Dick Lugar said it was “unhelpful.” Even Peggy Noonan said Buchanan looked “slit-eyed and thuggish.”
Pat’s supporters disagreed. In their alternative history of the 1992 race, Buchanan rescued his party from total oblivion by rebranding it as populist and even working-class. They saw parallels in the campaign of Ross Perot, the darling of independent voters who took an impressive 19 percent on election day. (Clinton beat Bush 43-38 percent.) For his uncompromising defense of the spiritual values and economic needs of blue-collar workers, the liberal press was now calling Buchanan “the white man’s Jesse Jackson.”
Buchanan’s friends, notably Chronicles columnist Samuel Francis, argued that he had identified a new constituency of “Middle American Radicals,” or MARs. These were faithful, law-abiding taxpayers who were not wealthy, not poor—living on the thin line between comfort and ruin. As good Americans, the MARs rejected welfare as a solution to their problems. They felt that the U.S. government had been taken captive by a band of rich liberals who used their taxes to bankroll the indolent poor and finance the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. But they were also critical of big business, particularly those that received tax dollars. The MARs were a social force rather than an ideological movement, an attitude shaped by the joys and humiliations of middle-class life in postwar America. Any politician who could appeal to that social force could remake politics in his own image.
Pat Buchanan got a chance to try in the 1996 presidential election. Running against the veteran senator Bob Dole and the multimillionaire businessman Steve Forbes, he was really the candidate of the party’s disaffected poor (or as poor as a registered Republican gets). He focused on the importance of protecting the U.S. market from foreign goods and outlawing abortion, peppering his rhetoric with revolutionary phrases. He said that his supporters were “storming the castles armed with pitchforks.” Journalists who were used to covering Buchanan as a rabid right-winger were surprised to find how well that sort of language connected with liberals. In Louisiana, the New York Times discovered that his voluntary security team consisted of a retired cop who was a registered Republican and a Democratic reporter who once worked for Jesse Jackson. “I’m a liberal and I can’t imagine supporting someone like this,” laughed the interviewed reporter, “but here Pat is, saying everything I believe in . . . And so I end up sitting with a guy like this,” he said, nodding at the retired cop. “A right wing, born again, gun nut.”
After winning the Alaska and Louisiana caucuses, Buchanan placed second in Iowa. In New Hampshire, he faced a series of scandals about his indirect links to militiamen and squeaked out a win with 27 percent, to Dole’s 26 percent. Despite its size, the victory suggested that he had marshaled the MARs and proved that they could be a force in national politics. The exit polls showed that his voters were the poorest and most religious. They were pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-protectionism. And they were more likely to have been registered Democrats previously. “They call me names,” said Buchanan to his supporters on election night. “Somebody the other night called me a socialist. They call me the right. They can’t figure out where we are—left, right, New Deal. Where is that fella? Some strange creature from the ’30s, no he’s ’60s, the 1700’s. We don’t know where he’s from!” That ability to tap into so many historical traditions—all of them culturally signified by “the common man”—was the secret to his success.
That success didn’t last long. Aside from a narrow victory in Missouri, Buchanan didn’t win another primary in 1996. He was so frustrated by what he perceived as the Republican establishment’s dirty tricks that he decided to go third party and test out the MAR strategy on a national scale in 2000. In the general election, he took less than one half of one percent of the vote.
What went wrong? One problem was that one half of Buchanan’s coalition was offended by the cultural politics of the other. Liberals couldn’t stand the anti-abortion rhetoric of social conservatives, while some social conservatives thought Buchanan’s protectionism was borderline socialism. In 2000, both the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers debated endorsing him at their national conventions. The move was blocked because both unions had policies on affirmative action and gay rights that made the proposition intolerable to a powerful minority. Rick Santorum faced a similar problem in New Hampshire in 2012. His appeal to jobless Democrats seemed heartfelt and admirable, but it was eclipsed by his reputation as a religious conservative. Why would a Green Party liberal or a union equality officer support him?
Buchanan was also undone by shifting demographics. Consider New Hampshire, which was deindustrialized during the 1990’s. By 2000, the state had become more ethnically diverse, more affluent, and more moderate in its politics. More than 60 percent of residents were born outside of the state, and, on average, they were far wealthier than those who moved away in search of work. High-tech industry had all but replaced manufacturing as the economic base; where there were once pulping plants, there were now robotics firms and Amazon.com. In 1996, the state elected its first Democratic governor in two decades. Newcomers expected more public services and lacked the natives’ resolve to “live free or die.” The state had even imposed its first state income tax in 1999 to pay for everything a middle-class consumer had come to expect—environmental cleanup, computer training, old-age benefits, and millions of dollars in support for dyslexic children. New Hampshire, once a conservative state, now leaned Democratic. It was Buchanan country no more.
Santorum discovered the same in 2012. When Buchanan won the state in 1996, there were 98,000 manufacturing jobs. By 2012, there were just 66,000. Even if Santorum had broken through the cultural barrier and appealed to a solid majority of those people, he still wouldn’t have won. The math was against him.
The biggest challenge facing conservative populists today is the splintering of their coalition. Buchanan only just held it together, but 2012 populism is torn every which way. On the one hand there is Rick Santorum’s blue-collar chauvinism—religious and willing to use government to help revive industry. On the other hand there is Ron Paul’s more academic libertarianism—anti-intervention overseas and fixated on destroying the welfare behemoth at home. It’s interesting to note that Ron Paul endorsed Buchanan in 1992, while Santorum’s campaign is stuffed with former Buchanan staffers. Intellectually, they both owe Buchanan a debt.
Alas, their disagreement over foreign policy split their populist vote, allowing Romney to do well in the Iowa Caucuses and confirming him as the frontrunner. It is a problem that Buchanan once faced, too. What made some people love him made others hate him. Those that loved him typically shared the values and prejudices of a different age—of an America that made things and still regarded herself as a nation under God. The chance of turning that generational worldview into an electable platform has only decreased since the 1990’s. The sad truth is that the Silent Majority is gone. It is reduced, splintered, and at war with itself. Thanks to Pat Buchanan, it is no longer silent. But it is also no longer a majority.