Perhaps the greatest irony of the periodic political revolutions that occur in American democracy is that most of the voters who make them possible have not the foggiest notion of what they are doing. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt won the White House by running on a platform that promised to balance the budget and reduce the scale and power of the federal government, and there is no doubt that most of the Americans who sent him to Washington supported him simply because of the desperate economic straits in which they found themselves and their country, not because of any passion they shared with him for the socialist and internationalist experiments that he and his brood immediately imposed. The same could probably be said for almost all the major presidential elections in our history. The truth is that the concepts of the “people’s will” and the “mandate” are largely political fictions that serve to mask the ambitions and intrigues of the small cadres who really run governments at all times, regardless of the forms and rhetorical dressing these elites assume.
The same is true of the Buchanan revolution of the 1990s, and the claim by its opponents that most of the voters who supported Mr. Buchanan in the Republican primaries did so as a “protest vote” and not because of any serious endorsement of the candidate’s ideas is thus largely irrelevant, even if true. Let us say that only some 10 percent of the average 30 percent vote Mr. Buchanan received before Super Tuesday this year actually agreed with his ideas, while the others who voted for him were merely protesting the state of the economy and the lackluster leadership of the incumbent, or simply pulled the wrong lever, or got Pat Buchanan mixed up with the predecessor of Abraham Lincoln. That means that Mr. Buchanan’s meaningful support was still comparable to the total vote received by one of his principal ideological rivals, Jack Kemp, whose average take of the Republican primary vote in 1988 was less than 5 percent. Nevertheless, the fans of Mr. Kemp to this day actually believe that his eagerness to redefine conservatism so as to win the plaudits of the Left and the urban underclass is just the ticket for the political future, both within the Republican Party as well as in the country at large. You may not have to fool all the people all the time in order to make a political revolution, but you do have to befuddle more than one out of twenty. So far only Mr. Buchanan has been able to come close to building a new national political coalition that not only offers an alternative to President Bush’s centrist establishmentarianism but also seeks to articulate a political myth that can bridge or transcend the obsolete categories of Right and Left entirely.
What has happened in the Buchanan revolution, as I argued in this space last month , is the emergence of a new political identity that focuses on the concrete and particular interests and beliefs of the nation and of a particular social, cultural, and political force — Middle America — as the defining core of the nation. Mr. Buchanan was by no means the first to give political expression to this force, and he may not be the one who carries it to a successful revolutionary fulfillment. Perhaps it was David Duke who actually initiated it in recent times, and perhaps it will be H. Ross Perot who brings it to fruition. But Mr. Duke, for obvious reasons, was not an acceptable spokesman, and Mr. Perot, for all the charm of his accent, will probably be unable to accomplish its agenda. The Texas billionaire has all the political sophistication of a man who watches the Today show at least three times a week and believes everything he hears on it, and his unwillingness or inability to tell anyone what he would actually do about the various crises he has cribbed from television and weekly news magazines suggests that he would be quickly devoured by existing political elites if he really arrived in Washington. Mr. Perot displays the typical naïveté of businessmen, who always suffer under the delusion that government operates just like the enterprise they and their golfing partners command. He may succeed in winning the Buchanan vote, and he may win the White House, but if he does, he will discover that giving orders to Congress, federal officials, lobbies, interest groups, and foreign powers is not the same as peddling computers and telling his secretaries to retype his letters.
Yet regardless of who began it and who will finish it, the Middle American Revolution is not going to go away. None of its political leaders created the social movement on which it rests, and it will survive their own personalities and campaigns. Indeed, it was predictable as long ago as the early Reagan administration that something like the movement would emerge sooner or later and that it would displace “conservatism,” if not also “liberalism.”
The Reagan movement also was to a large extent a political expression of the economic and cultural frustrations of Middle Americans, but no sooner had Mr. Reagan settled himself in the White House than his administration was invaded and largely captured by what may generally be called the “Soft Right” — not only neo-conservatives but also the Republican Establishment and the whole swarm of Court Conservatives who merely sought employment of their otherwise unemployable talents in the vast public relief system known as the federal government. The Court Conservatives included almost all of the policy eggheads, direct mail tycoons, 50-year-old youth leaders, and hack journalists who had passed themselves off as the Mainstream Right for the last generation, and they at once came to imagine that their occupation of office, their endless series of balls, soirees, roasts, and other posh social events dedicated to congratulating themselves, and their rapid abandonment of every significant political principle they had intoned for the last 20 or 30 years constituted “victory” and a “conservative revolution,” no matter how many new government agencies were created or old ones preserved to give them the jobs, salaries, and social glamor they had always been denied in their much-ballyhooed private sector.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the apparatchiks of the Soft Right core of the Reagan administration at once forgot, if they had ever been cognizant of, the Middle American constituencies that had elected Mr. Reagan and made their fortunes for them, and for the remainder of the 1980s, Court Conservatives devoted themselves to figuring out how they could betray their Middle American base and, as they liked to put it, “lure” more blacks and Hispanics into Republican ranks and otherwise more credibly convince the archons of liberalism how harmless they were. The end result, of course, was the Kemp campaign of 1988, and it was hardly surprising that a candidate who sought to win the votes of a largely white, suburban, middle class party by telling its voters how he wanted to make the black and Hispanic underclass the focus of his party and his administration through larger and more expensive government programs received less than 5 percent in the primaries.
But not only were the Court Conservatives assimilated by the glitter offered by the incumbent elite of Washington. As the Reagan administration rumbled on, the main funding mechanisms of organized conservatism through direct mail began to wither. Contributors either concluded that with the Gipper in the Oval Office delivering nasty cracks about the Evil Empire every Saturday, civilization had been saved, or they found that the groups and personalities to whom they had once given money had either ceased to function or were transparently unable to accomplish what they had vowed to do — to end abortion, restore prayer in schools, regain the Panama Canal, crush labor unions, string up the commies, and clean the pursesnatchers and rapists off the streets. There may be a sucker born every minute, but sooner or later the supply has to run low if they don’t get their money’s worth. Unable to finance their dubious causes by continuing to lift the checks of widows and orphans, the Court Conservatives turned to the organized philanthropy of foundations and corporations, which had little use for a Middle American agenda and were happily married to the same set of managerial interests in preserving the Leviathan state as the forces most conservatives had always claimed to oppose.
With the assimilation of the Mainstream Right in the Reagan administration and the disintegration of its main financial and political base, the Middle American constituency of the administration and of most of the Right was decapitated and ceased to be represented, and the prospects for the emergence of what for lack of a better term may be called a Hard Right based on Middle American alienation dimmed. The constituency continued to exist, but its leaders either went out of business or left politics or were absorbed into the government-think tank-magazine digestive tract of the Soft Right-Reagan-Bush organism.
The success of the Soft Right, however, could be only temporary, because its success meant that the Middle American political constituency on which its occupation of office depended was being ignored, aside from politically expedient gestures such as the Willie Horton ads in 1988. Sooner or later, economic dislocations and the drift to the Left of the Soft Right and the Reagan-Bush administrations, coupled with residual alienation on the part of Middle American forces, meant that a serious political movement representing their interests and aspirations would be possible.
The significance of the Buchanan movement, then, is not that it is simply one more crusade of the “conservative movement,” a movement that has all but disappeared as a serious political force and a coherent intellectual identity, but that it has shown, contrary to what was commonly believed on both Right and Left, that a “Hard Right” remains politically possible, not merely as an intellectual irritation but as a political movement able to gather a nationwide coalition of voters, attract culturally significant support, and (in 1992) at least threaten a sitting president. Obviously, if that is all it remains, it will soon devolve into the same kind of political and ideological ghetto that the Court Conservatives were, and if it ever happened to win a national election, it would soon find itself swallowed by the same entrenched powers that gobbled the Reaganites.
But the main reason the Reaganites were so easily assimilated by the incumbent elites was not only the fundamental intellectual shallowness and lack of character of so many of their leaders but also the simple fact that they remained preoccupied with the formalities of political power and were blissfully oblivious to its cultural underpinnings. Whereas the Old Right of the 1960s prided itself on its cultural sophistication (which it confused with living and working in Manhattan and socializing with Mahattanite intellectual luminaries), the New Right of the 1970s and ’80s liked to boast of its pragmatism and its scorn for ideas, culture, and the intellectual classes that are at the center of every successful modern political movement. The anti-intellectualism of the New Right was a principal reason why it was unable to govern once it had won elections in the 1980s and why it was so easily absorbed by neo-conservative elements who never had any intention of pursuing any kind of authentic conservative agenda. Once in office, New Rightists found that they had no clear conception of what they were supposed to do or how to do it, and the only people around who purported to know were ex-liberals eager to creep back into the crevices of the state from which they had been momentarily exiled.
If the Buchanan movement or the Middle American Revolution or the New Nationalism or whatever it is going to call itself is to survive and develop as a serious force in American politics, it needs to do more than merely raise more money, build a national political organization, or expand its list of voters. It needs to create a counter-culture that can sustain its political leaders once they hold office and develop the cultural and intellectual underframe that legitimizes political efforts. It must construct its cultural base not on the metropolitan elites of the dominant culture but on emerging forces rooted in Middle American culture itself. It is exactly that kind of cultural permeation that sets the stage for successful political revolution as well as for any successful government, “revolutionary” or not. Instead of grabbing the shadow of political power and desperately hoping that the incumbent elites will be fooled into letting it have the substance of power, it creates and develops a social and political force independent of the dominant culture, and when that force is sufficiently mature, the snake will shed its skin. The new, emerging force will find the acquisition of formal political power and the winning of elections relatively easy as the old elite loses legitimacy and the new one not only acquires but also defines legitimacy.
For all the rhetoric about “populism” on both Right and Left for the last twenty years or so, revolutions never succeed simply because the “people” want them and issue a “mandate” for them to happen. No government ever falls, wrote Lenin, unless it is first “dropped” by the governing elite that holds it, and no government ever rises unless another elite is willing to pick it up and push it into place. The authentic populist revolt of 1992 that has surfaced in the campaigns of Mr. Duke, Mr. Perot, and Mr. Buchanan is the most powerful current in American politics today, but it will not succeed by virtue of its own momentum but only by finding leadership that is able and willing to carry it to enduring and meaningful power.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in August 1992.