Standing Pat

Buchananism's establishment allies


Pat Buchanan won't be the Republican nominee. He has, however, shaken up "the establishment." Or so he'd have his followers believe.

Buchanan's heated rhetoric certainly runs counter to establishment Republicanism. Nor would a President Buchanan make Bill Kristol chief of staff or appoint Arianna Huffington to his cabinet. On substance, his vision of a static American social and economic system–opposed to enterprise and regulated from Washington–contradicts the dynamic optimism that has energized the Republican core since Reagan.

But Buchananism is, in fact, a very establishment ideology. It is the ideology of The Atlantic Monthly and of publishing house W.W. Norton, the attitude that marks such indulgently received social critics as Kirkpatrick Sale, Alan Ehrenhalt, Jeremy Rifkin, and Michael Lind. Write a book promoting Buchananism in a properly abstract style, present yourself as a man of the left (perhaps criticizing the right as not truly "conservative"), and you will be respectfully reviewed, deluged with talk-show offers, and featured on the covers of magazines far larger and more prestigious than anything Buchanan's dreaded "neocons" command.

For a half-dozen years, Buchananism has been the hottest of intellectual fads. Its red-hot center is not militia country, but the Washington-to-Boston corridor, where cosmopolitan intellectuals have relentlessly championed an anti-cosmopolitan ideology in the name of attacking markets. They have made economic and social dynamism the enemy, denounced consumer choice, blasted liberal immigration policies, romanticized peasant virtues and traditionalist ethnic neighborhoods, scorned technological achievement, sneered at knowledge work, and opposed international trade. It was the left's golden boy, Michael Lind, not Pat Buchanan, who coined the term "overclass" to build populist resentment against the global economy, large-scale immigration, and upwardly mobile professionals. (See "Overcoming Merit," October 1995.)

Buchananism's most coherent statement is not some obscure "paleoconservative" tome but a book by the widely acclaimed, very establishment social critic Christopher Lasch: The True and Only Heaven (1991). It is devoted to denouncing progress–not just the discredited idea that history is inexorably moving toward some utopia, but the more modest concept of an open-ended, incrementally improving future. Lasch detested the very concept that the future might be better.

As an alternative, he celebrated a Buchananite populist vision, complete with paeans to the parochialism, anti-intellectualism, and lack of ambition associated with such working-class neighborhoods as South Boston. Lasch sniped at "female careerism" and suggested that every single young person who found success in the 1980s was an exploitative, rule-breaking opportunist driven by "raw ambition" rather than "devoted service to a calling." Mingling fashionable anti-technology sentiment with vaguely fascistic body worship, he attacked the "educated classes" for sheltering themselves from the elements, and for encouraging excessive tolerance: "The educated classes overcame fanaticism at the price of desiccation."

Such sentiments pass for wisdom in establishment circles, where humanities professors are proclaimed seers if they denounce air conditioning as a hideously artificial perk of the global elite. Lasch was favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Last year, he added to his populist brief with the posthumous Revolt of the Elites, which sprang from a much-praised Atlantic article. Its thesis and rhetoric show up in nearly every Buchanan speech: Evil elites–rootless cosmopolitans–have withdrawn from real America. They are unpatriotic and a threat.

"Many of them have ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense, implicated in America's destiny for better or worse. Their ties to an international culture of work and leisure–of business, entertainment, information, and 'information retrieval'–make many of them deeply indifferent to the prospect of American national decline," wrote Lasch, without any convincing examples.

Revolt was not as polished a work as The True and Only Heaven, but it was respectfully received and heavily promoted by the publishing establishment. William Powers of The Washington Post described it as "all over the intellectual magazines."

An awful lot of intellectuals relish such respectable Buchananism. It makes them feel superior to people who know and care about business. And it panders to their self-hatred. This year, however, it stopped being a self-indulgent cocktail party game and became a political movement.

In the short run, Buchananism poses problems for Republican leaders, who must deal with Buchanan's "brigades." Unfortunately, the GOP's current strategy seems to be to embrace as many Buchananite positions as possible, betraying their base to block a third-party challenge. (The litmus test is legal immigration.)

But Buchananism won't go away after this election. And in the long run, it poses a greater challenge to the divided left. It should force a great many "liberal" intellectuals to take their glib antiliberalism seriously–to examine all the conclusions that proceed from their trendy attacks on dynamism and cosmopolitan values.

Buchananism is a coherent ideology. It provides a unified vision of a static America, in which both social and economic institutions remain fixed through the exercise of rhetorical ostracism and government power–and in which nation and tribe are equally static. The two halves of this ideology cannot be separated. Viciously anti-cosmopolitan language about the consumers of foreign goods–politically essential to radical protectionism–cannot peacefully coexist with a cosmopolitan social regime that tolerates the consumption of unpopular cultural goods or minority lifestyles. Buchanan knows this. His intellectual allies, with the exception of Lasch, who is dead, generally haven't admitted it.

Buchanan's racially tinged language, his use of anti-Semitic code words, his defense of the Civil War South, his celebration of tribalism, his anti-gay attitudes, and his attacks on business "butchers," financial markets, legal immigration, and international trade are all part of the same world view. It is a world view that rejects as evil and treasonous what Frederick Turner has called "the universal solvents," the commerce and popular art that cross national boundaries, intermix cultures, and reveal a common humanity. It is a world view that condemns the pursuit of happiness–or even the pursuit of truth–when it creates socially disruptive change.

This static ideology requires regular denunciations of consumer choice, individual ambition, and anyone who turns his (or, worse, her) back on the old neighborhood. It relies on sweeping generalizations about the attitudes of broad classes of people. It inevitably divides the world into good and evil, our folks and theirs. It cannot achieve the control it craves any other way.

"The battle for the future," writes Buchanan, "will be as much a battle within the parties as it will be between the parties, a battle between the hired men of the Money Power who long ago abandoned as quaint but useless old ideas of nationhood–and populists, patriots and nationalists who want no part of Robert Rubin's world." Lasch said the same thing, to wide acclaim from the intellectual establishment. He just tactfully left names like "Rubin" out of it.

You cannot build a tolerant nation by denouncing people for working with their minds, traveling abroad, buying and selling financial capital, or simply expressing optimism about America's future. You cannot preach a politics of anti-cosmopolitan hate and expect it to stay safely contained within anti-business boundaries. Michael Lind will not get the America of his dreams, a dynamic culture complete with gay marriage and transracial mixing, by suggesting that everyone who supports international trade and large-scale immigration is an unpatriotic elitist looking for cheap household help.

Such sentiments are popular on the intellectual left, a way of sneering at trade and traders, of pretending to be one with "the people" while denouncing their taste for shopping malls and Japanese cars. But, as conservatives are fond of saying, ideas have consequences. And the most recent consequence of cheap antiliberalism is Pat Buchanan. It's time his intellectual allies owned up to their responsibility.