Pat Buchanan's Culture War Speech | Study Guide

Pat Buchanan

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Pat Buchanan's Culture War Speech | Summary & Analysis



Buchanan's Early Career

A staunch conservative, journalist Pat Buchanan joined the presidential campaign of Republican Richard Nixon (1913–94) in 1966 as an advisor and speechwriter. He coined the term Silent Majority, which referred to middle-class, politically middle-of-the-road, white voters that Nixon hoped to appeal to. These voters, whom Nixon and Buchanan perceived to be mainstream Americans, were dismayed by the social and cultural changes of the 1960s. Nixon won the election and Buchanan joined the White House staff. In more than a thousand memos, he urged Nixon to adopt conservative positions, court the Silent Majority, and attack liberals and the media. He also penned some of the more inflammatory speeches given by Vice President Spiro Agnew (1918–96).

Untainted by the Watergate scandal that ended the Nixon presidency, Buchanan became a prominent political commentator, using his newspaper column, radio show, and television appearances to promote his conservative agenda. He served as director of communications for the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) for a few years, before returning to his career as a political pundit.

Buchanan Challenges Bush in 1992

George H.W. Bush had been Reagan's vice president and won the Republican nomination for president in 1988. He won an easy general election victory. Running for reelection in 1991, Bush seemed to be in a strong position in the wake of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of the Soviet Union (1991), and the victory of the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War (1990–91). Trouble was brewing on the right flank of the Republican party, however, and Buchanan was ready to mount a challenge.

Buchanan led a revolt of conservative Republicans who objected to Bush breaking his 1988 campaign promise not to raise taxes. Bush agreed to a tax hike in 1990 in order to reduce the federal deficit. Buchanan also objected to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1992), which Bush was negotiating with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. Buchanan argued that the agreement would cost American manufacturing jobs. Buchanan also wanted greater restrictions on immigration—in opposition to the 1990 immigration law Bush signed, which allowed 700,000 legal immigrants each year. Finally, Buchanan railed against Bush for not being strong enough on conservative culture issues such as abortion, family values, and ending the permissive culture that Buchanan charged liberals with promoting. Adding to President Bush's woes was a recession that began in 1990 and worsened in 1991.

In the first presidential primary of 1992 in New Hampshire, Buchanan received a strong 37 percent of the vote. The level of support for Buchanan shook the Bush campaign. Buchanan then won 36 percent of the vote in Georgia's primary and 30 percent in both Maryland and Colorado. He reached 31 percent in Florida. By mid-March, however, the Bush campaign rebounded, and Buchanan's numbers dropped to the 20s. From April to June, the challenger's highest tally was the 26 percent share of the vote he won in California on June 2—by which time the nomination contest was settled.

While Bush had secured the nomination, his campaign hoped to win back the ultraconservatives who favored Buchanan. As an olive branch, Bush campaign leaders offered Buchanan the chance to deliver a major address at the Republican National Convention. Buchanan took the opportunity to attack the Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton (b. 1946) and his wife Hillary Clinton (b. 1947) and speak out to the conservative crowd on a range of issues. Debate and division over these issues, he said, amounted to a cultural war between conservatives and liberals.

Buchanan's 1992 RNC Address

Buchanan opens the Culture War Speech by promoting party unity. He congratulates President Bush on his pending nomination and declares that the primaries are over. Most importantly, he proclaims that the "Buchanan brigades"—his supporters—will work for the incumbent president's reelection in the fall. This use of a military term—"brigades"—to refer to his supporters shows Buchanan's militant, hyper-partisan rhetoric and his sense that conservative viewpoints are at war with more moderate opinions.

Buchanan then launches into a scathing critique of the Democratic Party's recently concluded national convention and the Democratic presidential nominee, Bill Clinton. First dismissing the Democrats' attempt to appear moderate as "a masquerade ball," Buchanan then mocks Democrats as engaging in "cross-dressing." His point is that he believes ultraliberal Democrats are trying to disguise themselves as moderates. The sly suggestion that the Democrats' behavior reflects what conservative Republicans would view as sexual deviance hints at the culture war theme he introduces later in the speech.

One of the Democrats' greatest errors, according to Buchanan, is that they call the Reagan era "a terrible time in America." The Democrats, he says, want to enact liberal policies offered by four losing presidential candidates—George McGovern (1922–2012), who lost in 1972; Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), who lost his bid for re-election in 1980; Walter Mondale (b. 1928), who lost in 1984; and Michael Dukakis (b. 1933) the loser in the 1988 election.

Buchanan then speaks warmly of the triumphs of President Ronald Reagan's conservative policies. During Reagan's presidency from 1981 to 1989 the U.S. economy grew, communism disintegrated, and the Cold War—a period of hostility between the communist Soviet Union and its allies and Western democracies led by the United States—came to an end. Buchanan gives Reagan credit for helping dismantle communism around the world, noting the military interventions Reagan authorized in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Grenada in order to help oppose communist groups. These interventions were controversial and had indeed raised the ire of Reagan's opponents. Buchanan views them as great victories and moral triumphs. He also says that "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War." Many historians note that changes in the Soviet Union were the major reason the Cold War came to an end. However, Buchanan's view that Reagan brought the United States and the world out of the danger of the Cold War was widely shared in the United States, particularly by conservatives. Buchanan also stresses the renewed prosperity that occurred during Reagan's presidency, a relief after a long recession in the 1970s.

Most importantly, Buchanan says, Reagan "made us proud to be Americans again." The Democrats who had criticized Reagan's policies (mostly continued under Bush) at their convention are, Buchanan implies, not proud of the country. In criticizing the policies of Reagan, he suggests, they criticize America itself.

Comparing Bush and Clinton

A major theme of the speech is the contrast between Bush and Clinton. Noting that a president has many roles, Buchanan uses those roles as a vehicle to discuss the two presidential candidates.

The president sets U.S. foreign policy, Buchanan begins. He argues that Bush is far more qualified than Clinton to lead America's foreign policy. He notes that Bush not only has experience as president, but had also served as vice president, director of the CIA, UN ambassador, and as an envoy (diplomat) to China. In contrast, he argues, Clinton has no experience. (Clinton was the governor of Arkansas but had not held federal office.) Buchanan, like any good convention speechmaker, works in laugh lines at the other party's expense. Clinton doesn't just lack Bush's background, Buchanan writes; his "foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the [International] House of Pancakes."

Morality, Abortion Rights, and Homosexuality

Next, Buchanan says that a president must be a strong, moral leader. Bush, he claims, is capable of using the "bully pulpit" (the prominent position) of the presidency to support Judeo-Christian values. In contrast, Buchanan charges Clinton with supporting abortion and gay rights, positions Buchanan and his supporters understand as deeply immoral.

Buchanan refers to a speech given at the recent Democratic National Convention. He describes an unnamed "militant leader of the homosexual rights movement" who said that Clinton is "pro-lesbian and pro-gay." This comment likely refers to Bob Hattoy (1950–2007), a gay man who worked for the Sierra Club (an environmental rights organization) and had joined Clinton's primary campaign. Hattoy had been diagnosed with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) shortly before the Democratic convention. Clinton invited Hattoy to speak at the convention. In his speech, Hattoy criticized the Reagan and Bush administrations for taking no action during the years that AIDS had appeared and become an epidemic, particularly within the gay community. At that time, there was no cure for AIDS and the disease was debilitating and fatal in all cases. Activists had pressured both administrations to provide major federal funding for AIDS research and legislation to protect people with AIDS against discrimination. Bush eventually came to support these measures toward the end of his first term as president. This support was an example of Bush's willingness to take more moderate stances than some Republicans, a characteristic Buchanan had attacked him for during the primaries. However, Bush had also made public statements suggesting that AIDS patients were victims of their own bad behavior, a perspective that outraged AIDS activists, but that resonated with conservative voters. In his speech, Buchanan reinforces Bush's image not as a moderate but as a moral leader capable of pushing back against the immorality of homosexuality. Buchanan does not mention AIDS but focuses on Clinton's choice to allow Hattoy speak at the convention, while declining to have a pro-life Democratic governor, Robert Casey, speak on the issue of abortion.

With his comments on Clinton's positions on abortion and gay rights, Buchanan's goal is to mobilize his conservative listeners, especially Christian conservatives. Growing social acceptance of abortion after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion, had also led to an increased focus on opposing abortion rights, particularly among conservative Christians. Buchanan is also speaking to listeners who view homosexuality as unacceptable and a violation of the religious principles they want to put at the center of American culture and government. Taboos around homosexuality had begun to break down in the United States by 1992 and homosexual relationships had become accepted by many sectors of the public. Buchanan's comments acknowledge conservative listeners who feel that homosexuality and acceptance of homosexuality are growing threats in American society. He presents abortion rights and acceptance of homosexuality as moral issues that Bush and other Republicans can and must take steps to address.

Big Government and School Choice

Buchanan says that Clinton only favors school choice when the government makes that choice. This criticism is meant to align the Democratic candidate with big government—a wrong-headed position to Republicans. Republicans had pushed for years for the government to provide financial aid to parents who send their children to private parochial (religious) schools, calling the program "school choice." Clinton, Buchanan states, opposes giving parents the freedom to choose the school they want for their children. This argument casts the question of using public funds to support private schools in terms of liberty, a core value in American culture and politics.


Buchanan also takes on Bill Clinton's wife, Hillary. Hoping to win women's votes, the Clinton campaign had promoted the idea that Hillary would play an active role in government. Buchanan says that Mrs. Clinton has backed the right of children to sue their parents and the concept that marriage is like slavery. The Clintons, he charges, advocate "radical feminism." The idea that feminism is a threat had been a focal point of the Republican party since the battle to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. Buchanan's view is that the Clintons represent this "threat." He says that a Clinton presidency will mean change, but "not the kind of change America needs." In fact, he says, it will push the country down a path of godless immorality.

Military Service

Turning to a new topic, Buchanan points out that the president is commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. Again, he paints a stark contrast between Bush and Clinton. He says that in 1941, after the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Bush left high school to enlist in the navy. (Buchanan exaggerates slightly here—Bush joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 after graduating from high school.) Buchanan contrasts Bush with Clinton, who was a student of draft age during the Vietnam War (1954–1975). Buchanan claims Clinton chose to "dodge the draft." Clearly, Buchanan asserts, Bush has the "moral authority" to lead the military, while Clinton does not.

Environmentalism and Elitism

Buchanan also takes some swipes at Democratic vice-presidential nominee Al Gore (b. 1948), a U.S. senator from Tennessee. Calling him "Prince Albert" because he was the son of a senator, Buchanan presents Gore as an out-of-touch Washington elitist—the opposite of a hard-working, conservative Republican. Two years in a row, Buchanan notes, Gore voted for more government spending than even Senator Ted Kennedy (1932–2009) of Massachusetts. Kennedy was for many years a symbol to Republicans of extreme liberalism in the Democratic Party. Republican voters traditionally objected to heavy government spending, particularly on social programs. To outspend Kennedy, Buchanan implies, a senator would have to be very extreme.

To drive the point home, Buchanan points to Gore's core issue, the environment. Middle-class Americans, he says, want the freedom to make their own choices. They don't want policy made by "the environmental extremists who put insects, rats and birds ahead of families, workers and jobs." Buchanan pits environmental concerns against the interests of ordinary citizens, painting environmental activists as liberal elitists who want to force their outlandish interests on others.

Buchanan Declares a Culture War

Approaching the end of his speech, Buchanan states that the country is engaged in a culture war. While the notion of a culture war is not strictly defined, Buchanan uses it to describe bitter, high-stakes political contests between the right, or conservatives, and the left, or liberals.

First, Buchanan acknowledges that he challenged President Bush in the primaries. With the election coming up, the situation is now different, he explains. Directly addressing the three million people who voted for him, he says that they must support Bush in the election. Although Buchanan and his followers had criticized Bush for not being conservative enough, Bush is now the best choice. Buchanan stresses that extremely conservative voters are part the Republican Party. "The party," he says, "is our home." His argument is that his ultraconservative supporters will find their views more supported by the Republican Party than by any other choice. But he also implies that it is in fact the staunchest conservatives, more than the moderates, who truly belong in the party.

Buchanan then describes what the party and President Bush stand for, illustrating that Bush is on the right side of the war. Buchanan presents a list conservative positions that push back against liberal values and policies. Bush and Republicans are for school choice and against gay marriage. They are for the right to life and prayer in schools. They are against having women in combat roles in the armed forces, and they are against pornography. They are for conservative judges and Supreme Court justices. This last idea points to a conservative complaint that liberal justices interpret the Constitution to suit their own ideas. The appointment of conservative jurists is a priority, since they hold the power to make rulings about what actions and laws are acceptable or unacceptable.

The election, Buchanan says, is not just a political contest but a test of "who we are" and "what we believe." He employs stark terms: "There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war." This war, he says, is just as critical as the Cold War had been. At stake is what kind of country the United States will be. Buchanan supporters need to stand with George H.W. Bush and the Republican Party to win this war.

Ordinary Americans versus Liberal Ideas

Buchanan closes with a reflection on his months on the campaign trail. He mentions workers who asked him to help because they were losing their jobs. He cites the example of a town in California that will suffer because a federal judge ordered that a timber mill be shut down to protect the trees that are the habitat of an endangered species, the spotted owl.

Ordinary, working-class Americans who are economically vulnerable, Buchanan says, are "with us." That is, they are on the Republican side of the culture war. He notes that these people "don't read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke," theorists whose ideas have influenced many, including some conservative thinkers. Buchanan implies that ideas, concepts, and arguments are the realm of the elite, but that the Republican Party is concerned with the everyday experiences of average people.

Taking Back the Country

Buchanan mentions the suffering of Korean shop owners when riots broke out in Los Angeles. This refers to rioting that happened across Los Angeles over several days in late April and early May of 1992, while the primary campaign was still underway. The riots occurred in response to the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers who had been filmed beating Rodney King (1965–2012), an African American man. The footage had shocked many Americans, and the officers had been tried for use of excessive force. Their acquittal sparked outrage, particularly among African Americans in Los Angeles. The riots that erupted also shocked many Americans, who watched live coverage of looting and violence.

Buchanan focuses on an incident from the riots, when rioters were ready to loot a home for the elderly. Stressing the threat posed by "the mob," Buchanan recounts how members of the armed forces came "to rescue the city." He describes how two service members moved in to protect that senior center, using them as an example. They "took back the streets of LA," he says. Republicans must do the same. "We must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country."

Buchanan does not address the grievances that led up to the Los Angeles riots, but he suggests that the riots were based in social and political patterns that go beyond the city of Los Angeles. He sympathizes with anxious voters and implies that Bush and the Republican party are capable of imposing order and authority on various unruly and threatening segments of society.

Impact of the Culture War Speech

George H.W. Bush lost that fall, and Bill Clinton was elected president. Bush had presided over a recession and had also increased taxes, despite a pledge not to do so. However, despite Clinton's victory and reelection in 1996, the partisan divide continued to grow. Buchanan's notion of a culture war became a familiar and enduring idea in American politics and society.

Candidates in later presidential and other races have continued to focus on many of the issues Buchanan identified as central to the culture war: abortion, gay rights, feminism, school choice, prayer in schools, the environment versus the needs of ordinary citizens, the role of religion in government, immigration, law and order, and other topics.

Buchanan ran for president again in 1996 but did not win the Republican nomination. Organizers of the 1996 Republican National Convention did not give Buchanan a role, considering him too controversial. Buchanan criticized the Republican platform as too soft on abortion and held an alternative rally the night before the opening of the convention. After 1996, Buchanan worked as a commentator, continuing to speak out on a range of issues. He did not run again for office. He is considered both an influential and polarizing figure in conservative circles. Many of his ideas continue to be relevant in American politics. In 2017 Buchanan said in an interview, "The ideas made it, but I didn't."

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