The People's Pit Bull

Pat Buchanan is moving into the void left by liberals' failure to address the issue of economic injustice

By Alexander Cockburn
February 10, 1996 10:33PM (UTC)
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All of a sudden the mainstream press has developed teeth and is busy sinking them into the leg of Patrick Buchanan. In the wake of the new Hampshire primary you can catch the unmistakable tang of panic among the pundits at the sight of a wild man at the gates. So now Buchanan is being depicted as the patron saint of racists, and himself a closet Nazi.

Buchanan is hard-edged in his rhetoric against abortion, same-sex marriages and kindred social
issues. But the panic of the elite derives more from his economic views. Hitherto, a consensus lay over the presidential race like a moist blanket. Between Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes there was an amiable agreement on the central political-economic issue -- free trade. Like most mainstream pundits, they regard it as an absolute virtue.


Buchanan does not. And for that reason -- far more than his snarls about gays -- he is regarded as dangerous. "Economists tend to hold Pat Buchanan's anti-NAFTA views with the sort of scorn biologists have for creationism, or the contempt doctors have for the theory that HIV is unrelated to AIDS," sneered reporter Paul Blustein in the Washington Post.

But many people in New Hampshire clearly didn't feel that way. He got the bulk of his votes from those making less than $50,000 a year; 50 percent who went for Buchanan said trade was the most important issue. They are living on the economic downside of the high-tech global economy, and they don't think NAFTA or GATT has done them any good at all. NAFTA, in fact, has been a time bomb in American politics, as Buchanan realized. His bigotry on certain social issues is distressing, but his popularity is based on more than declamations against gays, immigrants and pro-choice activists. He is the populist standard-bearer in 1996; his political advance is entirely understandable and to a considerable extent deserved.

Neither is he the first contemporary populist whose message has been warmly received by regular citizens while being derided by the elites. In 1984 and 1988 it was Jesse Jackson; in 1992 Jerry Brown.


Those bids, including Buchanan's, are reactions to a political bankruptcy at the national level -- which is as dire amongst Democrats as Republicans. Bill Clinton is in reality a moderate Republican, who shares the same general outlook, for all practical purposes, as Sen. Bob Dole. Yet Clinton faces no challenge from liberals, unless you count Ralph Nader running on the Green Party ticket in California. The only calls for economic justice, and opposition to Fortune 500 business as usual, comes from Buchanan.

Recently, Dennis Rivera, the aggressive leader of the hospital workers union in New York, said the most important labor project in decades is the re-election of Bill Clinton. Likewise, new AFL-CIO leaders John Sweeney and Richard Trumka are scrambling to get out the vote for the man conservative commentator Kevin Phillips described as "the 20th century's most actively anti-labor president."

So much for the new face of the labor movement. Its leaders will work for Clinton, contenting themselves with such crumbs as his State of the Union pledge of a small hike in the minimum wage (even though he did nothing about it in his first two years in office, when he had a Democratic Congress.) As Bill Becker, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, once so memorably put it: "He'll pat you on the back and piss down your leg." It is no wonder that Buchanan has emerged as the only champion for many in the rank and file.


In online chat rooms and bulletin boards where the computerized liberal-left gather to ponder the great issues of the day, there's already lively discussion as to whether Buchanan is a fascist. But it wasn't Buchanan who presided over the largest number of civilian deaths resulting from an operation by U.S. law enforcement (Waco). And Buchanan didn't write the Terrorism Bill, which contains appalling encroachments on constitutional protections, and is due to come up in the House in March, with Justice Department and White House encouragement.

Rather than cheering on Bill Clinton, the "lesser of two evils," while trembling before Patrick Buchanan, the "fascist menace," progressives especially should ask themselves how they allowed things to come to such a pass -- that the only presidential candidate raising basic issues of economic justice should be a man like Buchanan.


On the Republican side, one of the funnier sights of the primary campaign so far has been Bob Dole -- in panicky response to the rise of Buchanan -- suddenly expressing concern about corporate layoffs that seem to accompany super profits. This as he dismounts from one corporate jet lent him by Carl Lindner, the banana king, and mounts another, provided by a tobacco company, or by Midwest corn king, Dwayne Andreas.

If Dole's wounds in New Hampshire prove fatal, expect the elite pundits and editorial writers to muster behind "moderate" Lamar Alexander, the quiet former governor from Tennessee who has advanced the most radical ideas of any of the candidates for cutting down the federal government. But he's not "dangerous," like Buchanan, whose great crime has been to desecrate that political holy of holies, free trade.

Alexander Cockburn

Alexander Cockburn's books include "Washington Babylon" and "The Golden Age Is in Us." He writes the "Beat the Devil" column for the Nation.

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