Readers may have noticed a new sport lately among the TV pundits and pontificators. It's called bashing Pat Buchanan. This media pastime is not new; it also dominated the airwaves in 1996, when the verbally provocative former public affairs commentator challenged Bob Dole for the Republican presidential nomination.
In truth, there is plenty to bash Buchanan about: his rather weird interpretation of World War II and the Hitler threat, his anti-abortion and anti-gun-control extremism, his insensitive use of immigrant and minority stereotypes in his campaign rhetoric. Yet, the motives of those doing the ritualized bashing are themselves questionable. Some anti-Buchananites are undoubtedly expressing genuine fears of an upsurge in racial intolerance or the growth of an insular, xenophobic Fortress America mentality, but others are obviously seeking narrow political gain by using the very tactics they accuse the newest Reform party member of exploiting.
Among Buchanan's mirror opposites are unscrupulous politicians who seize upon any criticism of Israel or any revisionist view of the war period as excuses to raise the spectre of anti-Semitism. Also prominent are ethnic-group spokesmen who label any critique of immigration, legal or illegal, as an un-American assault on multiculturalism. Represented as well are members of the social left who raise semi-hysterical cries of alarm at any negative reference to alternative lifestyles, affirmative action, or racial and gender quotas. Rather than carefully dissecting Buchanan's statements and writings, which contain abundant flaws and misjudgments, such critics quote out of context, oversimplify, and jump willfully to the most extreme conclusions, labeling "Pitchfork Pat" a racist, anti-Semite, homophobe, or worse.
In so doing, they play into the hands of interests that would discredit the important and legitimate core of his message -- economic populism. These vested interests share a common perspective that there is no reason to question or criticize the corporate dominance and management of American life. Their ranks are made up of the nation's business establishment, the affluent upper tier of the population in wealth and income, most of the Republican party, and a substantial portion of the Democratic party, the incumbent administration included.
These folks are focused exclusively on the manic stock market, which continues to careen along, aided by such transparently bogus ploys as the recent dropping from the Dow Jones industrial average of traditional firms doing less than spectacularly (Sears, Goodyear, Union Carbide, and Chevron) and their replacement by "hot" companies from the high-tech and communications sectors (Microsoft, Intel, SBC Communications). This will keep the bulging Dow inflated, prod stock prices upward, and reinforce the view that all is well with the economy. It will also reward those at the top -- the 260,000 families that collect two-thirds of all capital gains in America.
Such people and their political retainers are not disturbed by the news that millionaire Robert Rubin, the former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary who helped engineer a "reform" package deregulating big banks and creating new financial conglomerates, has left Washington to join financial-services giant Citigroup, one of the prime beneficiaries of that anticonsumer legislation. They are not fazed by reports that average CEO pay has risen 37 percent in the past year, compared to 2.7 percent for average workers, and is now 400 times greater than the earnings of the typical employee. They don't care that overall economic growth in America is increasing six times faster than the growth in wages and benefits, or that it has outpaced family income growth by a factor of eight since 1989.
They have scant concern that one-third of the American work force is currently composed of temps, part-timers, freelancers, and contractors, most of whom have no health or pension benefits and can't collect unemployment insurance. They dismiss the fact that drug prices in the U.S. are up 20 percent since 1997, forcing seniors on fixed incomes to trek to Canada, where prescriptions cost two to three times less. They see no crisis resulting from the national minimum wage remaining 40 percent below the poverty line for a family of four, while food-stamp rolls are being cut to the bone.
They ignore the reality that almost half of all U.S. family farmers now farm only part-time, holding other jobs of necessity, and that the traditional 600-acre homestead faces the impossible task of expanding to several thousand acres in order to survive in the new deregulated and corporatized agricultural economy. They have no interest in learning that requests for help from private food banks are up 14 percent this year across the land, or that consumer debt in America has doubled since 1986 and is still rising. And they have no patience at all with United Nations studies showing that as a result of globalization, the two hundred richest people in the world have acquired more combined wealth than the two billion poorest.
Those who are benefitting economically from things as they are would prefer that the political dialogue concentrate on race, crime, abortion, or perhaps such ephemera as the nature of Naziism in the 1930s; in Buchanan, they've found their perfect distraction and whipping boy. From their perspective, he possesses the twin virtues of being the most visible and vociferous critic of corporate globalism, while at the same time being uniquely vulnerable to charges of political extremism. This presents a dilemma to progressive populists. Do they rush blindly to Buchanan's defense, or do they disown him in embarrassment over his crudities and tactlessness?
The best solution may be to keep the mercurial Pat at arm's length, not embracing but also not rejecting him out of hand. The uncomfortable truth is that, because of the Democratic party's abdication, Buchanan is at present populism's only horse, and he must temporarily be ridden, if only sidesaddle. The move to totally demonize him should be recognized for what it is: a blatant attempt to indirectly discredit his economic critique.
Likewise, the effort to dismiss the Reform party he may lead as a hothouse for kooks and crazies should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Ask first, who is doing the pejorative labeling? The answer that will come back is: Republican regulars who fear its impact on the Bush candidacy.
In the long run, of course, populism needs a better champion, one who carries less political baggage. It may even need a fourth party, one that is both economically and socially progressive. Reform's ideological schizophrenia suggests it is not the vehicle populists require.
In the meantime, Pat Buchanan should be defended when he is right, as he often is on the threat of corporate globalization, and corrected when he is wrong, as he usually is when preaching his peculiar brand of social morality. Above all, those on the political left who are tempted to join in the frenzy of Buchanan bashing had better be aware that they will be savaging one of the few national spokesmen who, warts and all, can deliver large parts of their economic message to a mass audience.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.