The Common Good
May-June 1996

Why, Pat, Why

by Danny Duncan Collum | May-June 1996

If Pat Buchanan had not roared, grinning and sweaty, through the
American political scene this year, someone would have invented
him: America was waiting for someone to come along ...

If Pat Buchanan had not roared, grinning and sweaty, through the American political scene this year, someone would have invented him: America was waiting for someone to come along and push all the most sensitive buttons on our feverish and raw body politic, and push them hard all at once.

The symptoms of America's "funk" are widely recognized...now: 21 years of slow economic growth, trade deficits, job loss, and declining incomes for the many, accompanied by a deep cultural confusion about America's shared values. The new civil religion of cultural relativism, as preached in the public schools and mass media, has proven completely unsatisfying. During these same two decades America has experienced the growing pains-some might call it "backlash"-associated with making room in the mainstream for blacks, women, and gays.

A large number of ordinary people in America's white working families have come, understandably, to feel that no one speaks for, or even listens to, them. As Mark Shields, one of Washington's few class-conscious pundits, has noted, the people who seem to care about white working people's values (the Republican Right) don't care about their economic plight, and the people who claim to care about economic justice (the Democratic Left) are indifferent, or even hostile, toward working-class cultural concerns.

Any observer with the use of one allegorical eye should be able to see the inevitable outcome of this situation. A hole the size of a Mack truck is waiting to be filled by a movement that fuses cultural traditionalism and economic radicalism.

For a while this year, Pat Buchanan seemed to occupy that gap. But he didn't really, for reasons both economic and cultural. Buchanan is right about NAFTA and GATT. No progress for anyone, of any color, in the vast American non-professional majority is possible as long as our manufacturing jobs are shipped to the highest bidder and our wage scale competes with the Third World.

But a new trade policy is not enough. Buchanan seizes on the "free trade" piece of the economic puzzle because it is the one that allows him to use America's genuine economic anxiety to fuel a mean-spirited rage against "outsiders." When talk turns to raising the minimum wage or strengthening the hand of labor unions, Populist Pat takes a powder. And those are the main factors in shifting the balance of power in America's marketplace.

BUCHANAN'S populism is flawed on the cultural side because, even forgetting simple human decency, his politics of resentment won't work. The constituency for economic change (say, the people with family incomes under $50,000 or so) can't win if it is divided by ethnicity and gender. To be successful, economic populism must serve as a bridge across those divisions and not as a wedge to widen them.

Building that bridge is the historic role of those institutions once quaintly called "the Left." Broadly defined, this means the unions, social activist groups, and reformers who, since the 1930s, have usually gathered quadrennially under the Democrats' big tent.

The failure of those "oppositional" forces has done much to provide the opening for a Buchanan. In a world where seemingly everything has come unglued, the beginning point of politics is language. The terminology or set of "codes" we use to explain the world to ourselves will define our existence, our purpose, and our goals. The confusion in turn-of-the-century America is, at heart, a search for new language for the American Dream in a time when the old vocabulary of expansion (of territory, population, or prosperity) has played itself out.

In this time of confusion, the opposition forces have often wandered far from home and spoken, mostly to themselves, in archaic and incomprehensible tongues. Liberal or dissident political discourse, in the national Democratic Party and points Left, has largely been captured by the "rights and entitlements" language of the cultural Left. In vast reaches of America, the party of FDR has allowed itself to become identified with the promotion of abortion, homosexuality, and single motherhood, as well as hostility to religious values and rural culture.

The labor movement is probably the most crucial ingredient for rebuilding American democracy, and it has suffered the most. Since 1981 the unions have been massacred by a unified government-business assault. It hasn't helped that most of the top union leadership remained mired in the bureaucratic corporatism of the Cold War glory years. The AFL-CIO's new president, John Sweeney, promises to change all that, which may be the most hopeful sign on the American horizon.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. His book Black and White Together: The Search for Common Ground (Orbis Books) will be available in fall 1996.

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