Thirty Years Later, Pat Buchanan's Culture War Speech Still Resonates
The culture war changed, but the Houston address still matters
In the latest print edition of The Spectator, my piece is on the thirty year anniversary of Pat Buchanan’s Culture War speech. An excerpt:
It was a relatively cool 85 degrees in Houston on the August evening thirty years ago when Republicans gathered at the Astrodome to renominate George H.W. Bush for the 1992 presidential election. The opening session’s speakers included Senator John McCain, Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice, and re-election campaign co-chairman Ken Lay, later to gain fame as a major figure in the Enron scandals. But the speech that would be the most memorable by far was delivered by a television commentator, syndicated columnist and former Richard Nixon hatchet man — the fifty-four-year-old Irish Catholic Pat Buchanan, who delivered what came to be known as “The Culture War Speech.”
Buchanan, who had mounted an insurgent primary challenge from the right, had made the president sweat in the early going in New Hampshire, where Bush’s break from his “Read My Lips: No New Taxes” pledge came to symbolize voters’ concerns about the economy. Buchanan’s shoestring effort was doomed from the beginning, but the message he delivered that night in Houston was met with raucous populist applause for “Pitchfork Pat.”
As he approached the end of his remarks, his voice dropped to a hush, and he spoke in a more serious tone than he used on The McLaughlin Group, as he said:
My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America…
My friends, these people are our people. They don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards, the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people, and we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they’re hurting. They don’t expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care.
What’s fascinating about Buchanan’s culture war speech three decades on is how little it has to do with what are typically considered “culture war” issues by the media complex. Abortion and gay marriage receive scant mention; gun rights none at all. Buchanan instead spent far more of his speech talking about jobs, spending and environmentalism. He closed with a fervent image of the violent Los Angeles riots of that spring.
The culture war battles of 2022 echo this dynamic. Democrats, who view the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade as a political lifeline, want to define the culture war according to a familiar trio: abortion, guns and gay marriage. But for Republicans — and, they hope, for most independent voters — the culture-war issues of the day are very different. They are about crime and policing, a border that’s out of control, an economy that doesn’t work for the middle class, a radical trans agenda and a race-focused education regime. The forgiveness of student loans by President Joe Biden’s White House is a culture-war issue, too, as are the increased leftist pressure campaigns weaponizing Big Tech and corporate America against conservative Americans, including their own workers.
The Democratic effort in 2022 is to limit the conversation about the culture wars to the definitions of the past. They insist that Critical Race Theory isn’t taught in schools and that gifted programs are racially biased; that sacrificing jobs for the good of the environment and tax dollars for electric-car subsidies is the height of morality; and that only bigots are offended by men dancing provocatively for schoolchildren or changing in girls’ locker rooms before they beat them by half a minute on the racetrack or in the swimming pool. Above all, they claim that no one anywhere ever really wanted to Defund the Police — and that you are lying if you say otherwise.
This form of culture-war erasure — deployed in these midterm elections by Democrats hoping to distract from dire concerns about the economy and inflation — is unlikely to convince the electorate that Republicans are too radical on cultural issues to govern. It requires acceptance of the left’s views on education — that teachers, not parents, know best what young children ought to be taught about America’s racial history. It insists that voters believe the new Democratic spin on policing and on the border crisis — that their condemnation of the January 6 riot makes them the defenders of law and order. And it demands that voters accept that a man can become a woman — which, frankly, does not fly with the multiethnic, immigrant-heavy Democratic majority that their party once envisioned.