Patrick J. Buchanan—iconoclastic pundit, former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, challenger to George Bush in 1992, and self-styled rabble-rouser—is not going to win the Republican nomination in 1996, much less the presidency. Though political observers were surprised by the early excitement his campaign generated Buchanan has spent much of the past six months in a distant second place, behind Senator Bob Dole, in polls measuring Republican preferences), he seems unlikely at this juncture to win even one state in the nominating race. Presidential politics, however, has always been about more than simply winning elections: of all the candidates running this time on either side, Buchanan has the most potential to change our politics. His campaign is testing the viability of hard-right-wing populism, which, given the unchecked erosion of middle-class wages and living standards, may be the shape of politics to come.
It is one of the ironies of American political history that the vanquished in presidential campaigns often end up altering our politics more than the victors. Barry Goldwater may have carried only six states in 1964, but by stamping his brand of Sunbelt conservatism on the Republican Party, he changed it and eventually the country, causing a regional realignment. George McGovern lost in a landslide in 1972, but some of his campaign aides—including Gary Hart and Bill Clinton—ended up playing a strong role in Democratic politics for more than two decades. George Wallace carried only a handful of presidential primaries in his runs within the Democratic Party, and his independent candidacy, in 1968, never had a chance. Yet it can be argued persuasively that Wallace's populist appeals to middle-class resentment through veiled references to race, and his constant attacks on big government and the media, provided the model for much of American politics in the decades that followed.
The candidate himself and the media tout Buchanan's current campaign as a crusade for the soul of Republican conservatism, and it is that. What Buchanan really seeks to do, however, is to follow in the footsteps of Wallace—along with those of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, and Mary ("Raise Less Corn and More Hell") Lease—by reviving populism on a national scale. Buchanan's hope is to unite the disparate and often contradictory forces that constitute what is left of populism—under the banner, no less, of the Republican Party, the traditional home of those established interests that populism has usually fought. Given populism's customary distrust of the eastern establishment—including the media—and its roots in a kind of agrarian Protestantism, it is also no small irony that the candidate who hopes to assemble this coalition is a well-known member of the media establishment and an observant Catholic. Michael Kazin, the author of the recent The Populist Persuasion, calls Buchanan's candidacy "the culmination of 100 years of populism."
Populism has had a dappled history in its century or so of incarnations: the same movements that have sought to organize "the people" against "the special interests" have often used raw racial and nativist demagoguery to do so. And the populist label is a mutable one, applied to everyone from Tom Watson to Joseph McCarthy to H. Ross Perot. Yet populism can be loosely defined, with help from Kazin, as a powerful mass movement, somewhat out of the political mainstream, grounded in typically American language that characterizes politics as a struggle between ordinary people and a self-serving, undemocratic elite. That means that populism is by definition in flux; anyone who convincingly appropriates the jargon ("special interests"), the enemies list (distant government, the media, intellectuals, the eastern establishment), and the enthusiasm for conspiracy theories (to explain how power got taken from "the people") tends to appropriate the movement.
Over the past century populism has moved from its southern agrarian roots through the labor insurgencies of the Progressive era, the Prohibition movement, the "Share-the-Wealth" movements of the 1930s, and the white backlash of the past thirty years. For most of its history populism was loosely linked to the Democratic Party, the traditional home of the working classes, and party rhetoric and policy reflected that state of affairs. Yet, as Thomas and Mary Edsall pointed out in the May, 1991, Atlantic Monthly, the increasing identification of the Democratic Party with the race and rights revolutions of the 1960s—and with big government supported by high taxes—allowed it to be increasingly portrayed as a defender not only of the status quo but also of cultural if not economic elites. Today the most obvious heirs to the populist tradition are either loosely allied with the Republicans (Pat Robertson, with his religious fundamentalism) or are the sort who would have been targets of populism a century ago (Ross Perot, the modern equivalent of J. P. Morgan or Andrew Carnegie). In a world in which government is portrayed as the real enemy of "the people," the populist impulse has begun to gravitate to the Republican Party and to people populism once despised.
There are portents of Buchanan in previous Republican presidential candidacies, though one has to go back a while to find some of them. His "America First" foreign policy isn't far from the views of prominent midwestern Republicans from 1920 to 1952: Senator Robert Taft, after all, opposed the NATO treaty, and Senator Arthur Vandenberg was an isolationist for much of his political life. Buchanan's opposition to most civil-rights legislation—including (on constitutional grounds) the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—recalls Barry Goldwater. And Buchanan's onetime boss, Ronald Reagan, certainly portrayed himself as an outsider who would return Washington and the federal government to "the people."