There is at least a small way in which every person who read Patrick Buchanan’s memoir Right From the Start, regardless of political persuasion, regrets that Buchanan has never become president. In that book, Buchanan, with oblivious candor, proudly explains how he brawled his way through his Catholic Washington, D.C., boyhood, up to and including duking it out (unprofitably) with police officers while in college. The pure entertainment value of having a quick-fisted chief executive who could greet an impertinent question from Helen Thomas or a sadly sighed critique from Dick Gephardt with two jabs and a snappy right cross would more than compensate for the ensuing hullabaloo.
Alas, young men mature, and find higher purposes for their energy. Buchanan has channeled his fondness for fisticuffs into writing, and as a result, he possesses an almost perfectly pugilistic writing style. This does endow his prose with a certain power. At the same time, reading more than three pages of him at any one stretch leaves one feeling sore, exhausted, and aggrieved, rather like one who has attended a child’s birthday party in the role of pinata.
Buchanan’s new book, The Death of the West—no namby-pamby Spenglerian “Decline” for Pat, he’s talking lights out—is essentially his familiar Trouble Right Here In River City spiel, attached this time to a mass of demographic data about the aging populations of Europe and North America. These are not new findings; anyone who’s read Peter Peterson’s Gray Dawn, for example, is well acquainted with the chilly, immutable facts about the large, aging Baby Boom cohort and the declining birthrate. This ‘Pig in the Middle’ phenomenon—demographers describe watching the bulging Baby Boom bunch moving through their demographic charts as like watching a pig move down the gullet of a python—is going to confront us with the problem of too many unproductive old people sopping up the resources of too few workers.
Peterson and other commentators have presented this as primarily an economic problem. Buchanan portrays it as a cultural crisis. He sees America and the other Western nations as erasing themselves from the face of the earth by a failure to multiply, leaving the planet under the control of fecund, illiberal, anti-American Third Worlders. Buchanan believes that these people are coming to America and Europe, and, while ostensibly serving our interests by managing our 7-11s and writing our computer game code, are actually planning to overwhelm us and replace our values with whatever life-is-cheap thinking currently dominates their native regions.
Essentially, Buchanan sees us as going to hell in a tortilla basket. As an analysis, it generally calls to mind a 1921 debate recounted in Roy Jenkins’s new biography of Winston Churchill in which Lord Beaverbrook dismisses a colleague’s speech by saying, “As for the speech of Lord Carson, as a constructive effort at statecraft, it would have been immature on the lips of an hysterical schoolgirl.”
It’s not that Buchanan doesn’t make any good points; in any melee, any palooka with a wild swing is bound to land a punch or two. The demographic crisis is going to pose real challenges and cause real pain; and there is no guarantee it will not damage us, and we had better start thinking about it. One way in which we will almost certainly seek to maintain a sufficiently large and sustainable productive workforce will be to encourage immigration. We have had a long and successful history of immigration, but not without conflict, and there is no guarantee we aren’t going to have more problems, and it certainly won’t guarantee that we’ll solve them. After September 11, no one can rest assured that every Tom, Dick, or Mohammed Atta who comes over here is going to fall in love with our values, fast-food restaurants, and entertaining television programs. Buchanan is most persuasive when he looks at immigration in the Southwest, both legal and illegal, and argues that we may in effect be allowing a Mexican colony to develop that may pose a sizable political problem. Of course, he doesn’t say “sizable political problem”; he says catastrophe.
Buchanan, like a lot of conservatives, makes other points that make a mushy liberal like me uncomfortable. He is obsessed with the repurcussions of the sexual revolution and its creation of a sex-obsessed society of freedom-loving liberals. “Sex and the City” is an entertaining show and sexual freedom is a good thing, but golly, there does come a point when guys and girls should put away their martini glasses and start running the PTA. But the reason it’s so easy to dismiss Buchanan is that his arguments so conspicuously lack rigor. He is, for example, an ardent apologist for Robert E. Lee, regarding him and other Confederates as American heroes. Well, okay, but elsewhere he objects to those who criticize the West for having been a slaveholding society by pointing out that the West didn’t start slavery, but it did end it (nevermind Lee’s exertions to the contrary). With Olga Korbut-like dexterity, Buchanan can twist his position in whatever compartment he needs it to be in. But at the same time, when people on the left compartmentalize and see only the good in someone like Jesse Jackson, Buchanan accuses them of corrupted thinking.
He rightly objects when people on the left accuse conservatives of being Nazis or fascists, but he seems oblivious to how his entire book portrays anyone who disagrees with him as anti-American and worse. (For someone who is such a resourceful apologist, Buchanan is a pathetic apologizer. He writes: “There is truth in the indictment of America’s past. Our fathers did participate in slavery. We did practice segregation. Our treatment of the Indians was not what one should have expected of people to whom the Sermon on the Mount was a divine command.” Really? Jesus never said, “Blessed are the ethnic cleansers”?)
There’s more. Buchanan argues that the entertainment industry is a prime cause of a decline of values, then, evidencing no symptom of whiplash, praises Hollywood for producing Gladiator, The Patriot, and Thirteen Days. He stresses that birthrates are highest in parts of the world where people are most religious; he doesn’t entertain the possibility that these might also be the places where women endure the lowest standing. He describes the time when women stayed home and raised big families as a golden age, never wondering why free, educated, intelligent couples might choose to have fewer kids. (As a father of two, believe me, I have a list.) At one point he quotes a Japanese journalist saying of declining birth rates, “Until [politicians] create a society in which women feel comfortable having children and working, Japan will be destroyed in a matter of 50 or 100 years.” Instead of engaging that observation—which would seem crucial to the crisis he’s describing and thus his prime political task—Buchanan spends his book hammering liberals like Maxine Waters and Susan Sontag and Strobe Talbott as though he were John Wayne body slamming Victor McLaughlen over the face of Ireland in the last act of The Quiet Man. Instead of taking on what would appear to be the chief political question of the crisis, he ignores it, and baits these toothless tigers instead.
Barry Goldwater, one of Buchanan’s heroes, once said, “I’d rather be right than president.” Buchanan would rather fight than persuade. A lot of people share his concerns, though not all to the same degree. They are people who want to preserve and extend a culture. Buchanan wants to fight a culture war. It is that bellicosity, that insistence on attaining unconditional surrender, that marginalizes him.