The Right's Culture War Problem

photo of Rachel Maddow and Pat Buchanan
(Crazy) Uncle Pat!

Quick, off the top of your head, if someone asks you to come up with a name that would best fit the label “right-wing culture warrior,” who would you choose? Given that he’s actually written a book with the title “culture warrior,” many might choose Bill O’Reilly, and not without reason. But if you’re a little bit older, or you have a habit of watching cable news, another name – one equally apt for the label – might come to mind: Pat Buchanan.

One of the nice things over the past few years in cable news was the firing of Pat Buchanan from MSNBC. The troglodyte whom Rachel Maddow used to call “Uncle Pat” (probably because she was too polite and too savvy to append the “Crazy” at the beginning of that moniker) got his start in the Nixon administration, and he’s been poisoning the political discourse ever since with his not-that-unique brand of paleo-conservatism, racism, anti-semitism and assorted other Nixonian resentments.

Until mid-February of last year when MSNBC finally put crazy uncle Pat out to pasture, people were forced to pay at least a little bit of attention to him because he operated in the very public forum of cable news. But after Buchanan’s book “Suicide of a Superpower” (catchily apocalyptic title, eh?) contained a chapter called “The End of White America,” apparently MSNBC just couldn’t stomach it any longer, and did the right thing by not renewing Buchanan’s contract as a contributor. Since then, it’s been nothing short of lovely not to have to care what Pat Buchanan thinks about things anymore, now that his audience-range has been pruned down to his opt-in email list, his steadily declining book sales, and his eponymous web site.

Of course, the effective demotion doesn’t mean Buchanan’s been silent. Far from it; it just means that since last February, it’s been much harder for the average person to hear Pat’s voice or read his work. Nevertheless, Buchanan, alongside the aforementioned blowhard Bill O’Reilly and a few other influential-but-aging white men, has been one of the nation’s preeminent culture warriors, fighting for all things “traditional” (read: fucked-up) about America. So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to see Buchanan’s column this week, entitled Weiner & Spitzer — Now More Than Ever! I won’t link to it, partly because I don’t want to give Buchanan the traffic even my little out-of-the-way blog might afford him, but also because a literate 6th grader could discern the content of his piece from the sneering title alone.

Yup, predictably, Buchanan is out with what, in older days, might have been a devastating attack on the loose morals of elected Democrats. In this case, it’s the simultaneous re-entrance into electoral politics of sex-scandal-plagued Anthony Weiner (former congressman now running for New York City mayor) and (equally scandal-plagued) former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. The piece is everything you might expect from a culture warrior like Buchanan, if you’re familiar with his work at all: a morally superior pose combined with dog-whistling contempt for the specific individuals who are targets of his screed, but also for the Democratic party and, perhaps above all, for a political/social outlook (anything to the left of, say, Godzilla) which Buchanan finds abhorrent.

In years past, this kind of charge might not have moved the needle among liberals generally, but it would still have been potentially devastating because of its ability to both harden sentiment against Democrats among the conservative base, and – more dangerously – to create the impression even in non-political people’s minds (and in the minds of “centrists” and independents) that Republicans and conservatives in general were the guardians of morality, right-thinking and virtuous behavior.

Ever since Buchanan’s old compatriots in the Nixon campaign hung the charge on George McGovern of being the leader of the party of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion” way back in 1972, the American political culture has been susceptible to this sort of appeal. Republicans are morally upright, stern daddies, while Democrats are dissolute, debased sinners whose personal behavior reveals a more-shameful lack of self-discipline and ability to lead or be trusted with the apparatus of government.

As a result, for years, anytime a Democratic politician got caught in a scandal of a sexual nature, the circus which arose almost instantaneously was truly astonishing to behold, even amongst those who’d seen it before and imagined themselves prepared for it. Who among us was really prepared for the firestorm that erupted from the Lewinsky scandals surrounding President Clinton — or how far the GOP would push those issues of private sexual indiscretion? And Pat Buchanan is a veteran of such appeals to the nation’s more Puritanical instincts, so this recent Weiner/Spitzer column must have been a breeze for him to write. Just hook up his id to the indignation-train and let ‘er rip.

Only, a funny thing’s happening this time: that appeal seems to be falling flat. The worm is starting to turn, in the minds of the American public. Yes, they’re still overly titillated by sex scandals and personality details over policy positions, but conservative harrumphing about Democratic sexual perfidy seems to be losing its ability to completely ruin a Democratic politician. This development isn’t just a consequence of Buchanan’s thankfully-reduced footprint on the national discourse, either. When the Clinton scandal started up, I felt (like a lot of other liberals and progressives probably felt) – at the same time that I thought the charges themselves were bogus and overblown – a dread in the pits of my stomach because I recognized the damage such charges could potentially – even likely – do.

This time? Not so much.

In fact, not at all. Why? Because in the intervening time, Republicans and conservative “culture warriors” have showed us that when the chips are well and truly down (i.e. – at election time), they don’t really care about sex scandals. Since the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke, we’ve had the revelation that one of his prime inquisitors, Henry Hyde, had conducted an adulterous affair in the late 1960s. Yet, decades later, he apparently had no problem thundering at the immorality of Bill Clinton. After the story broke, Hyde attempted to dodge the charge of hypocrisy by suggesting that the “statute of limitations had long since run out on his ‘youthful indiscretion’,” but almost nobody watching missed the point. If that wasn’t enough, even more blunt was the revelation in 2007 that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich had himself been carrying on an adulterous affair with his current wife Callista (by cheating on his then-wife, Marianne) at the same time as the Clinton witch-hunt and impeachment.

People who were paying attention by that point had begun to conclude that there was something funny about the conservatives’ knee-jerk excoriation of elected Democrats’ sexual indiscretion, but it was blown wide-open with the discovery of Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s phone number in the rolodex of the “DC Madam,” Debra Palfrey. Vitter took to the cameras with his appalled-yet-subservient-looking wife in tow to proclaim that he’d sinned. Given conservatives’ long history of claiming the moral high ground for themselves in matters of personal behavior and ethics, I’m sure most people watching that press conference expected the admission to be followed directly by a statement of resignation from office (as was the case with Eliot Spitzer not long afterwards).

None was forthcoming.

David Vitter did NOT resign from office. In fact, within months, he was receiving a standing ovation from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, with speakers from Rick Santorum to Haley Barbour lauding the disgraced Senator’s “principled conservative leadership.” You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon – or, importantly, a Democrat – to recognize rank hypocrisy when you see it, and it was on full display that day. The SRLC isn’t a widely known political event, so had it not been for the likes of Think Progress, the event might have passed virtually unnoticed. And in truth, most people probably have never heard the story of Vitter’s post-hooker-ovation by fellow high-profile Republicans. But the notion has filtered into the zeitgeist from this and other similar stories that perhaps not only are Republicans not the upstanding pillars of personal sexual moral rectitude they have long claimed, but they’re not even willing to hold themselves or their fellow party members to the same standards they expect the public to hold Democrats to.

Even Vitter’s remarkable shrugging off of his sexual scandal, however, pales in comparison to the most recent Republican sexual scandal. I speak, of course, of the once and current congressman from South Carolina, Mark Sanford. Like Clinton (and Anthony Weiner, for that matter), Sanford committed no actual crime. Vitter and Spitzer patronized prostitutes which is still a crime in most of the country, but, like Clinton and Weiner, Sanford’s sexual indiscretion was a consensual and noncommercial one. He had a mistress. By now, everyone knows the bones of the story, so I won’t recount it.

What people may not know, however, is that Sanford had used state taxpayer funds to pay for some of his trips to Argentina (there were several). And (much worse, from the church-lady perspective) the weekend Sanford left the country to visit his Argentine mistress during which he was caught…was Fathers’ Day weekend. It wasn’t much reported-on in the media, but that’s probably because the existing conventional wisdom that Democrats are the immoral ones and Republicans the morally upstanding ones just couldn’t encompass the notion that the governor of a US state left his state (without telling any of his staff where he was going, or lying about “the ol’ Appalachian trail), his wife, and his children on Fathers’ Day weekend to cheat with his foreign mistress.

Somehow, I have a feeling if a Democrat had done these identical things, Pat Buchanan’s forehead veins would be dangerously throbbing. Yet of course, inevitably, a search of Mr. Buchanan’s site for “Mark Sanford” returns zero results.

And the results were arresting: apparently due to Mr. Buchanan’s having failed to inform them, the voters of South Carolina turned out to vote Mr. Sanford back into the office he held previously before his rise to the governor’s chair (and subsequent “fall”). The very conservative South Carolinian voters also, strangely, didn’t seem to mind that Mr. Sanford had done things that were arguably considerably worse than the sort of things Republicans throughout the land had felt worthy of impeaching a President for only a decade earlier. The kicker? Sanford’s own words during that time.

Yes, Mark Sanford was, at the time of the Clinton impeachment hearings, one of the members of the House who voted to impeach. And at the time, Sanford called Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky “very damaging stuff,” and followed that up by opining: “I think it would be much better for the country and for him personally (to resign)… I come from the business side. If you had a chairman or president in the business world facing these allegations, he’d be gone.”

Until, of course, it was Sanford’s turn to resign under a cloud of similar proportions. Then, Sanford – despite very credible threats of impeachment from the Republican controlled South Carolina legislature – declined to resign. And, what do you know, that same Republican controlled South Carolina legislature’s ad hoc committee voted 6-1 not to pursue impeachment proceedings against Sanford, saying the legislature had better things to do.

I personally have long felt that a politician’s private sexual decisions, assuming no criminality and the consent of other parties involved, should be their own business (and perhaps their families’, depending upon circumstances), not their constituents. I felt that way during the Clinton years, and I felt that way during Sanford’s debacle. But consistency is key, and ordinary people who aren’t political junkies are starting to notice the increasing disconnect in the Republicans’ “do as I say, not as I do” approach to smearing Democrats from a moral standpoint for similar activities to those of Republicans.

So, when Pat Buchanan gets on his high horse of indignation and tries to score maximum political damage by suggesting that liberals should embrace Weiner’s actions since a) they weren’t illegal and b) the “Humanist Manifesto” (of 1973, no less) says “the many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered ‘evil.’ … Individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire,” Buchanan’s clearly trying to once again gin up the Puritanical spirit in the American voter by mocking those silly liberals and showing how deranged and deviant they are.

But anyone who’s been paying attention the past four or five years will only hear the echoes of Vitter’s non-resignation for the criminal solicitation of prostitutes, and the resounding echo of South Carolina Republican voters’ choice to return Mark Sanford to his former congressional seat. It just isn’t working anymore, Pat…and you solons of propriety have only yourselves (and your voters) to blame. It’s taken decades for everyday voters to know what those of us on the activist left have long known: you don’t really care what someone does with their junk. As long as they’re not a Democrat. That’s all you’ve ever really cared about, and recent events prove it beyond a doubt. So feel free to keep trying to whip up the indignation…but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t work anymore. The culture wars aren’t over yet…but they’re drawing to, if not a close, at the very least a whole new phase where the old tricks and attempts at division won’t work anymore. In short: you’re losing. And you have nobody but yourselves to blame, conservatives.