A specter is haunting America — the specter of populism.
Now that Patrick Buchanan has left the Republican fold to seek the Reform Party's presidential nomination, a lot of journalists will be analyzing his denunciations of the bipartisan establishment. In the months ahead, many pundits are going to throw brickbats in his direction.
But Buchanan is largely a media creation. During the last two decades, he gained wide visibility and national clout through the good graces of CNN and other television networks. Despite his vehement biases against gays, blacks and non-European immigrants, Buchanan's colleagues on the chat shows did little to challenge his assorted bigotries.
While arguing with Buchanan on CNN's “Crossfire” one day in 1988, I had no doubt that I was sitting next to someone with pro-fascist inclinations. But through the years, his laudatory comments about such dictators as Spain's Francisco Franco and Chile's Augusto Pinochet seemed to raise few media eyebrows.
On February 16, 1995, when Buchanan revealed that he was leaving TV punditry to prepare for his '96 campaign for the GOP presidential nod, he made the announcement on “Crossfire.” Fellow co-host Michael Kinsley, supposedly on the program as a counterbalance, responded by helping Buchanan to hold up a sign showing his campaign's 800-number. With the toll-free number displayed on the screen, the moment symbolized how members of the punditocracy have enabled Buchanan to attain national prominence.
In early 1996, Buchanan's “populist” campaign gained strength in the opening GOP primaries. George Will and some other pro-Republican commentators — fearful that Buchanan's momentum threatened the party's prospects — suddenly objected that he seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for fascism.
Even then, Buchanan could rely on plenty of unfiltered air time and print space to make his case. “The truth is, I've gotten fairer, more comprehensive coverage of my ideas than I ever imagined I would receive,” Buchanan acknowledged in March 1996. He added: “I've gotten balanced coverage and broad coverage — all we could have asked.”
When he conceded defeat at the 1996 Republican convention, a big media seat was waiting. In the midst of a live interview with the vanquished candidate, Larry King relayed an invitation from CNN president Tom Johnson, asking Buchanan to return: “It's official — he wants you back on ‘Crossfire’.”
From corporate America's vantage point, Buchanan is just about ideal as a national candidate waving the populist banner. Buchanan is hobbled by heavy far-right baggage — which he grips with white-knuckled defiance as he equivocates about Nazi Germany and routinely denigrates people for failure to be white, heterosexual, and Christian (as he defines Christian).
Meanwhile, Buchanan mouths anti-corporate rhetoric but doesn't support basic union rights of American workers. Significantly, he opposes a raise in the minimum wage. And he scorns the environmental movement as an affront to holiness. “Easter's gone,” Buchanan declared angrily a few years ago. “Now it's Earth Day. We can all go out and worship dirt.”
Buchanan's brand of populism has never had much difficulty getting access to mass media. But progressive populism — stressing labor solidarity and human rights for everyone while challenging corporate power — is a very different story. Mostly excluded from the media frame are populist advocates who explicitly reject scapegoating and directly confront the undemocratic power wielded by large corporations.
Of course, there's a glut of media commentators who support the gist of Democratic and Republican party policies without seriously questioning economic globalization, pacts such as NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization.
Overall, mass media are offering the public either mainstream pundits who differ on how to shore up the status quo, or right-wing demagogues like Buchanan. The narrow range of discourse, from the near left to the far right, gives the impression that there are basically two positions worthy of consideration — either the two-party establishment or Buchanan-type populism. It often seems that strong anti-corporate political views are only deemed fit for wide media distribution if they're laced with a right-wing agenda.
It's not quite true, however, that you have to be on the far right to garner sustained media attention as a “populist.” Exceptions are made: Many news outlets have gone crazy for the occasional pseudo-populist billionaire.
In 1992, Ross Perot basked in a great deal of favorable media coverage for several months, until evidence of his wackiness became too weighty to ignore. Now the billionaire developer Donald Trump is the bogus populist of media choice.
It's enough to give populism a bad name. And that's a real shame.