Revisiting a Transformational Speech: The Culture War Scorecard
On Monday, August 17, 1992, Patrick Buchanan took the stage at the Republican National Convention in Houston. Buchanan had run against incumbent President George H. W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination and in the first primary, in New Hampshire in February, had won 37 percent of the vote to Bush’s 53 percent. That turned out to be Buchanan’s high point: overall he won just 23 percent of primary votes to Bush’s 73 percent, and under Republicans’ winner-take-all delegate allocation rules he had only a handful of delegates at the convention—the official roll call credited him with just 18. In contrast, the last challenger of an incumbent Democratic president, Edward Kennedy, held the loyalty of about 40 percent of the delegates at the party’s 1980 national convention.
Buchanan, unlike Kennedy, warmly endorsed the president who defeated him. He credited Ronald Reagan, not Bush, with “leading America to victory in the Cold War,” but noted that “under President George Bush more human beings escaped from the prison house of tyranny to freedom than in any other four-year period in history.” But he had little else to say about foreign policy. And on the economy—thought then to be in a recession which, the official arbiters ruled later, had bottomed out in March 1991—Buchanan was emphatically downbeat, devoting long stretches of his speech to people he’d met on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Georgia, and California who were terrified of losing their jobs. This was hardly helpful to an incumbent seeking a second term.
But the heart and most of the body of Buchanan’s speech was about cultural issues. “This election is about more than who gets what,” he said, arguing against a generation of political scientists. “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.” The speech drew loud and lengthy cheers from an audience that included few Buchanan primary supporters. The speech and the cheers were loud enough to delay beyond primetime the evening’s supposed headline event, the address, which turned out to be his last about politics, of former president (and former Buchanan boss, in 1985-87) Ronald Reagan.
Buchanan’s oration was quickly dubbed the “culture war” speech by a hostile press. “It probably sounded better in the original German,” quipped Texas liberal journalist Molly Ivins. They were perhaps particularly appalled at Buchanan’s closing encomia to the Army troops who suppressed the 1992 Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of officers accused of assaulting Rodney King. “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” Perhaps the reporters and commentators thought it was somehow racist, or an appeal to racism, to hail those who stopped aimless property destruction and assaults on innocent human beings.
In the short term, Buchanan’s speech, amplified by the hostile press accounts and media attacks, was probably not helpful to Bush’s campaign. A journalist friend on the floor of the Republican convention heard someone nearby saying, “This is disastrous”; it was a Bush campaign operative named George W. Bush. The characterization of Buchanan’s words as “hate speech” was, in my view then and now, unjustified. But those are issues that need not be litigated now.
The interesting question, more than 25 years later, is how the culture wars have played out in the quarter-century since Buchanan took to the podium. Has the Left gained victory after victory in as Buchanan surely feared? Or has it been frustrated in its efforts to change America, as he surely hoped? Many cultural conservatives instinctively believe that they, like Whittaker Chambers in his epic battle against communism, are on the losing side. On one issue after another, they see traditional morality being abandoned and forces of so-called liberation making gain after gain. Yet some on the Left see the nation or a very large part of it, particularly after the election of Donald Trump, as still bigoted and benighted. Which side has the better case?
An examination of the cultural issues Buchanan raised, and of those he mentioned scarcely or not at all but which have become more prominent in the last quarter-century, produces a mixed picture. On some matters liberals have indeed won the victories in the culture war that Buchanan feared. On others they have made little or no headway. And on some issues, generally those that Buchanan overlooked, the movement has been in the other direction. So let’s look at each one before forming a final—or tentative—conclusion on who has been winning the culture war.
Start with one issue, little noticed at the time, that Buchanan referenced early in his speech: gay rights. He noted with disdain that “a militant leader of the homosexual rights movement” had spoken at the Democratic National Convention held a few weeks before. He argued, plausibly, that the Clinton-Gore duo was “the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history.” And he proclaimed that he stood with George Bush “against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women.”
Buchanan was speaking only three years after the appearance of Andrew Sullivan’s article “The Case for Gay Marriage” on the cover of the liberal magazine The New Republic, subtitled “Here Comes the Groom.” It was an idea with little public support: only 12 percent in a NORC survey in 1988, and still a minority, 27 percent, in a Gallup poll in 1996, after four years of the Clinton-Gore administration. That same year, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, which allowed states not to recognize any same-sex marriages performed legally in another state.
Opposition was registered also in referendums. As liberal a state as Hawaii voted 69 percent in 1998 to allow the state legislature to ban same-sex marriage after the state’s supreme court ruled it might be required under Hawaii’s constitution. A 2003 state Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, but referendums in more than 30 states between 2004 and 2006 rejected it. California voted 52 to 48 against it in 2008; North Carolina was 61 to 39 percent against in 2012, voting just one day before President Barack Obama reversed position and endorsed it.
Obama was in fact following, not leading, a massive change in public opinion (except among black voters, who opposed same-sex marriage by a 70 to 30 percent margin in California in 2008, but who moved heavily toward support after Obama’s announcement). NORC reported that support for same-sex marriage increased from 12 percent in 1988 to 56 percent in 2014; multiple polls between 2010 and 2012 showed majorities in favor.
One important factor seems to have been an increasing percentage, from about one-third of Americans in the 1980s to more than two-thirds in the 2010s, who said they knew people who were openly homosexual; such people were far more likely to favor same-sex marriage. In addition, Andrew Sullivan’s argument stressed that in seeking marriage, homosexuals wanted not just liberation from historic restrictions, but a status—marriage—that tends to impose restraints and responsibilities. By the time the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage everywhere in the nation in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, opponents were clearly in a minority nationwide.
There may be future battles in the culture war over this issue. The Obama administration solicitor general who argued the Obergefell case conceded that the government might seek to revoke tax exemptions for institutions that oppose same-sex marriage, as it had done for institutions imposing racial segregation in the 1980s. And as this is written, the Supreme Court is considering the case of a Colorado baker who refused to prepare a customized cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Interestingly Sullivan, who argued in 1989 that marriage would be a conservatizing institution for gays, called on the victorious side to refrain from trying to compel others to participate in same-sex ceremonies; the victors in this battle, he wrote, should leave alone the defeated minority.
Conservatives have lost other culture war battles that Buchanan identified. He was “against putting our wives and daughters and sisters into combat units of the United States Army.” Today women are eligible for combat duty, though very few actually are engaged in it, and the military has obeyed its civilian masters in apparently reducing standards for such service so that more women can qualify. Buchanan defended “the right of small towns and communities to control the raw sewage of pornography that so terribly pollutes our popular culture.” That hasn’t happened, although laws have been passed, even in the Clinton-Gore administration, allowing parents to limit their children’s exposure to arguably obscene materials on television or over the Internet. And Buchanan’s plea for “voluntary prayer in public schools” has gone unanswered, as Supreme Court decisions going back as far as 1962 have not been reversed.
But on other matters the future feared by Buchanan has not come to pass. He attacked Bill Clinton for opposing school choice only for “state-run” schools. But the intervening 25 years have seen an increase in the number of charter schools, putatively public but not hampered by many rules imposed by governments or teacher unions on traditional public schools. Further, there has been some increase in the availability of vouchers for education in explicitly religious schools, a practice upheld by the Supreme Court. These years have also seen an increasing number of children being homeschooled. Such developments have been fought by liberal politicians, and they have appeared very unevenly across the country.
Abortion was a major issue in 1992, as it had been since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision overturning every state’s abortion laws in 1973 and as it remains today. Buchanan criticized the Clinton Democrats’ refusal to allow anti-abortion Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey to speak at their 1992 national convention. Instead, they assigned him seats high up toward the rafters, where Robert Novak and I climbed to interview him. This was just weeks after the Supreme Court, with eight Republican-appointed justices, declined to overturn or seriously limit Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (yes, the same Casey), as abortion opponents had hoped it would. Today the Democratic Party is even more unwelcoming to abortion opponents (one such, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, faced a well-funded primary challenge this year), while the Republican Party is heavily aligned with pro-lifers who seek to limit and would like to overturn Roe.
On abortion, contrary to Buchanan’s fears, liberals have not made any advances, and may have suffered some reverses, in the culture wars of the last 25 years. They may have hoped that succeeding generations of Americans would be more amenable to abortion, but such hopes have not been realized. As Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute has written, “Opinion on abortion has been very stable. Between 1975 and 2016, Gallup has asked the identical question on the legality of abortion more than fifty times. In 1975, 21 percent said abortion should be legal under all circumstances, 54 percent legal only under certain circumstances, and 22 percent illegal in all circumstances. Those responses in Gallup’s May 2016 poll were similar: 29, 50, and 19 percent, respectively. This constancy of opinion is evident in many questions” in many polls over the years.
As Bowman also has argued, opinion on abortion is ambivalent and logically contradictory—as is often the case on many issues. Ordinary citizens are under no obligation to resolve contradictions and tensions in their thinking, as candidates and elected officials are called on to do. Majorities or substantial minorities believe abortion is murder and that it should be a personal choice. Only minorities believe either that abortion should be banned or that all abortions should be permitted. Majorities oppose reversal of Roe v. Wade, but majorities also favor significant restrictions—requirements for spousal notifications, parental consent, and 24-hour waiting periods, bans on abortion in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Younger Americans, more liberal than their elders on cultural issues such as same-sex marriage, have been if anything a bit more conservative on abortion; perhaps this is because they have been exposed to sonograms of their own unborn children or those of friends and family members.
The past 25 years have seen the passage of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, prohibiting the killing of unborn children, despite the plea of Senator Barbara Boxer that birth doesn’t take place until a child is taken home from the hospital. They have seen the passage of multiple state laws restricting abortion in many ways. Some have been overturned by the courts as violations of Roe v. Wade, but many have been upheld. According to figures compiled by the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate—the number of abortions per women of child-bearing years—peaked in 1981, only seven years after Roe v. Wade, at 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15-44; it declined by half, to 14.6 in 2014, lower even than the 16.3 figure in 1973, the year of the Roe decision. The absolute number of abortions peaked in 1990, two years before Buchanan’s speech, at 1,608,000, and fell to 926,000 in 2014, the lowest number since 1974.
“Abortion is not going to be criminalized, but it is increasingly stigmatized,” I wrote in the Washington Examiner in 2016. “Abortions, like divorces and extramarital births, are rare among upscale Americans; they’ve become a mostly downscale phenomenon. Abortion clinics are closing for lack of demand as well as restrictive state laws. The procedure is disfavored in medical schools, where about half their students are women.” Conservatives have not won the culture war over abortion, but they have held their own and made advances—not just in laws but in the behavior of millions of Americans.
Two cultural issues that Buchanan might have mentioned—issues that were prominent in Republican campaigning in the 1980s—were crime and welfare dependency. Why not? One reason is that around 1992 the violent crime rate and the degree of welfare dependency were around their historic peak, and that was after 12 years of Republican administrations. It was not to Republicans’ advantage to bring them up, particularly as Bill Clinton, processing the defeats of Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis, was talking tough on crime and promising to “end welfare as we know it.” A Republican might have defensively noted that crime control is largely the responsibility of local governments and that qualifications for welfare were in large part the responsibility of state governments.
Buchanan did mention at some length the Los Angeles riot that had occurred in late April and early May. This may have come naturally to one who, as a young man in his twenties, worked closely with Richard Nixon on his presidential campaign from 1966 to 1968 and then in the Nixon White House until the bitter end in 1974. Buchanan surely remembered that 1967 and 1968 were the worst years for racial riots in post-World War II history. And the fears and apprehensions that rioting prompted were a factor that permeated the political atmosphere then and on balance probably helped Nixon’s campaign. The Los Angeles riot had a more limited impact. It ended quickly, as California Governor Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called in federal troops, which (as Buchanan recounted dramatically) stopped the violence. And it was not followed by similar outbreaks in other cities.
Buchanan, in other words, was looking backward, and failing to anticipate what became the key conservative policy successes of the 1990s: vastly reducing violent crime and welfare dependency. The key role, in both cases, was played by local and state officials, particularly New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on crime and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson on welfare.
In 1993, the year Giuliani was elected mayor, there were 1,946 murders in New York City, down from the peak 2,245 in 1990 but more than in any year before that; with crime heavily concentrated in central cities, these amounted to 8 to 10 percent of all murders nationally. Giuliani and his police commissioners adopted radical reforms, including computer tracking of violent crimes, accountability of precinct commanders, and a “broken windows” strategy of strict enforcement of minor offenses. In the year he left office, 2001, murders were down by two thirds, to 649, and the decline continued under his successor, Michael Bloomberg. Giuliani’s reforms were copied and adapted elsewhere, with some help and funding from federal legislation. But they seemed also to have changed the mindset of a critical segment of the population. Over the years, blacks have accounted for almost half of crime perpetrators and murder victims, and the bulk of these crimes were committed by males aged 15 to 25.
Violent crimes did increase in 2015 and 2016, when President Barack Obama provided rhetorical support to Black Lives Matter and other groups charging that police in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere were killing innocent black males; the spike was particularly acute in cities such as St. Louis, Baltimore, and Chicago, where the “Ferguson effect,” identified by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, resulted in “depolicing”—police refraining from active law enforcement to avoid charges of misconduct. But overall it appears that the Giuliani-inspired reforms have produced a change in the expectations for violent criminal behavior and in the mindset of those people most susceptible to the temptations of criminal activity. They have become conservatized in this respect, something that can be counted as a victory for conservatives in the culture war.
That victory may owe something to welfare reform. The progenitor was Tommy Thompson, elected governor of Wisconsin in 1987, who immediately began transforming his state’s welfare program in careful successive steps. He transformed the bureaucratic incentives from increasing the number of unmarried mothers receiving welfare checks to increasing the number getting jobs. This did not involve immediate spending cuts: changing clients’ behavior required counseling and preparing them for job interviews and routines. Thompson’s reforms were copied and adapted by other governors and mayors (notably including Giuliani), most of them Republicans but also including some Democrats. And in 1996 Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill passed by congressional Republicans that encouraged similar programs in every state. Federal welfare rolls, which had been 10.8 million in 1974 and 14.2 million in 1994, fell to 6.3 million in 2000 and, despite efforts by the Obama administration to water down work requirements, 4.6 million in 2012. At the same time, the number of children classified as living in poverty declined, from over 20 percent in the 1980s to 13.1 percent in 1996 and 7.8 percent in 2014.
These numbers are clues to vast changes in personal behavior and mindset. Up through 1992, a significant share of Americans, concentrated among but not limited to blacks, seemed engaged in a vicious cycle: welfare-dependent mothers raising sons who very often became violent criminals. Twenty-five years later, that cycle seems to have been broken or at least vastly reduced. Social scientists are not sure that growing up with a mother who successfully adapts to the discipline of a job reduces a child’s likelihood of not working or of committing crimes, but it is at least a plausible hypothesis.
Conservative government policy has in any case incentivized constructive behavior and evidently has vastly reduced unconstructive patterns of living. That should be counted as a conservative success in the culture wars, unanticipated by Buchanan and just about everyone else a quarter-century ago. “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote. “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” It appears that the politics of conservative reformers has had at least some significant success in changing aspects of culture that conservatives, including Buchanan, deplored.
Buchanan also passed over another cultural issue which has loomed large in political debates over the past dozen years, but on which the conservative position was only beginning to emerge in the early 1990s: gun rights. In 1987 Florida passed a law requiring applicants who met certain standards to get licenses to carry concealed weapons. The law was controversial and critics conjured visions of shootouts between motorists angry over traffic altercations, but those fears do not seem to have proved justified. Two years later the Yale Law Journal published an article entitled “The Embarrassing Second Amendment,” by University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson. He argued that a proper interpretation of the amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” might render unconstitutional many proposals for gun control, including some he personally favored.
In 1992 the example of Florida’s concealed weapons law and the argument of Levinson’s law review article were not widely taken seriously. They did not much affect the passage by a Democratic Congress of the so-called Brady Bill, providing for background checks for gun purchasers and including other provisions backed by gun control advocates. But opposition to that legislation was widely credited for Republicans’ gains in 1994’s off-year elections, which produced Republican majorities in the Senate and, for the first time in 42 years, the House of Representatives.
In the years since, concealed weapons laws were passed by most of the states and additional federal gun control legislation has mostly not been successful. While the dialogue on the issue in the national press heavily favors limiting gun rights, they have been honored and expanded in the states. Meanwhile, legal scholars followed up Levinson’s article with research that strengthened the view that the Second Amendment protects not just a state’s right to have a National Guard, as some gun control advocates claimed, but a personal right to “keep and bear arms.” The Second Amendment finally came before the Supreme Court in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, drawing heavily on post-Levinson legal scholarship, ruled that the Second Amendment confers a personal right, and the District of Columbia’s ban on handgun possession was unconstitutional. The 2010 case of McDonald v. City of Chicago ruled that the amendment also applies to the states.
Today Americans own an estimated 300 million firearms, and with the appointment and confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch the Heller and McDonald decisions seem in no imminent danger of reversal. Demands for additional gun control legislation continue after mass killings and school shootings, even in the case of the Parkland, Florida massacre. That was made possible by the lack of enforcement of existing laws that prevented the perpetrator from having an arrest record that would have barred him from purchasing a gun. But it is plain that the regime hoped for by gun control advocates, in which very few citizens own firearms, cannot be imposed on the American people, and it is increasingly perceived that the widespread possession of guns by responsible law-abiding citizens makes communities safer rather than less safe. This surely must be counted as a culture war victory for conservatives.
At the time Buchanan delivered his “culture war” speech, political alignments and preferences were different from what they are today, and what they have been with only marginal changes since the mid-1990s. George H. W. Bush, whose renomination he challenged and reelection he endorsed, was elected in 1988 with heavy support from affluent suburbs. With big suburban margins, Bush carried many large metropolitan areas that have since become solidly Democratic—Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles. That enabled him to carry 40 of the 50 states, including nine of the 10 largest states; he trailed only in industrial areas and some traditionally Democratic back-country areas, losing three states (Iowa, Wisconsin, West Virginia) that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Many analysts assumed that these alignments would continue semi-permanently. Going into the 1992 campaign cycle, many political scientists argued that Republicans had a permanent lock on the presidency, and Democrats had a permanent hold on the House of Representatives.
Within a few years, that lock was broken and that hold loosened. Starting in 1992, Democrats have won four of seven presidential elections; starting in 1994, Republicans have won majorities in the House in 10 of 12 congressional elections. This has been accompanied by a Democratic trend among upscale, high-education voters, and a Republican trend among downscale, less-educated whites, including the abandonment of ancestral Democratic loyalties by a large majority of white Southerners. Cultural issues accounted for most of these shifts. Upscale women moved toward Democrats on the abortion issue, which was one reason the elder Bush’s campaign operatives were dismayed by Buchanan’s speech. But many downscale voters moved in the other direction, motivated by—in the phrase of a liberal campaign consultant—guns, gays, and God. The result has been a close two-party competition in almost every election, and presidential contests in which it has been easy to predict how 40-some states will vote but very hard to predict who will win. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, in which he traded away college-graduate whites in a way that cost him no states in favor of gains among non-college whites that netted him almost 100 electoral votes over Mitt Romney 2012, was just an accentuation of already visible trends.
The Trump victory demonstrated that demographic trends that some analysts predicted would produce inevitable Democratic victories—increasing numbers of non-white voters, unmarried women, the Millennial generation—would not always do so. According to exit polls, Hillary Clinton carried about 66 percent of Hispanics and Asians, who amounted to 15 percent of the electorate. But Donald Trump carried 67 percent of non-college whites, which the exit poll said were 34 percent of the electorate and some analysts say were many more. An increasing percentage of Americans classify their religion as “none” or “secular,” and they vote heavily Democratic. But white evangelical Protestants continue to constitute 26 percent of the electorate, and 80 percent of them voted for Trump. In 1992 Patrick Buchanan and the Bush strategists did not know this was going to happen. And Bill Clinton, as talented a political analyst and strategist as we have seen over the last quarter-century, did not know either, though he had at least some inkling of how he could help bring it about.
In that context, and given the increasing correlation between religious and cultural beliefs and partisan preference, it is perhaps not surprising that culture war politics has produced some victories, some defeats, and some standoffs for both sides. On gay rights issues and same-sex marriage, Patrick Buchanan has proved to be a Cassandra, warning against a massive change of attitudes he deplored. On gun rights, cultural conservatives have succeeded in changing both the law and everyday practice in their direction. Roe v. Wade remains unreversed, but untrammelled abortion rights are rejected by most Americans, and in practice abortion is becoming less common and less accepted. One can argue that all these issues have moved in a libertarian direction. Gays are freer to live as they like, gun rights are stronger, abortion remains legal if less widely available. But one can also argue that each results in imposing on citizens an increased measure of responsibility and burden of restraint. Marriage imposes them on gays and lesbians, concealed weapons licenses require responsible behavior of their holders, abortion in the sonogram age requires women to contemplate the humanity of the separate being whose life they are extinguishing. The culture war that Buchanan described has had divergent outcomes on different issues, as one might expect in a nation that has always been culturally and religiously diverse, and in which the focus of politics shifts in ways that are difficult to predict.
Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics and author of Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (1990).