Pat Buchanan welcomed Sarah Palin to the national scene with a column declaring “she is one of us.” But the Alaska governor evidently doesn’t think of herself as a Buchananite—at least not today. Through her McCain handlers, Palin denied ever associating with the conservative champion of 1996, even though there’s evidence that she not only knew him but was at one time an enthusiastic Buchanan Brigader. As recently as 1999, according to the Associated Press, “Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin” was “among those sporting Buchanan buttons” at a rally in Fairbanks, Alaska. (She says she would have worn a button for any presidential candidate who visited her state.)
Palin’s links to Buchanan were first raised in The Nation, which might have hoped to drive a wedge between the McCain ticket and moderates. Yet so far even Buchanan’s archenemies, the neoconservatives, seem untroubled by her past. David Frum voiced skepticism of Palin’s selection, but more due to her lack of experience than any suspected paleoconservative leanings. Bill Kristol is a Palin supporter, and with good reason: she represents a wing of the Republican Party that was once close to Buchanan but has slid into the neoconservatives’ grasp since 9/11.
Palin describes this constituency as “hockey moms” and “snowmobiling dads.” Through the years, they’ve been called “Jacksonians,” “Scots-Irish,” “Middle American Radicals,” “blue collar,” and “lunchbucket” voters. In the 1990s, many also called themselves Buchananites.
In 1992, Buchanan ran against the “Walker’s Point GOP” of George H.W. Bush, decrying the loss of American manufacturing jobs and denouncing Bush’s capitulation to a new civil-rights act, which the president called a “quota bill” but then supported anyway, to the detriment of working-class whites. Buchanan also attracted religious conservatives with his attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and its support for X-rated artists. He echoed the frustration of religious conservatives like the Palins over the fact that after 12 years of Reagan and Bush, the culture was more coarse and decadent than it had been in 1980.
When Buchanan ran again in 1996, he called for “a conservatism of the heart” whose appeal was more populist than conservative and tailored to the Palin demographic: higher wages for blue-collar jobs, an end to unfair trade, fighting the rising tide of globalism, and stemming the economic and cultural decline of the two-parent family. This pitch did well in states with large working-class enclaves such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and, of course, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, whose caucuses Buchanan won.
There are parallels between Palin’s political career and Buchanan’s. Her first race for public office came the same year as Buchanan’s: 1992. From the Wasilla City Council, she rose to become mayor in 1996, the year of his second campaign. Like many of Buchanan’s culturally conservative voters in the early and mid-1990s, she become politically active thanks to groups like the Christian Coalition and used her church at that time, the Wasilla Assembly of God, as her base. Like Buchanan, she styled herself as a reformer and outsider. Even today, he recognizes her, both literally and figuratively, as his kind of Republican, writing in a recent column: “She is a traditionalist whose values are those of family, faith, community and country, not some utopian ideology.”
But by 1999, that kind of Republican was parting ways with Buchanan. When he left the Republican Party to run for the Reform Party nomination, Palin did not follow. She stayed a Republican—supporting Steve Forbes for president in 2000—and began to show a pragmatic streak in her politics as ambition led her to seek statewide office. Palin was a culture warrior talking about banning books and teaching creationism in the schools in 1992, but she wasn’t saying such things by the time she ran for lieutenant governor in 2002. Nor did she tie herself to the government-slashing Republican revolution of 1994. After 1996, Mayor Palin hired a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to make sure Wasilla got its share from the taxpayer trough. She also paid deference to the state’s congressional leadership, including senior senator Ted Stevens, and headed up one of his local 527 groups. Courting the establishment paid off: Stevens’s late endorsement made the difference in her Republican gubernatorial primary victory in 2006.
Buchanan, meanwhile, won just under 500,000 votes as the Reform Party candidate in 2000, as many of his brigades deserted him. Most, like Palin, stayed loyal to the GOP. The booming economy muted Buchanan’s antiglobalist message, while Republican nominee George W. Bush sounded a Buchananite note by promising a “humble foreign policy.” To keep religious voters on board and co-opt the appeal of the Culture War and “conservatism of the heart,” the GOP turned from its anti-big-government rhetoric and pledged to open the spigots of federal funding to religious ministries—Bush’s “faith-based initiatives”—while hinting at referenda against homosexual marriage and holding out a will-o’-the-wisp promise of nominating judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
While remaining with the Republicans, Palin did have contact with non-major parties in Alaska, including the Libertarians and the Alaska Independence Party. In fact, she gave an unprecedented address to the AIP’s 2008 convention right from the governor’s office. (Imagine a Southern governor addressing a League of the South conference or Bernie Sanders giving a speech at a meeting of the Second Vermont Republic. No need to imagine with Palin—she actually did it.) But this shows more of a libertarian side to her, one that has less to do with Buchanan’s conservatism than the politics of Ron Paul, whom she called “a good guy” in a February interview. Her minor-party ecumenism also has much to do with the factionalism of the Alaska GOP. Republican politicians there frequently use minor parties for their own purposes, as former Nixon Interior Secretary Walter Hickel did when he won the governorship on the AIP line in 1990.
The break between Buchanan and Jacksonians like Palin had at least as much to do with foreign policy as with his split from the Republican Party. The anti-interventionist arguments of his 1999 book A Republic, Not an Empire might have thrilled old Taft Republicans in the upper Midwest and warmed the ground around Col. Robert McCormick’s grave, but they alienated Buchanan’s demographic base, which preferred the culture warrior to the anti-warrior. The America First movement had always been weak in the South and border states—with all their bases and military industries and their martial culture extending back to Scots-Irish roots—and the surplus population from those areas continued to settle throughout the country even after World War II, including in Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
Palin sounded very much like a Jacksonian in her interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson, in which she denounced Russia for what she perceived to be unwarranted aggression against Georgia and repeated three times “we cannot second guess Israel.” There’s no question that much of what she said came straight from Randy Scheunemann and AIPAC—indeed, they might as well have been there holding cue cards. But they can influence her so readily only because their thinking accords with her instincts and her experience. Palin grew up at the climax of the Cold War in the state next door to the Evil Empire; Alaska is a major part of the military-industrial complex; she has a son in the military; and she attends a church where dispensationalism is dogma. Keep in mind that immigration is not much of an issue in Alaska, and Palin’s slate of issues clearly has little in common with Buchananism today.
Palin represents not the return of the Buchanan Brigades but, as Daniel Larison has said, the “recreation of the Bush II coalition” of Jacksonian Protestants and neoconservatives. Her presence on the ticket reconnects the voters who supported Mike Huckabee to the Republican establishment from which they were alienated between 2006 and the moment of Palin’s nomination. That’s why Bill Kristol is as much a fan of Palin as Buchanan is: her presence on the ticket reinvigorates the party’s base and gives the GOP a chance to keep Kristol’s friends and associates in power. He knows the neoconservatives need the Jacksonians in order to win, which is why he wasn’t promoting Joe Lieberman as McCain’s running mate.
The Buchanan Brigades of which Sarah Palin was a member are long gone, their ranks now firmly in neoconservative hands. But that doesn’t mean the two strains are inseparable, let alone identical. Palin, as Buchanan has argued in several columns, is not a neoconservative. She has expressed the need for an “exit strategy” in Iraq. And while Jacksonians believe in military strength, they are not necessarily amenable to spreading democracy all over the world using the U.S. military. Palin has an independent streak, as her record suggests, and the supporters she brings to the party are indispensable—they are its margin as well as its base. Because of that, whichever way Palin leans in the future—whether toward the neoconservatives, Ron Paul’s freedom movement, or a resurgent social conservatism and populism—that is where the party is likely to go.
Sean Scallon is a freelance writer from Wisconsin and the author of Beating the Powers That Be: Independent Political Movements and Parties of the Upper Midwest and Their Relevance for Third Parties of Today.