Buchanan, “Culture War Speech,” Teaching-Learning Materials

Classroom Activities 

A. What were Buchanan’s goals in this speech? Do you think he was successful? Why or why not? 

B. In creating a contrast between Bush and Clinton (and between Republicans and Democrats), Buchanan essentially paired them with two incompatible visions of American life. How were these visions defined? What differences separated them? 

C. One obvious objective of the speech was to force voters to identify with one of the two visions, to make a judgment about “who we are” as Americans.  This is an example of what scholars call “identity politics,” or politics defined more by our sense of who we are than by our political ideas.  Do you agree that identity and self-image play an important role in politics?  Was this an effective and ethical way for Buchanan to build support for his political views?     

D. Buchanan described the collision of cultural visions as a “religious war.” Do you think the “war” metaphor was appropriate? Can you think of any other – perhaps less provocative – images that Buchanan might have used instead? 

E. Why do you think homosexuality played such a significant role in this speech? Did Buchanan explain why he thought it was a problem that Clinton-Gore was “the most pro-lesbian and pro-gay ticket in history”? 

F. Why do you think Buchanan devoted so much attention to issues such as abortion, prayer in schools, women in combat, and pornography? While other candidates emphasized economic concerns during the 1992 campaign, why do you think Buchanan spent so much time talking about social issues? 

G. This speech was delivered at a political party convention. Does this context influence your understanding or interpretation of the address? Do you think the speech was appropriate for this context, and do you think it would have been received any differently in a different context? 

H. Does it change your opinion of the speech (or of Buchanan or Bush) to know that the two men were involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations over whether Buchanan would offer a strong endorsement of Bush?  Do you interpret the speech itself as a strong endorsement?  Why or why not? 

I. Immediately after it was delivered, some commentators praised Buchanan’s speech for its forceful tone, while others criticized the speech as too angry, hateful, and divisive. Do you identify with either of these positions? Why? 

J. Do you think the idea of a “culture war” is as relevant today as it was in 1992? What social or cultural issues seem as important in today’s political campaigns as they were in 1992? 

Student Research 

A. Using the search terms “Buchanan” and “culture war,” perform a search on an electronic database (e.g., New York Times Historical or Proquest) and read at least five newspaper articles from August-December, 1992. Pay attention to the descriptions of Buchanan’s performance. What words are used to describe his speech? Are they primarily positive or negative? How do these assessments support and/or challenge your own reaction to the speech?

B. Using a Google search, try to uncover some information about some of the journalists or media commentators who offered their assessments of the speech.  Do you consider most of the commentary on the speech to be relatively unbiased, or do you sense that those who reported or commented on the speech were politically partisan? How do these writers’ reactions to the speech correspond to their political views? 

C. Though widely criticized for being an “angry” or even “nasty” speech, Buchanan’s address was greeted with cheers, chants, and applause from the convention-goers in Houston. Having spent some time with the speech video and text, the essay, and your articles, what have you learned about the state of the Republican Party in 1992, the nature of political conventions, and/or the responsibilities of a convention speaker?

D. Using the same databases and the same search terms, try to uncover some articles about – or by – Buchanan that were published in August, 2012. How has his rhetorical posture changed – if at all – in the two decades since he delivered this speech in Houston? How has his public reputation changed, if at all? 

E. Biographer Timothy Stanley has credited Buchanan with essentially inventing the art of modern political punditry. Given the wide variety of conservative pundits who have followed in Buchanan’s footsteps, who do you think is most representative of this rhetorical style of punditry? What about the substance of his critique of liberalism? Would you say Buchanan’s brash, confrontational style is more or less publicly acceptable today than in 1992? 

F. Using the usual search methods, find two or three examples of commentary on the speech from a liberal or progressive perspective. In what ways do these liberal pundits differ from conservative commentators, and are their styles similar or different? Do you find that your judgment of each style is colored by your own opinions about each commentator’s assessment of the speech?   

G. Read the article “‘Culture War’ of 1992 Moves in From the Fringe,” in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/30/us/politics/from-the-fringe-in-1992-patrick-j-buchanans-words-now-seem-mainstream.html?_r=2&). This article suggests that, two decades after the Houston convention, social issue activism remains important to the Republican Party. Many GOP figures are interviewed – including Buchanan – and many of these draw a distinction between “the establishment” and “the grassroots” of the party. What do you make of that distinction?  Who constitutes “the establishment,” and how do they differ from the “grassroots” of the party?  Do you think the “grassroots” has had a significant impact on the Republican Party’s evolution, public identity, or official positions?

Citizenship Resources

A. Given your consideration of Buchanan’s rhetorical style – and the criticism it has received – do you think the benefits of such a style outweigh the liabilities? In other words, do you think we should elect leaders who are uncompromising in their beliefs, or would you rather elect people who are open to negotiation and compromise? In answering this question, try to find an example of each type currently serving in government, and compare their virtues. 

B. What role – if any – do you think religious beliefs should play in American politics? For Buchanan, the question of faith was central to everything from voting decisions to policy-making to public symbolism. His critics frequently cited this as a problem. Do you find it problematic? Why or why not? 

C. Political campaigns often involve the identification and vilification of enemies, whether they are unions, big corporations, homosexuals, foreign powers, “terrorists” and their sympathizers, religious fanatics, radicals, moderates, or even government itself.  Do you think this sort of vilification reflects sincere beliefs, or is it more often used just to rally and mobilize political activists? In the context of Buchanan’s speech, do you feel that his ends justify the means? In other words, is vilification acceptable as long as it is sincere or done in the name of a good cause?  Or do you think that such vilification is always wrong, harmful, or otherwise damaging to our unity as a nation? Explain your answer.

D. Who constitutes the “we” Buchanan refers to in his address?  In other words, who do you think he is claiming to represent as he articulates his view? Put another way, who are the “good guys” in his polarized, “us” versus “them” world?

E. In his closing line, Buchanan calls upon his audience to “take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” This suggests that America once belonged to a certain type or group of citizens, and that it had somehow been taken away or stolen by some other group of Americans.  This sentiment – and others like it – inspired some of the accusations of bigotry and racism lodged against Buchanan.  Do you think it is fair to interpret Buchanan’s remarks in this way?  Or do you think Buchanan is making a reasonable argument about the changing face of the nation? Do you know of other forms this question taken in your own community, state, or region?  And, if so, how have those statements been received?