Buchanan and Republican Politics: Part 2
In chapter 10 of Nixon’s White House Wars, Buchanan takes up the question whether Nixon had any political principles. He cites Arthur Burns, who asked in 1969 “Does [Nixon] have any real convictions?” To this answer, Buchanan responds by citing that Nixon wrote, because of his upbringing, he had “a strong commitment toward individual responsibility and individual dignity.”  Nixon developed or embraced these principles as a result of his parents’ refusal of any governmental aid as Nixon’s younger brother was dying of tuberculosis. But then Buchanan asks: “But were such values consistent with the Great Society programs, of the Family Assistance Plan [Nixon proposed], or the affirmative action programs [Nixon] was imposing . . . based on race?”
Buchanan was trying to fill in the emptiness that he sensed was reflected by Nixon’s “pragmatism,” which led him to compromise his principles, his commitment to “individual responsibility and individual dignity.” But Buchanan’s attempt fails because the principles he repairs to are as empty politically as Nixon’s pragmatism. What do, politically, individual responsibility and dignity mean? Is seeking help from a government run sanitarium to help with a dying son inconsistent with individual responsibility and dignity? Is support of the programs of the Great Society inconsistent with those principles? Is support of the Family Assistant Plan inconsistent as well, along with affirmative action programs?
Buchanan opposed the Great Society, the Family Assistance Plan, and affirmative action but he never explains how these programs necessarily undermine individual responsibility and dignity. And he never considers the question: How could such programs be structured to be consistent with those principles? Buchanan is like those who say, “Life is unfair” as if that were the end of the matter, rather than seeing that expression as the beginning of a debate about how to make life fairer. Buchanan’s politics are formulaic and, hence, essentially empty. That is, they neither provide guidance or limits to the pursuit of and the use of power.
Buchanan’s conservatism does not fill in the emptiness that results from Nixon’s pragmatism; it merely covers it over with meaningless formulas or slogans like “individual responsibility and individual dignity.” And because they are merely empty slogans, Buchanan and others like Agnew have to cover that emptiness over by way of vitriolic rhetoric that actually does not attempt to refute the alternatives, but just to ridicule them and their supporters. And when such rhetoric fails, becomes repetitious, it is replaced by appeals to symbols like “the trappings” of the presidency or an undefined patriotism.
Buchanan is aware of the emptiness of US politics, for example, when he asks: “Can anybody credibly say the presidencies of Ford and Carter, of Reagan and Bush, and the first term of Bill Clinton, represented the disappearance of moderate [pragmatic] politics in America?”  That is, even Reagan ended up being reactionary, responding to “crises” erratically, sometimes condemning terrorists and other times working with them. Reagan, like Nixon, did not always honor his principles because, like Nixon’s, they were merely slogans covering over the pursuit of power, both for Reagan himself and for the United States. Whenever his principles got in the way of that pursuit, they would be compromised or even jettisoned.
But while Buchanan is aware and critical of this phenomenon, he offers no alternative because his principles are also empty. That is, they don’t direct or limit the pursuit and use of power. Is affirmative action consistent with individual dignity? Buchanan says “No,” but one could say “Yes” insofar as it helps individuals offset the indignities imposed by systemic racism. Are family assistance plans consistent with individual responsibility? Buchanan says “No,” but such plans could offer needed support to responsible but struggling parents trying to keep their families together. And, conversely, tough “law and order” policies could actually undermine families and successful individual responsibility by means of disruptions caused by arrests, convictions, and incarceration.
Buchanan’s principles are then little more than slogans used to justify policies he supports and to dismiss policies he opposes. Politically, these slogans are, like all slogans, empty and, as such, cannot guide or limit the pursuit of power. Inadvertently, Nixon, in his critique of Buchanan’s “Neither Fish Nor Fowl” memo, offers a glimpse of a principle that could direct and limit the pursuit of power when he cites favorably “[Buchanan’s] recommendation that we find occasions to demonstrate humanity and heart. . . .”  A humane politics could lead to “a kinder, gentler nation;” that is, a nation much different than the kind of nation that apparently Buchanan seems to desire, and a nation characterized by a rhetoric much different than that offered by Agnew and other conservatives. Taken as more than occasional actions meant to soften an otherwise harsh politics, to be used as electoral props, a humane politics could revolutionize US politics. Getting and using power would be replaced by getting and using power humanely. An “Agnew strategy” would have no place in such a political setting.
But in the US, the pursuit of power, as Buchanan illustrates over and over, is all. Power, both for politicians and for the nation, is to be acquired and maintained by any means necessary, including dirty tricks, covert operations against political opponents, impeachments, misleading voters, and endless wars. This is why our presidents are pragmatic rather them principled, why they govern as if they had no principles, ala’ Nixon and even Reagan, according to Buchanan. But while Buchanan sees and despises this feature of US politics, he offers no alternative to it. The emptiness of US politics remains, covered over by empty slogans and symbols as well as vitriolic rhetoric. Meaning that Nixon’s White House wars were essentially and no more than power struggles, and the fact that Nixon was removed changed nothing of significance politically.