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Revisiting a Transformational Speech: The Culture War Scorecard

Social conservatives won some and lost some since Pat laid down the marker.
David Martin/AP Photo

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.