You are mistaken if you think nasty, divisive elections are something new. On February 25, 1996 while I was a member of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, I wrote a column that sounds like it was ripped from today's headlines.
It was about the vile slings and arrows directed at Pat Buchanan who was a perennial presidential candidate. The attacks came from both Republicans and Democrats as Buchanan was described as too far right, an isolationist, protectionist and hardhearted. I didn't agree with a lot that he said nor did I vote for him. But the fight over what he could properly say resonates today.
Here's the column:
A right to be heard
Despite the scorn of both liberal and conservative agenda setters, Pat Bcanan's supporters deserve respect for speaking to serious issues.
By Dennis Byrne
I confess that this past week has been an amusing, even satisfying, one for me, watching my colleagues in the commentary racket spin out into orbit over the successes of Pat Buchanan.
For them, it's bad enough that they have to tolerate the mere existence of such a nutty, mean-spirited, nativist, racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, blah and blah candidate.
But what has them orbiting somewhere out there around Jupiter is the horrific discovery that there are real, live, actual people voting for him. Gads, gawk, gag. The problem with Buchanan, we're told now, is that there are people who share his views. [A basket of deplorables?]
Worst of all is the discovery that not only do some Americans have their own views, but that these views differ from those of the columnists, TV anchors and assorted other agenda setters. How dare they?
I'm not voting next month for Buchanan. I disagree with too many of his positions, such as protectionism and gun control. His combativeness raises serious questions about his ability to govern, which is a more important question than his ability to get elected.
But by what right does anyone suggest that the issues Buchanan has raised are out of bounds? Or that if you raise them you are a less-than-human, nasty, hateful phobe of some sort. I'm sorry, but who gets to come into this country and under what conditions, especially if they're sneaking in illegally and ahead of others who have patiently waited in line--is a legitimate issue to debate. So is who gets to be born. So are efforts to redefine two centuries of cultural values. So is the moral decline that has led to children shooting each other in the streets.
People who have had their jobs shanghaied out of the country shouldn't be assumed to be "protectionist rednecks" worthy of scorn if they vote Republican, but "victims of the system" worthy of sympathy if they vote Democratic. To brush aside issues of life, work and beliefs as undebatable because they are anti-this and anti-that is supercilious nonsense. Isn't it strange that in the media's vocabulary a Buchanan who talks about these things is "pandering" to voters"? But a Clinton who talks about them from his viewpoint is legitimately "addressing the issues"?
When the views of people who support Buchanan are ignored by both parties, even by GOP conservatives, what are they supposed to do: Get off the election bus? If they don't agree with the agenda as set by op-ed liberal credo givers or conservative plutocrats, when they are are left with one-candidate articulation their concerns, are they suppose to simply shut up and climb on the train to Siberia?
Those who raise the issues voiced by Buchanan are citizens of this country, and as such they deserve respect and dignity. Sure, some narrow-minded, ugly people support Buchanan. You'll also find such folks among supporters of everyone from Bill Clinton to Bob Dole. To imply that the folks behind Buchanan are automatically racist, sexist and the rest of the stereotypes that are being laid on them does this country no good. It demeans the political process and it erodes the media's ever-dminisihing credibility.
The press "gets" none of this. Newspapers continue to be stumped why readership declines, figuring that if they use a few more pages of color graphics readers will come flooding back. TV news departments wonder how a guy like Richard Nixon can shake his shady reputation, while they would starve for a lack of customers if forced to sell used cars.
Crab as much as you want about how Buchanan and his supporters are dividing us. But no one is doing better than the press at dividing us--into groups of good guys and bad guys.
Sound familiar? Substitute the name Donald Trump for Pat Buchanan and it sounds like I wrote this 22-year-old column today. The fight continues, as it did in 1996, about illegal immigration, loss of manufacturing jobs, tariffs, media credibility, abortion, free speech, culture and more. Trump supporters are maligned as reactionary rubes and extremists. President Obama said of working-class voters who have lost their jobs, "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
And all this ugliness happened long before social media stoked today's hateful blast furnace. Before trigger warnings speech codes infected today's colleges and demands for safe spaces ripened into today's repressive climate. Before partisan cable news show inflamed both sides.
I wouldn't be surprised if the same people who are today shouting (down) each other are the same who did it two decades ago. Some things never change.