I’ve lived in many Americas.
As a child of the 1960s, I remember the racial segregation of separate bathrooms and drinking fountains in my North Carolina hometown. In the late ‘70s, I was a beneficiary of affirmative action programs that provided both educational and occupational opportunities that my parents and grandparents were denied. Through the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early part of this century, I witnessed the rise, fall, and rebound of our nation’s economy; the decimation of jobs and industries; a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots; amazing advances in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, rights; and a persistently stubborn gap in wages between men and women. In 2008—and again in 2012—I saw something I thought impossible: the election and re-election of an African American as president of the United States.
For good and ill, waves of change makes the nation viable and strong. This is my understanding of the America I know and love. But not everyone shares my embrace of a changing America—least of all Pat Buchanan.
The 77-year-old right-wing syndicated columnist and talking head continues to opine in support of his vision of the good old days: the period of U.S. history when a select few white men were the unchallenged arbiters of our national life.
Appearing last week on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” Buchanan offered up an unvarnished perspective of what racists fear the United States is becoming. “So we’re about—what?—25 years away from the fact where Americans of European descent will be a minority in the United States,” he said, noting that the nation’s “changed for the worst from our standpoint.”
To get the full effect of how outrageously backward Buchanan’s views are, I’ll let the man speak for himself:
Well because I look at Europe. And I look all over the world, and I see peoples everywhere at each other’s throats over issues of ethnicity and identity. Again, the United States of America—we have a—we had an enormous success. We had high immigration from 1890 to 1920. Then we had a timeout, where all those folks from Eastern and Southern Europe were assimilated and Americanized.
They learned English. I went to school with the sons and daughters of these folks. And we created a really united country where 97 percent of us spoke English in 1960. Now in half the homes in California, people speak a language other than English in their own homes. Anybody that believes that a country can be maintained that has no ethnic core to it or no linguistic core to it, I believe is naive in the extreme.
Buchanan’s hazy and nostalgic Americana existed only inside the vacuous spaces in his mind and in the minds of those like him. For the rest of us, this nation was a different sort of place. To be sure, Buchanan’s nostalgia for the Hollywood version of mid-20th century America shares equal billing with the themes of white resentment of modern-day realities. I’ve touched on this before, noting a growing body of social science that suggests a swelling contingent of white men who lament that life in the United States just isn’t as good as it was in, say, 1950 and who tend to blame people of color and immigrants.
I’ve seen this firsthand and watched Buchanan exploit it masterfully. As a national political reporter, I covered Buchanan’s failed run for the GOP’s 1992 and 1996 presidential nominations. I traveled in his campaign entourage, which drew crowds of anti-Semitic, militant nationalists and economically dispossessed white folks who cheered when he bragged about stopping immigrants at the border. Before bowing out after the 1996 Super Tuesday primaries, Buchanan had great fun heaving a trident at rallies and declaring, “The peasants are comin’ with pitchforks.” But he was never a serious threat to become president with his raw and factually mistaken populist message.
Buchanan was then—and still is now—selling an outdated notion of America as a collection of Mayberry-like small towns filled with Christian, God-fearing white people and no people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, or—perhaps—political progressives. But that’s never been the case, least of all now.
Jed Kolko, an independent economist and a senior fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, recently analyzed the demographic profile of the nation for FiveThirtyEight. In the provocatively titled web post “‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People,” Kolko concludes that New Haven, Connecticut, is the place with the greatest claim of being “normal America,” followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. In Kolko’s analysis, “normal” is a place that most closely matches the nation’s demography.
I’d bet the farm that Buchanan wouldn’t think of any of those places as “normal America” because they’re not overwhelmingly white.
“We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like,” Kolko wrote. “Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists.”
Well, good. That television-scripted version of America was never my reality. Nor do I want it to be. Everything that I’ve experienced in nearly six decades of living and working in this nation tells me that as the nation constantly changes, it improves. Nothing about our country is static, immutable, or permanent. And I wouldn’t have it any other way—no matter what Pat Buchanan thinks.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.