Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators
Patrick Buchanan, “Culture War Speech: Address to the Republican National Convention” (17 August 1992)
High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy, Nicole Kennerly, Independent Educator
Value for Teachers
Patrick Buchanan’s “Address to the Republican National Convention” is a famous exemplar of the so-called “culture wars” of the late 20th It emphasizes themes that still resonate today, two decades later, including many of the social issues that continue to divide the left and the right. One objective of Buchanan’s speech was to force voters to identify with one of two visions, to make a choice about “who we are” as Americans. This is an example of what scholars call “polarization,” but it also reflects a move toward identity politics, which is still prominent in today’s political arena. Specifically, Buchanan endorsed and solidified a Republican Party defined by Judeo-Christian values, such as a pro-life stance on abortion, “traditional” marriage and gender roles, and support for prayer in the schools.
Buchanan is often credited with pioneering the modern form of punditry now ubiquitous on 24-hour news cable stations like Fox News and CNN. This includes opinionated commentary from a specific point of view combined with supposed expertise on social and political matters. This style of punditry is characterized by a combative on-air style and quasi-celebrity status achieved through regular appearances on today’s 24-hour cable TV news.
Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2: Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.
- Buchanan created two dichotomous portraits of the Republican and Democratic parties. By laying out what he considered to be the spiritual decline of the nation and using the rhetoric of “family values,” he created two competing camps: one moral, patriotic, and representing “traditional” American values, and the other radical, immoral, and detrimental to the future of the country.
- By extension, Buchanan applied these two divisive visions to the two candidates in the 1992 presidential campaign, George Bush and Bill Clinton. According to Buchanan, Bush and the GOP represented a return to traditional Judeo-Christian values, while Clinton represented a radical assault on those and other traditional values.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6: Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
- Buchanan’s purpose was not only to unite the Republican Party behind Bush’s candidacy, but to push his own agenda of social conservatism. He did this by drawing on the shared values of his “Buchanan Brigade,” which represented the most conservative wing of the Republican party. For these Republicans, politics was about hot-button social issues that they hoped, through their collective energy, might become a more a prominent part of Bush’s presidential campaign.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
- Buchanan relied on moral arguments to stir the passions of the audience and to polarize the American electorate into two camps: “we” versus “them.” He did this in part through the language of “family values,” but he also used sarcasm and ridicule to suggest that the Democratic party was the party of radical feminists, environmental extremists, and militant homosexuals. Whether the “we” in Buchanan’s vision represented just his supporters or the American people as a whole, his polarized vision of America served to create a moral division between Bush and Clinton, their respective parties, and their visions for the future of America.
Ideas for Pre-Reading
- Introduce students to the concept of a “culture war”: “The cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices. It commonly refers to the hot-button topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values. The term is commonly used to describe contemporary politics in the United States, with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, multiculturalism, and other cultural conflicts based on values, morality, and lifestyle being described as the major political divide” (Wikipedia, 2020). In table groups, have students discuss the following questions:
- This speech is from 1992, but do students think that the U.S. is still in the midst of a culture war? Why or why not?
- If they do think the U.S. is still in a culture war, how has that war changed since the 1990s? How, if at all, have the issues or controversies at the heart of that culture war changed?
- Have students learn more about Patrick Buchanan by reading his short biography. Then have them discuss the following questions: 1) How would you describe Buchanan’s reputation and accomplishments? How did others, both inside and outside the Republican Party, describe Buchanan? Did they consider him smart? Successful? An important figure in American politics or the media? 2) What sorts of issues did he emphasize in his political career? Do students consider these issues primarily political? Social? Moral? Some combination of the above?
- Political campaigns often involve the identification and vilification of enemies, whether they are unions, big corporations, LGBTQ people, foreign powers, immigrants, “terrorists” and their sympathizers, religious fanatics, radicals, moderates, or even government itself. Do students think this sort of vilification is usually warranted and/or appropriate, or do they see it more as just a strategy to rally and mobilize political activists? Is vilification acceptable as long as it is sincere or done in the name of a good cause? Or do students think that such vilification is always wrong, harmful, or otherwise damaging to our unity as a nation? After ten minutes of independent writing, have students share their thoughts with a partner, a group, or the whole class.
- As a class, watch an excerpt from Buchanan’s speech. How do students characterize the delivery and demeanor of Buchanan as he speaks? Does he seem sincere? Angry? Do they use other words to describe their first impression of the speech? Do they think Buchanan’s delivery enhanced or detracted from the message he hoped to convey? How so?
- “…that giant masquerade ball up at Madison Square Garden…” [para 4]: The Democratic National Convention of 1992
- Reagan Doctrine [para 9]: “Under the Reagan Doctrine, the United States provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements in an effort to ‘roll back’ Soviet-backed pro-communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” (Wikipedia, 2020)
- Judeo-Christian values [para 16]: The idea that Christian and Jewish religions share a common set of values or ethics that underpins the American political system since its foundation
- Roe v Wade [para 16]: Landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that found the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose, thereby legalizing some forms of abortion
- Adam Smith & Edmund Burke [para 43]: Two famous political thinkers, philosophers, and writers of the 1700s who helped shape ideas about democracy and capitalism
- “…that riot in L.A.” [para 46]: A series of prolonged civil disturbances in Los Angeles in 1992 that followed the acquittal of four police officers videotaped using excessive force against a black motorist named Rodney King
Day 1: Pre-Reading, Introduction of Important Vocabulary/Figures, and Read Paragraphs 1-23
- Students will complete pre-reading of teacher’s or student’s choice.
- Teacher will introduce key terms of the speech.
- Students will read paragraphs 1-23.
- Students will assess how Buchanan attempted to unite the Republican Party around Bush’s candidacy using identity politics behind a shared vision.
Day 2: Finish Reading and Post-Reading Activities
- Students will read paragraphs 24-50.
- Students will analyze how Buchanan created a polarizing vision of America to stir the passions of the electorate and create a social and moral division between Bush and Clinton.
- Students will complete post-reading of their or teacher’s choice.
(Alternatively, students may complete Pre-Reading, Reading, and Post-Reading activities on a block day.)
Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions
- Paragraphs 1-4: Discuss with students the opening of Buchanan’s speech. Who was the audience? What was the tone? Why do students think he opened with an attempt at humor and congratulations to the presidential nominee? How did Buchanan describe the Democratic National Convention? Why do students think he used this language? What purpose did it serve?
- Paragraphs 5-9: Buchanan asserted that “the American people are not going back to the discredited liberalism of the 1960s and failed liberalism of the 1970s.” What did he mean by this? What was he implying about the Democratic Party and their values and effectiveness?
- Paragraphs 10-12: Buchanan often used the term “we” to describe the GOP and “them” or “they” to describe liberal groups. What purpose did this word choice serve? (Students may also want to take note of which pronoun Buchanan used to address the American people as a whole.) How did this language define the two opposing groups?
- Paragraphs 13-15: The “many roles” of the presidential office were addressed by Buchanan in this section of the speech. What roles did he define? How did he convey Bush’s experience to carry out these roles? How did he contrast this to Clinton? What did he say explicitly about Clinton as well as imply about his character? Do students agree that attacks on another person’s character are effective or fair ways to make a political argument?
- Paragraphs 16-20: Buchanan made explicit reference to Judeo-Christian values. What did he say about the place or role of these values in the history of America? What values did he lay out? Do students agree that these values defined America at the time of its founding and/or continue to define America today?
- Paragraphs 21-23: In Paragraph 21, Buchanan mentioned not only Bill Clinton but Hillary Clinton, his wife. What did he say about Hillary Clinton and what did he imply about her values? What purpose did this serve for him?
- Paragraphs 24-38: In these paragraphs, have students note the divisive language that Buchanan used. How did this language support identity politics, creating two separate camps: one that is seemingly moral and “traditional,” and one that is seemingly devious and immoral? What type of language did he use to describe Democrats versus Republicans? What kind of character is required for the Commander-in-Chief, according to Buchanan?
- Paragraph 39: Buchanan stated that this election is about “who we are.” What do students think he meant by that? Why do students think he claimed that America is in the midst of a “religious war?”
- Paragraphs 40-50: How did Buchanan wrap up his speech? He also used a series of brief anecdotes about everyday people he met on the campaign trail. How did he refer to these everyday people? How did he call for party unity? What types of issues did he discuss? Buchanan also referenced the race riots in L.A. Why do students think he did this? How did it reinforce his point of an ongoing culture war? What did he imply America must do to “take back our cities, take back our culture, and take back our country?” Who did “America” need to take back their cities, culture, and country from?
Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment
- In creating a contrast between Bush and Clinton and between Republicans and Democrats, Buchanan paired the two presidential candidates with two incompatible visions of American life. How were these visions defined? What differences separated them? One 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 students 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, and is it ethical and effective in today’s politics?
- Considering Buchanan’s polarizing rhetorical style and the criticism it received. Do students think the benefits of such a style outweigh the liabilities? In other words, do students think we should elect leaders who are uncompromising in their beliefs, or would they rather elect people who are open to negotiation and compromise? In answering this question, have students find an example of each type of politician currently serving in government, and compare their virtues.
- 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. How do students interpret Buchanan’s closing line? Can students think of other forms this type of argument has taken in their own community, state, or region? And, if so, how have those statements been received?
- Have students read the article “‘Culture War’ of 1992 Moves in From the Fringe,” in the New York Times found here. The article suggests that, two decades after the Houston convention, social issue activism remained important to the Republican Party. Many Republican are interviewed for the article, including Buchanan, and many of them draw a distinction between “the establishment” and “the grassroots” of the party. What do students make of that distinction? Who constitutes “the establishment,” and how do they differ from the “grassroots” of the party? Do students think the “grassroots” has had a significant impact on the Republican Party’s evolution, public identity, or official positions? What about with the Democratic Party? Explain.