The Dueling Identities of Congressman Ron Paul
I think it’s fair to say that, Barack Obama aside, no politician of the current moment has attracted as passionate, enduring, and diverse a following as Ron Paul.
The heterogeneity of their constituents is probably overstated in both examples; Obama is really nothing appreciably different than any other electable Democrat, his power coming mainly from women, youth, and minorities. And Paul’s devotees are not actually quite that unconventional, especially for a “fringe” candidate of his type, as the media has as of late belatedly (and hysterically) discovered. But even if we try to filter out the mythology and the marketing, the differences between two supporters of one man or the other are frequently more noteworthy than the similarities.
Especially so with the longtime Texas Congressman.
I’d hazard a guess that this is largely due to the fact that he’s never really had to wield real power and influence. His decisions have but rarely and briefly provided evidence to his admirers that, yes, there is a “system” in American politics; and, relative to their expectations, Ron Paul, like any other politician, is merely another brick in the wall. Whatever its reasons, though, Ron Paul’s relative (and debatable) ideological purity has allowed many of his admirers and detractors both the opportunity to project onto his blank canvas their dreams and fears; and they’ve seized that opportunity with more zeal than we’ve seen since the halcyon days of Obamamania.
Leading with the positive — because, in this world, why not? — we find that there are not a few left-liberal types who support Ron Paul because of his currently most unorthodox position, i.e., being against war and other forms of bureaucratic, state-sanctioned killing. (Against! Imagine that!) Despite what the political mainstream may lead you to believe, with its blasé dismissiveness of even the slightest hints of pacifist thought — as if the ruling class had collectively decided the anti-war movements of the 1960s and ’70s to merely be a now-regrettable phase of politicized adolescence, best ignored when not actively disowned — there still remains a sizable chunk of the American people who care, deeply, about whether and how their tax dollars are being used to kill.
As I’ve written previously, I’m not sure that this chunk is significant enough to win a national election; but it’s certainly significant enough to win a caucus or two.
Having someone who supports Paul for these reasons would be more valuable than my second-hand explanations, however; so here’s a partial quote from commenter Robert Greer, left over on my sub-blog. The whole comment was well worth reading, but I’ll excise the parts I think are most relevant to this post:
Ron Paul is a mix between Noam Chomsky and your grandparents, which means that his case for winding down Pax Americana has unprecedented prospects for success. For me, that’s enough reason to support him on its own.
[W]hile I can understand why progressives are reluctant to support Paul, America’s economic issues can’t be resolved without fixing its international role first. America can never have a robust safety net as long as 10% of its GDP is spent on a globe-girdling military. Besides, the totality of Ron Paul’s domestic positions are actually surprisingly favorable to our nation’s downtrodden: Sure, the prospect of slashed welfare spending is frightening, but what lefty wouldn’t trade that in a heartbeat for an immediate pardon of all nonviolent drug offenders, and a commutation of death sentences? (Not to mention that Congress’s veto threat would prevent Paul from cutting much from social services anyway.) Throw in the candidate’s dedicated libertarian opposition to the Patriot Act and the NDAA, and compared to Obama, Ron Paul starts to look like like a progressive’s wet dream.
To my mind, this is the best possible defense of supporting Paul from the Left. While the Paul movement is, like any “movement,” very idealistic, perhaps to a fault, there’s a wise understanding of how politics really works: you can’t build a viable political apparatus if you only work with the kind of people you’d like to join on a road trip. If Ron Paul is wrong about 80% of things but the 20% he’s correct on happens to be the 20% over which the President has the most influence — or is the 20% we most sorely need to, but don’t, talk about as a polity — then focus on getting something done about the 20 and deal with the 80 later.
There’s a long history of this tactical philosophy working in American politics; and if I thought Paul had a chance to do anything besides make some headlines at the Iowa caucus, I would find it to be very, if perhaps not entirely, persuasive.
What complicates the issue is the question of whether or not Ron Paul really cares so much about the 20% as we may believe; how do we know that he isn’t just as or perhaps more dedicated to dismantling Social Security as he is to dismantling the Green Zone? If his level of interesting is even comparable, isn’t there a real risk that he’d make real movement on the former, where there is already a robust infrastructure of so-called budget hawks and Pete Petersonites, than the latter, which remains almost entirely the province of marginals and cranks?
Bringing this back to Obama: plenty of lefties heard his speeches in 2008 in which he’d wax lyrical about halting the rise of our oceans and ending a culture of rapacious and insensate greed on Wall Street. They were thrilled. But in the same speeches, he’d also often talk about the country’s need to amp-up the war in Afghanistan, and the pressing urgency of everyone making “sacrifices” in order to steady the nation’s fiscal ship. Yet those comments apparently long went drowned out by the buzz of the crowd—at least to liberal ears.
How do we know, then, that the anti-war rhetoric Paul has been preaching across the country for most of the past five years is somehow appreciably more relevant to evaluating his value as a politician than his talk of big government run amok, his gold buggery, his criticism of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s; or, indeed, the noxious subculture so viscerally represented in the infamous newsletters? What if Ron Paul represents not the soft libertarianism of some pacifists and anarcho-synidcalists but rather the fundamentally xenophobic and hostile populism of Pat Buchanan or the Know Nothings?
Lucky man that I am, I’ve got another smart commenter, CK MacLeod, who has skillfully put into words this contrary interpretation of Ron Paul, the representative figure. In MacLeod’s eyes, Paul is anything but a disrupter of the status quo or a gadfly to the powers that be. On the contrary, Paul serves as a shining example of what Corey Robin’s called “the reactionary mind” — the caustic voice of a dominant order that feels its hegemony slipping away and looks desperately for a plot to uncover and villains to blame. At his blog, MacLeod argues that we embrace Paul’s ideology of liberty only insofar as we’re willing to console ourselves with a false self-righteousness that barely conceals base self-interest:
The first great task of the first self-consciously “American” Americans was the accumulation of property – the actual land of the New World. No matter how we choose to view this vast expropriation, arguably the greatest act of “accumulation by dispossession” ever achieved, as historically necessary or as an unforgivable crime, or both, it remains inarguably the material foundation, accompanied by the ultimate (original and originary) sins of genocide and slavery, of the American nation as we know it: What we really are vs. what we prefer or can allow ourselves to say.
The key to understanding the unspeakable organic truth about America in relation to contemporary libertarian theory is that this great, ineluctably profitable work of genocide and enslavement (later wage slavery and neo-imperial global expansion) was largely accomplished without or expressly against the direction of the federal government or any central governing authority, whose various military interventions and eminently revisable diplomatic initiatives chiefly served, and could only serve, to ratify or consolidate established facts on the ground – again in the manner of an efficient defense mechanism, active forgetting, against disruptions to ego ideals.
Because his worldview is, at least in the present political context, so effectively quixotic yet founded upon more than one coherent and pre-existing ideological systems; and because he serves above anything else as a voice for would-be members of the American democratic process who feel they’ve not only been dispossessed but that their cries of protest have been squelched, the Ron Paul of today is an odd but powerful figure. He’s the rare politician who can, in his way, unite otherwise disparate communities.
Yet the problem is that in the rare event that Paul were forced (or able) to transform some element of his politics into policy, it’s not at all clear that the resulting fallout wouldn’t irrevocably splinter his community of support. Unlike Obama, who has more or less congealed into a typical post-Carter Democrat, Ron Paul’s differing potentialities leave him with nowhere else to go.
At a moment when his country is as depressed and weary as ever before, perhaps it’s more than coincidence that propels this man to heretofore unthinkable heights.