Ron Paul and American liberalism
If you were hoping for Ron Paul’s swift exit from the spotlight, you’re out of luck.
With strong showings in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, the libertarian-leaning congressman will linger for the time being. More importantly for anti-interventionist, anti-drug war, pro-civil liberties lefties, his views will continue to circulate in the mainstream media.
I have mixed feelings about Ron Paul. He dabbles in conspiracy theories, and his ties to racists are, of course, repellent. His calls for severe government retrenchment are unpalatable, as are his positions on immigration, abortion rights, and monetary policy. A Paul presidency, combined with the political class’s ravenous appetite for “entitlement reform,” could mean the evisceration of vital programs like Medicare and Medicaid. That’s difficult stuff to reverse. But there’s also a strong argument to be made that the things Paul is good on—the war on terror, the war on drugs, civil liberties—are, felicitously enough, the areas in which the president has considerable power.
To be sure, though, this is all kind of intellectually gratuitous. Paul won’t be elected president, nor will he be the GOP’s nominee. If liberals and leftists are sympathetic to his candidacy, it’s because his presence leavens the debate, not because they expect Paul to directly reverse the odious policies he lampoons. Realistically, he won’t get the chance to do so. Yet it still matters if his electoral success continues.
First, it would demonstrate that candidates who hold heterodox views on the national security state are electorally viable. More important in the short term, though, it would mean Paul’s positions would continue to receive otherwise-unlikely exposure. The horse-race-happy mainstream media covers the “top tier” of candidates almost exclusively, and last week’s choice of the week is quickly interred. Consequently, a nosedive in the polls or a string of disappointing primary finishes would likely mean voters wouldn’t hear about the evils of the drug war for the remainder of the election cycle. We certainly haven’t reached that saturation point.
None of this is to say Paul’s prominence will occasion a quick paradigm shift. Indeed, several weeks back Elias questioned whether the electorate’s affinity for interventionism would attenuate with more exposure to anti-interventionist views:
What’s more, the US’s self-mythology as humanity’s redeemer, Freedom’s guardian, God’s favorite — this is all the kind of stuff that makes it especially difficult to convince Americans that a humble, mature foreign policy is best. A foreign policy that values life above glory, and doesn’t try to smother its existential fear (consciously or not) by constructing meaning through bloody struggle; despite what Americans may say now, after nearly 10 years of anti-climax and failure, it leaves many voters rather cold.
He is filling a void in the conversation, however. The bowdlerized political discussions in the mainstream media give little indication, for instance, that a huge chunk of the country supports legalizing marijuana, or that the drug war is calamitous, particularly for poor communities of color. Actualizing a humbler, less militaristic foreign policy may be a tougher sell than altering drug policy, as Elias argues. But it certainly won’t change with a constricted conversation. (There is one big caveat to all of this: The implicit assumption of Paul’s left-wing sympathizers is that his beneficent message won’t be encumbered by his odious past–i.e., profiting off racist newsletters–that opposition to neo-imperialism won’t henceforth be associated with anachronistic monetary policy prescriptions or bigotry. I tend to think any exposure is good exposure, but who knows?)
There’s no shortage of left-wing blogosphere voices decrying the expansion of the national security state or the immorality of Obama’s foreign policy, of course. But the Democratic Party is bereft of prominent, unapologetic defenders of civil liberties and non-intervention.
That’s part of what’s the matter, Corey Robin writes:
Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating. The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support). But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms.
As far as I can tell this dearth of voices is nothing new.
Even after the exodus of Southern racists, the Democratic Party’s politicians have, when push came to shove, embraced Scoop Jackson liberalism over George McGovern liberalism. They’re inveterate interventionists, once Cold War hawks and now War on Terror hawks. The most visible Democratic politician in the 10-year interregnum between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11? Bill Clinton, a consummate centrist. The prominent aberrant figures—Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, Jesse Jackson—have been just that, fleeting anomalies. More often than not, the party’s been populated by supine politicos rather than principled true-tellers.
Yet many liberals, perpetually cowed by McGovern’s landslide loss in 1972, still resist efforts to shift the party to the left. Look at Ralph Nader’s run for president in 2000. The country’s coffers were relatively flush. There was no threat of rollbacks in vital government programs. The specter of austerity couldn’t be plausibly raised. In short, an electoral challenge from the left was most opportune. And still Democratic apparatchiks unleashed vitriolic attacks on Nader, faulting him for Bush’s victory instead of Gore’s insipid campaign.
This is the state of American liberalism, at least as manifested in electoral politics. It’s really no wonder scores of liberals have latched onto an anti-militarist alternative, goldbug paleocon or not.