Ron Paul and the Libertarian Moment
“Freedom in our time” – is it possible?
The news that a Rasmussen poll has Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) running in a dead heat against President Barack Obama in a hypothetical Paul-Obama face-off for the White House has the pundits fuming. Ben Smith, over at Politico, can hardly contain his annoyance: the poll “is a useful reminder of how totally flaky early polling is,” he rants, and “this is the Ron Paul who polled, literally, thousands of votes placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses,” and then only breaking ten percent after everyone but McCain had bailed. This evaluation depends on a static model, however: back then, there was no bank bailout, no insurance industry takeover, no tea party movement, and Ron had no real public record to run on – the 2008 campaign, in short, was a way for the country to get to know Rep. Paul, and the Rasmussen poll is a clear indication they liked what they saw. Instead of invoking Paul’s showing in the Iowa caucus, it’s more useful to compare this poll to the results of another similar Rasmussen poll taken in 2008, in which, as the pollster reported, “For Ron Paul, 10% of all voters would definitely vote for him. Fifty-nine percent (59%) say it’s No, no matter what.”
Voter sentiment is now completely reversed: today, he’s in a dead heat with a sitting President. No matter how hard you try to minimize that, it’s an astonishing fact.
What Smith has to say about the perils of early polling would normally be accepted as beyond dispute: after all remember when Fred Thompson was the man to beat for the GOP nomination? However, we are not living in normal times, which I define as any period when Americans abandon their traditional attitude toward politics: i.e. indifference bordering on contempt. These days, the indifference has given way to not only awareness but also to active engagement, and the contempt for politicians has turned into a burning hatred, i.e. the very stuff and fuel of politics.
What makes it possible for Paul to ride this untamed mare is that he isn’t a politician at all: he is, in fact, the archetypal anti-politician, a professorial figure who lectures Republicans on the gravity of their fiscal and foreign policy sins, and is about as charismatic as plain oatmeal served without milk and sugar. What’s more, he tells the public what politicians have been loath to tell their constituents, and that is the necessity of deflation and the bearing of economic pain. In Paul’s view, the economic bubble generated by the Federal Reserve’s inflationary policies has led to the current downturn, and nothing less than gritting our teeth, cutting spending radically, and allowing the market to correct itself from government-induced distortions, is the cure.
His message, in short, is eat your spinach – not something any politician who hopes to keep his job (or get one) would normally say. But then again, as I said above, these are not normal times: far from it. The crisis of the American republic is acute, as we teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and our overseas empire shows every sign of imploding, just like the old Soviet Union – and, what’s more, the American people know it.
As our corporatist masters feast on our tax dollars in Washington, out in the provinces voters faced with economic ruin are looking for some explanation, a conceptual framework that gets at the root of the problem and provides some solution. Paul’s rising popularity is due to the fact that he does indeed have a consistent philosophical approach, one that has propelled him from being a mere marginal figure – a “gadfly,” as they said – to a very real contender. Yes, that’s right, I said a contender for the White House: it’s real, it’s possible, and here’s why.
Paul has consistently emphasized two themes that successfully capture the sentiments of the average American voter, and address the top two issues on their minds: 1) Fiscal sanity, and 2) A non-interventionist foreign policy. As regards the first point, Ron is the foremost opponent of government spending in Congress, and has earned the sobriquet “Dr. No” many times over. But of course practically all Republicans at least pay lip service to this ideal, although none that I know of lives up to it like Dr. Paul. However, it’s the second point – opposition to imperialism, and especially opposition to our crazed post-9/11 foreign policy of perpetual war – that is the key.
As Paul explained at the CPAC conference – where he won the presidential preference poll – and on many other occasions, we can’t have our old republic back unless and until we rid ourselves of the empire we’ve acquired along the way to bankruptcy. Lecturing them on the evils of Woodrow Wilson’s “progressivism,” and the virtues of the Old Right’s Robert A. Taft, he received a standing ovation (as well as a few boos from the minuscule-but-loud David Frum Fan Club). A similar reception occurred at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where he came within a single vote of winning the presidential poll (losing only because the SRLC officials closed registration early, betting correctly that Paul’s youthful supporters wouldn’t show up until it was time to address the convention).
What’s interesting about this, from the perspective of my readers – a majority of whom are not libertarians, I dare say, and are not generally sympathetic to my “anti-government” views – is that the more Ron talks about the one subject that is supposed to rile Republicans – his foreign policy views – the more popular he gets. It was the leitmotif of his CPAC speech, and a main theme of his SRLC speech: his opposition to what he calls “the Empire” inveigles its way into most of his public utterances: even if he’s asked a specific question about, say, the economy, he emphasizes the impossibility of ever getting out of the economic slough we’re in unless we throw off the burden of empire.
Paul’s candidacy is interesting to the antiwar movement, because he has managed to mainstream ideas that were long considered too radical for the ordinary American to even bear hearing about. To even raise the idea that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” – in CIA parlance, an unintended consequence of US policies – was once considered a cardinal, self-marginalizing sin. Yet Paul took this view from the beginning: that the attacks were the boomeranging after-effects of playing “king of the hill” in the Middle Eastern sandbox and succoring the Afghan “freedom fighters” (as Ronald Reagan called them) who later morphed into al-Qaeda.
When Paul bravely brought this up at a Republican primary debate, the thuggish Rudy Giuliani said he’d “never heard” such an analysis, and demanded that Paul withdraw his statements. Paul refused, and cited the 9/11 Commission’s own words to back up his point, and yet the pundits in the peanut gallery crowed that Dr. No was finished, a “gadfly” who had been swatted by the thuggish Giuliani.
After spending millions in the GOP primaries, Giuliani was rewarded with exactly one delegate. Paul went to the GOP convention with a small but respectable platoon of elected delegates, and in spite of being thoroughly locked out the Paulians stayed in the party and worked at the precinct level, educating activists and recruiting lots of independents and conservatives previously disdainful of the GOP. The Paul movement was really the GOP’s lifeline to the emerging “tea party” movement, of which it was always an essential – and certainly a founding – element.
Again, what’s distinctive about the Paul movement within the tea party phenomenon is that they always bring their entire politics with them wherever they go: they raise the issue of the costs of war, and, as such, are currently the most active – and certainly the most successful – antiwar formation in this country. Here we have Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin offering to join in common cause with the tea partiers, and I think they should take her up on it. the Paulians are the logical mediators between what would, on the surface, appear to be oil and water.
As I said in a recent issue of The American Conservative, however, I don’t think the prospects for a left-right alliance on the issue of war and peace are all that bright, to begin with because what used to be the left has essentially been absorbed into the Obama cult, and co-opted by power. In the end, all liberals really care about is getting their “fair share” of the spoils, for themselves and their supposed constituencies. So what if the price they have to pay is going along with mass murder in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan? We all have to die sometime.
I harp on Ron Paul for all sorts of reasons, but the one of most interest to my readers is the fact that he is by far the most successful antiwar politician in recent American history. Derided as being one of those dreaded “isolationists,” and attacked even by some alleged “libertarians” precisely for that – and because he appeals to the common man – he not only insists on raising this issue, for him it is central to his analysis of what he calls the “Welfare-Warfare State,” a phrase coined by the late Murray Rothbard. Dr. Paul’s diagnosis of a nation fast exhausting itself in an orgy of spending and militaristic adventurism has the stark ring of truth about it – an alarm bell ringing in the night.
When Paul and others first sounded that alarm, back in the early formative years of the libertarian movement, very few were heeding the call. We were looked on as eccentrics, and, for example, the libertarian enthusiasm for gold was viewed as indicative of our archaic perspective, put down as an ideological curiosity and nothing more than a “crackpot” notion and a bad investment. Today, of course, those libertarian doomsayers who said the crisis was coming have been vindicated – and all that gold they bought way back in the 1970s, and kept buying in spite of the disdain of more worldly investors, today adds up to quite a bundle. Which is one way to get around to saying that a great deal of Paul’s newfound political authority and credibility comes out of his having predicted the current economic downturn. Virtually every speech made in Congress, and wherever he appeared, was dotted with references to the coming collapse if we didn’t mend our ways. Well, we didn’t, and it’s here.
That’s one factor the learned Ben Smith, and the rest of the “experts” and media know-it-alls fail to take into consideration. What fuels the tea party phenomenon and the vast anger animating the American public at the moment is the series of bailouts: the banks, the auto industry, the government workers, the Afghan government of our erstwhile ally, Hamid Karzai, not to mention the Israelis, the nation of Iceland, and maybe even the Greeks, for all we know.
As ordinary people see their homes foreclosed, their jobs evaporate, and their savings disappear, the rich get richer – not because of capitalism, or even “socialism,” as the tea partiers describe the Obama administration’s philosophy, but due to corporatism, as Ron Paul recently explained. Corporatism is, in essence, socialism for the rich, that is, for the benefit of certain big corporations over other big corporations, and a raft of would-be smaller competitors. That would seem to be a precise definition of what’s going on in the country today, one that fits nicely in with the left-right synthesis the Paul movement represents, and for which the country yearns. Paul sweeps the independents in the Rasmussen poll, with an astonishing 47-28. Add to this Paul’s appeal to what a recent Pew poll characterized as rising “isolationist” sentiment, and what you have is a new American majority based on the proposition that the US government should start minding its own business, both at home and abroad.
So much, by the way, for those “libertarian” academics and ivory tower Deep Thinkers who pointedly snubbed Ron, and his supporters, just as they had been doing for years, constantly denigrating his chances of making a significant difference and echoing the orchestrated smear campaign launched by neoconservatives against Paul’s personal character and that of his supporters. Accurately tracing the Paulian strategy to a series of articles by Murray Rothbard written in the 1990s in favor of cultivating “right-wing populism” as a vehicle for the introduction of libertarian ideas into the national discourse, these self-styled ultra-sophisticates sneered at the “rednecks” and rubes the Rothbardian strategy would attract: and they specifically turned up their noses at Ron Paul.
Instead of following the Paulian star, as most other libertarians were doing outside of Washington, D.C., they sought to recruit their liberal friends and fellow cocktail party goers – or at least make themselves less unacceptable in the Washington social circuit, where the Obama cult reigns supreme. In a self-conscious rebuff to libertarians outside the Imperial City, these worthies – mostly subsidized by a certain eccentric billionaire, owner of the largest family-owned corporation in the United States – launched their own “liberal-tarian” movement, as they dubbed it, which, so far, consists of either three, or perhaps four, stalwart cadre, all of them employed by the same eccentric billionaire or one of his satellites.
To even compare the respective achievements of Ron Paul and these sub-political pygmies is to diminish Ron’s astonishing success: the latter don’t want to create a real movement. Their goal is to suck up to whoever’s in power, and somehow convince them to let us have a little more liberty, and a little less warfare, all the while ensuring their own career prospects and social status in the Washington pecking order.
They said it couldn’t be done: that the Paul movement would go nowhere, and that it would hurt the libertarian cause to have the Good Doctor become known as the fountainhead and symbol of the freedom movement in America. They gave money to his worst critics – and to his son’s opponent running in the GOP Senatorial primary in Kentucky – and used their mouthpieces to defame him. They did everything they could to destroy him – and now he’s running even with Obama in the polls.
These bare facts should tell libertarians everything they need to know about what kind of leadership they need, and who is going to provide it. At this crucial juncture – the libertarian moment – these losers will pardon our dust as the rest of us move confidently into a future when we can truly raise that old libertarian slogan, “Freedom in our time,” and really believe it as if for the first time.