What would it mean for progressives to “support” Ron Paul?

There’s been a bit of back and forth recently in the left/progressive blogosphere about whether people who meet that particular description should “support” libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul’s candidacy for president. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have expressed varying degrees of support for Paul’s candidacy, noting that his stances on civil liberties and foreign intervention and war-making are arguably to the “left” of President Obama’s.

Others have countered that Paul is a social reactionary who lent his name to (and profited handsomely from) a series of newsletters in the 90s that trafficked in racist and other inflammatory language as part of a “redneck outreach” strategy among self-described “paleo” libertarians and conservatives. Paul is furthermore a libertarian of a peculiar sort: one who would devolve much of the power of the federal government to the states, a move whose likely effect on individual liberty is debatable at best.

I’m neither a libertarian nor do I have much street cred as a “progressive.” But what I wonder is: what’s at stake in these arguments? What sort of “support” do Greenwald, et al. have in mind? Are they proposing that progressives, who one assumes are mostly registered Democrats, re-register en masse to vote in the Republican primary? Or that they should vote for Paul in the general election were he to get the GOP nomination?

What I think needs to be kept in mind here is that Ron Paul is very, very unlikely to win the nomination and why this is the case. It’s because, among other things, his stances on issues where he is appealing to the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald, are precisely where he is most at variance with the modern Republican party and the conservative movement. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, recall, are largely a fusion of economic, social, and national-defense conservatives. And I agree with the longstanding thesis of Jim Henley that, contrary to popular belief, these factions are not really “in tension” with one another to any great degree. These three varieties of conservatives are, if not identical, largely in sympathy with one another. Among conservatives of whatever stripe, free-marketeerism, cultural conservatism, and military hawkishness are seen as mutually reinforcing. Paul’s eccentric blend of isolationism, decentralization, Austrian economics, and social conservatism are out of sync with what remains the overwhelming conservative consensus.

So it remains unclear what sort of support a progressive or liberal is supposed to offer Paul’s candidacy. Is it that they (we?) should commend Paul for promoting certain perspectives (e.g., a critique of American interventionism) that fall largely outside of the bipartisan mainstream? Liberals can certainly do that without voting for him. But beyond this, what else is “supporting” Paul supposed to mean apart from wishing (and working?) for the success of his candidacy? Are liberals supposed to support (e.g., give money to or vote for) a candidate who opposes every facet of the regulatory and welfare state going back to the 19th century on the minuscule chance that he’ll win the presidency and dismantle the American empire? This seems like an odd allocation of resources for liberals to make. A better use of those resources would seem to be to try to move the Democratic Party–which after all already has a large progressive constituency–in a more progressive direction.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum makes a similar argument, focusing more on what he calls Paul’s “crackpot” ideology:

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He’s not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul’s views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that’s the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don’t need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He’s never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he’ll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you’ll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There’s a good reason for that.

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8 thoughts on “What would it mean for progressives to “support” Ron Paul?”

  1. I think maybe some of us progressives are just so grateful that there exists a republican candidate who’s not completely horrible that we feel we *should* support him somehow – a sort of positve reinforcement.

    I wouldn’t myself waste any effort on him, though, becuase what I think of as his negatives make him unacceotable – I’d rather spend the effort on a democrat.

  2. Paul’s views on economics, foreign relations and race are straight out of the 19th century. But of the three, the only issue where the President has more or less unilateral power to act is the second–foreign relations. In the age of the imperial presidency, Presidents can fight little wars at will and can bully Congress into approving bigger ones. It seems that Paul would not avail himself of that tremendous power, which is the only reason why liberals ought to give him a second thought.

    Hypothetically, if it has to be a Republican, which Republican would liberals prefer? You can make a case for Paul as opposed to the others because Congress would probably stop him from completely eviscerating the welfare state, but I can’t imagine Congress or public opinion badgering Paul into, say, bombing Iran.

    That’s the only pro-Ron Paul argument I can come up with. Against it I’d have to weigh the very real possibility that a Paul administration would simply refuse to enforce the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Endangered Species Act, or much other legislation near and dear to my bleeding liberal heart.

    It’s a parlor game, of course. Paul will not be the nominee. No way. Nohow.

  3. Yeah, it would have to be a very different GOP that would nominate Ron Paul–better in some ways than the one we have now, worse in others.

    It’s an interesting thought-experiment: if we had a truly anti-war party that also happened to be libertarian on economics vs. a progressive pro-war party, which would be the right one to choose? That might actually be a tough choice, but for better or worse, it’s not the one we face.

  4. Maybe that’s part of the problem Obama is having but in the opposite direction – he’s a liberal democrat who drills offshore for oil, who grants religious exceptions, etc. It ends up disaffecting some people and I’m not sure how many from the other side are attracted enough to make up for that. An anti-war candidate with libertaian economic policies would just make everyone mad :)

  5. Yeah, although I think we have to remember that a lot of people who voted for Obama in 2008 are not ideological liberals. The discussion in the blogosphere, on Twitter, etc. is dominated by self-consciously liberal pundits who are probably far more angry/disappointed at Obama’s “deviations” than the average voter.

  6. I see a lot of criticism of him on Catholic blogs because those who voted for him thought since he was religious he’d be tougher on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.

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