This is the state of progressive politics in America: A sizable number of left-Democrats and independent progressives are supporting right-wing, reactionary, racialist-sympathizing libertarian-Republican Ron Paul. Enough people nominally “on the left” are supporting him that their presence in Iowa is solely responsible for Paul’s likely victory in the upcoming Caucuses there. Progressive-minded folks appreciate Dr. Paul’s alleged anti-imperialism, his criticism of the failed War on Drugs, and his commitment to civil liberties. Although no thinking activist would argue that these positions are undesirable or terribly disingenuous, they are a reason to support the Greens, the Socialist Party, or any number of other parties and organizations. They’re a reason to support Bernie Sanders or even Dennis Kucinich. They might even be a reason to push for the Democratic Party to actually give a damn about the working class They are not a reason to support someone who believes, to cite the noxious Hank Williams, Jr., that “if the South woulda won, we’da had it made.” But that’s precisely what Ron Paul believes, and that belief is piled atop enough additional unhealthy, inhumane ideas that one is tempted to ask the self-proclaimed progressives among his followers: If David Duke or Louis Farrakhan promised to end military intervention and make it easier for you to get your weed, would you support them too?
The essence of the tension is this: To be on the left means to put working people, victims of oppression, and the natural environment above other priorities. “Left” is an orientation, not a list of policies. The policies emerge from the orientation. That similar policies may emerge from another orientation does not justify forming a political coalition with the far right. Working people, people of color, and the poor, cannot and should not latch onto Confederate, rich-white-guy libertarianism just because it converges with progressives on anti-imperialism and the war on drugs. And in fact, it really doesn’t converge. Ron Paul has no problem with states and localities (run by rich, minor aristocrats) locking up poor people and minorities. He’d have no problem with imperialism if it was filtered through the Constitution–which it can be. Electing millionaires and lackeys of millionaires is no way to solve the crises created by capitalism.
In fact, it’s worse than that. Ron Paul’s affiliation with neofascist extremism doesn’t merely negate his relationship to progressive causes. By fraternizing with racists and letting them speak for him for years, Paul has screwed over the anti-imperialist and pro-civil liberties movements. Because Paul was willing to have imbecilic cads like Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell write for him, conservatives and moderates will now be able to equate all anti-imperialists with racism—a gesture they have historically proven themselves willing to do.
To see his campaign staff scramble to make sense of his unresponsiveness on those newsletters and donation solicitations from two decades ago, it is as if Ron Paul never wrote or said anything of his own volition prior to the 2000s. Every time a new newsletter or fundraising letter comes forward lamenting the criminality of blacks or the immorality of gays or the danger of the government stamping UPC symbols coded with 666 on our buttcheeks, Paul’s staff says the candidate never knew about it, didn’t write it, doesn’t believe it. It would be easier for the staff, at this point, to list the things their candidate does believe.
One disturbing feature of the newsletters and other literature that makes Paul’s denial of having a hand in them either incredible or creepy is the amount of first-person voiceage found in the writings. “I miss the closet,” the author (identified as Ron Paul) writes about homosexuality in June 1990 (In 1994, the ghost-Paul would allege that AIDS victims “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.” This from a medical doctor). A 1984 fundraising letter claims that the “minions of Kissinger and Rockefeller” “want me silenced.” And in 1995, the author wrote: “Now that my five children are grown and educated, I’ve listened to the many supporters who’ve urged me to return to office. I can now give up my medical practice, and dedicate every fiber of my being to saving our country.” Throughout the decades, the newsletters are spiced with “as a doctor, I know” this, that, and the other. If these were ghost-written, rife with first-person narration, and Paul never read them, this would constitute most egregious case of editorial neglect in contemporary political history.
Whatever reactionary thinking we might attribute to Paul personally, there is a more parsimonious explanation for his embrace of such ideas throughout his political career: an opportunism that still exists today. Paul’s campaign is aware that the American Free Press, publishers of white supremacist literature, is facilitating the delivery of hundreds of copies of Paul’s collected speeches to voters in New Hampshire. The campaign is aware of neo-Nazi Stormfront members volunteering for the campaign. Ron Paul is not disavowing their support. Other than saying he’s not “very happy” about such support, Ron Paul only offers this explanation: “If they want to endorse me, they’re endorsing what I do or say – it has nothing to do with endorsing what they say” — a statement that is more disturbing the more you think about it; why doesn’t Paul want to know why such groups are endorsing his actions and ideas?
Atlantic senior editor Ta-Neishi Coates accepts the explanation that Paul’s earlier embrace of racists was opportunistic rather than ideological, an explanation that makes sense given the Rothbardian project of bringing more voters into the paleolibertarian fold by appealing to racial fear. It’s an explanation that “puts Ron Paul in the ugly tradition of non-racist demagogues.”
But Ron Paul isn’t merely dishonest about his racialist opportunism, or whatever it is. According to Capitol Hill Blue, Paul has a long history of diverting campaign funds into private foundations, thereby avoiding “disclosure on how the funds are spent and evidence suggests he is illegally using non-profit foundations for political activity…Nonprofits like Paul’s Campaign for Liberty evade disclosure by operating under the loose, and more secretive rules governing foundations. Even though federal law prohibits political activity by such groups, Paul’s Campaign for Liberty calls itself a ‘lobbying group’ for such issues as ‘individual liberty’ and ‘constitutional government’ as well as political candidate Ron Paul.” Paul uses the money to pay family members as well as political allies.
For the right, Ron Paul’s surge in Iowa presents a paradox. Conservatives share libertarians’ distrust of “big government” and may have enough self-doubt about the troubled history of grandiose neoconservativism to buy into Paul’s call for an end to U.S. power projection abroad. Still, Paul’s extremism is too much for more pragmatic conservatives to stomach. Writing for Commentary, Jonathan Tobin sees little benefit from conservatives embracing paleolibertarianism:
As much as libertarians and anti-establishment Republicans want to believe in him, he is a product of the John Birch milieu of the far right, and that leaves them twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify supporting a candidate for president who is irredeemably damaged by the lunatic fringe with which he has long associated himself. . . Principled libertarians need to rethink a decision to tie their ideas to such a flawed vessel. It’s more than obvious to all but his zealots that the vast majority of Americans want nothing to do with a candidate like Paul even if some aspects of his libertarian beliefs are attractive. Those intellectuals who try to justify supporting such a person’s futile run despite his long involvement with a hateful lunatic fringe are trashing their movement’s integrity for very little in return.
For the left, Ron Paul’s enduring popularity presents a more unique challenge. Paul’s support among naive progressives is a sign of the weakness of the Democratic Party and the inability of progressive third parties to articulate a widespread anti-imperialistic vision. Like the anti-imperialist left, Paul has hailed accused WikiLeaks source Pvt. Bradley Manning as a “true patriot.” Meanwhile, Eric Dondero, senior aide to Paul from 1997-2003, claims that the candidate is not merely opposed to U.S. aid to Israel, but to the existence of Israel itself.
He wishes the Israeli state did not exist at all. He expressed this to me numerous times in our private conversations. His view is that Israel is more trouble than it is worth, specifically to the America taxpayer. He sides with the Palestinians, and supports their calls for the abolishment [sic] of the Jewish state, and the return of Israel, all of it, to the Arabs.
Strong stuff (and I’m not comfortable attributing to the progressive left the belief that Israel has less of a right to exist than any other nation-state). But we forget at our peril that David Duke, Pat Buchanan, the KKK, and the Neo-Nazis all believe the same things about Israel. Right-wing populist demagogues have always appealed to a few tasty morsels of anti-imperialism in order to paint a broader vision of a radically right-wing society.
For those who lament the decline of intellect in politics, Ron Paul’s surge and perennial popularity should be a source of disappointment. It’s depressing that, Like Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul is held up as some kind of genius. That he and Gingrich are the best that bourgeois politics can do in the brain department is another reminder of just how bad things are. Take, for example, Paul’s positions on the one subject everyone, albeit begrudgingly, wishes to credit him: Economics. There’s a kind of old-wives-tale that libertarians know something about economics, although this is never borne out by the evidence. In this case, Paul can’t even get his vocabulary right, and his predictions (the ones his staff is no doubt currently preparing a memo saying he never made) haven’t come to pass, even in this time of sustained economic decline. As economics journalist Joseph Lazzaro points out, Paul can’t even get his economic terminology right. He refers to the U.S. Federal Reserve “printing money” when it’s the Treasury, not the Fed, that does so. Paul has used his incorrect nomenclature to predict that such money-printing will lead to hyper-inflation. This hasn’t happened, and most economists will argue that deflation is a greater threat than hyper-inflation anyway. As Lazzaro concludes, “the objective reality of the deflation risk confirms Keynesian economics, not Paul’s analysis.” As an adherent to libertarianism, Paul predicts that privatization of essential services will increase the efficiency and economic viability of such services. That just isn’t true, and the latest example has to do with the privatization of water in Texas.
Across the state, a growing number of suburban Texans are getting their water from large, private corporations owned by investors seeking to profit off the sale of an essential resource. State figures show private companies are seeking more price increases every year, and many are substantial. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates water and sewer rates for nonmunicipal customers, doesn’t keep numbers, but “their rate increases tend to be 40 and 60 percent,” said Doug Holcomb, who oversees the agency’s water utilities division.
In their Dungeons-and-Dragons world of Austrian economics and belief in a free market with no externalities, conservatives and libertarians have no room for such data. They have no room for evidence that the privatization of prisons only saves costs by decreasing both the punitive and rehabilitative quality of prisons, as well as decreasing the safety and health of prisoners and increasing the burdens on guards—as well as their incentives to brutality.
Paul is equally dismal on science, rejecting evolution and embracing an anti-woman philosophy concerning abortion—a position he’s eager to impose at the federal level notwithstanding his position on states’ rights. The candidate recently signed the Personhood Pledge, and has repeatedly introduced federal (not deferential to states, mind you) legislation to establish that life begins at conception.
The most disappointing thing about the real Ron Paul–both for his disciples and those who admire him without politically supporting him–is the ever-emerging evidence of just how normal a politician he is. He’s dishonest, privileged, and cynical (assuming his bad decisions were not motivated by incompetence). He’s sort of like a corrupt youth minister who knows he can ride on the adolescent enthusiasm of his followers because, by the time they figure out enough about him to move on, there will be another crop waiting to take their place. At age 76, Paul probably has another four years to stretch this scam out, which means his staff is preparing for yet another electoral season where their man supported but did not support racism, sanctioned but did not sanction homophobia, signed off on but did not know he signed off on the exclusion and hate that, despite what its adherents insist, is the true motivation behind libertarianism: The belief that, because other people are not as important as you, you ought to just be left alone, assuming you can afford it. Because the progressive vision (whether informed by organized labor, democratic socialism, religious egalitarianism, rational humanism, or whatever combination thereof) rejects precisely this kind of dismal individualism and selfishness, it’s especially disturbing that a handful of self-identified progressives would turn towards Ron Paul, either through ignorance of left alternatives to business as usual, or the belief that such alternatives are less viable than an opportunistic, dishonest, 76 year-old charlatan.