My old friend and frequent leftist conscience Matt Stannard has taken to task, in a strong and persuasive editorial, those left-leaning individuals who are cheering for Ron Paul (whom he calls “an opportunistic, dishonest, 76-year-old charlatan”) to go the distance in the Republican primaries. The number of these Paul-supporting progressives, left-liberals, Greens, and socialists of various stripes is pretty small overall, but not negligible, and it include some fairly (in)famous names, like Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, Tom Hayden, and others. Nader–whom I’ve defended before and still admire–isn’t in denial about the huge gap between those on the left and Paul’s style of libertarian-conservatism when it comes to social spending and welfare, but he does think that supporting a real challenge to “corporate-conservatism” is worth it, particularly if it could mean undermining or at least scaling back the military-industrial complex and corporate welfare. Matt is having none of that. As he writes, before thoroughly dismantling Paul’s supposed appeal to left-leaning voters:
“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.
I agree with Matt here completely; to stand on the left, whether one does so with a populist or an anarchist or a social democratic or a communitarian or an egalitarian perspective (or some combination thereof), means at the very least to begin with a foundational belief in equality. To begin instead, as Paul does, with a foundational belief in individual liberty and property has generally resulted, in the American context, in the sort of attitude which Jacob Levy (a libertarian himself) has rightly condemned: “the interpretation of American history that says ‘we were free until 1937’–an interpretation in which the restriction on Filburn’s wheat production is slavery but actual chattel slavery and the tyranny of Jim Crow are asterisks.” This is correct; even if this sort of libertarianism would advance many causes I think valuable, it carries with it much too much for any clear-thinking leftist to find it worth embracing.
However, “embracing” and “voting for” are not the same thing. I recognize that voting is in many ways an expressive act, and legitimately such…but it’s a strategic act as well. In that sense, I disagree with Matt, as I can see some real value, as a leftist, to nonetheless supporting Ron Paul in certain circumstances. For example, should he choose to run as an independent candidate for president after he fails to win the Republican nomination and his name appears on the ballot here in Kansas, which will surely send its electoral votes in the direction of the GOP candidate, I might vote for him, depending on whomever else is on the ballot, to complicate local Republican politics if for no other reason. More immediately, I’m pulling for him to win the Iowa Caucuses next week. Why? Here are three reasons:
1) Because I have three students who are part of Christmas with Ron Paul and are traveling the back roads of Iowa right now–I want them to feel as though their work was successful, as well as educational. I’m actually quite curious to hear their reports when they return. None of them are committed libertarians and only one of them has ever appeared to me to be an active social conservative; one of them, in fact, is a supporter of Occupy Wichita and has told me that the best thing that could be done for American capitalism (which he proudly affirms his devotion to) would be overturning the Citizens United decision. So I’m hoping for Paul’s success in Iowa because such would be a nice addition to their own continuing development as citizens.
2) Because Mitt Romney is all but guaranteed to easily win the New Hampshire Republican primary, and if does so after pulling off a win in Iowa, then he’ll be able to sail without serious trouble through whatever reversals primaries in southern states may throw at him through the rest of January on his way to a bunch of wins in February and then eventually to cleaning up on Super Tuesday in March. Again, I repeat: absent huge unpredictable events (sex scandals, al–Qaeda attacks, meteors from space, etc.), there is no serious political science model which presents any other likely result besides Romney being the Republican nominee for president. And…that’s boring. I’m a political junkie, I like political contests, and so I’d like this one to be kept alive and not-boring as long as possible. A Ron Paul win in Iowa would help that one along.
3) Most importantly, because–note reason number 2–a Ron Paul win in Iowa has almost no chance whatsoever in advancing Paul in a serious way towards the Republican nomination. Hence, his whole campaign is best viewed as an occasion for argument. An argument amongst the GOP itself? Would that such would be the case! But no, the Republican establishment’s dismissal of Paul is pretty obvious; they will just tune him out, as always. The truly interesting argument is the one which the rise of Ron Paul as arguably the leading figure in American libertarianism has caused amongst those sympathetic to that position. The aforementioned Jacob Levy being a case in point, but you also see it the writings of Erik Kain, Mark Thompson, and, especially, Steve Horwitz: Paul is causing a real struggle amongst libertarians, as they (some of them, anyway) attempt to distinguish their distrust of concentrations of state power from the sort of fetishistic individualism which has, in recent decades, joined up with federalist (or neo-Confederate)-inspired dreams of reaction against all the political, social, and cultural (but, unfortunately, rarely the economic) developments in America in the 20th century. As a student of political ideologies that has long hoped a serious libertarian challenge could emerge in America which would break apart existing Republican and Democratic coalitions (and, not coincidentally, perhaps even turn the Democratic party back towards its old-school, religiously-informed sense of populism and social justice), I can only see this as a good thing.
Does this argument amongst libertarians require a Ron Paul win in Iowa to keep happening? No–but it certainly wouldn’t hurt it, and if anything it might help it along even further. Imagine Ron Paul winning big in Iowa, and actually making a decent showing in New Hampshire. The Wall Street money which supports Mitt Romney would have to come out in force, pushing back against Paul (as Gingrich has been forced to) in regards to his record on racial and gender issues, his 19th-century economic ideas, his isolationism. Much of those beliefs of Paul’s are embarrassing and ugly nonsense, but some of them are actually intriguing–and continually pushing the argument over all stuff that into the front of the news cycle could force libertarians to continue to do some clarifying work over their movement. I see relatively little value in libertarianism-as-classical-liberalism myself–but to the extent that libertarianism evolves closer to, at least in the minds of its most educated advocates, something progressive, something that recognizes the need to begin one’s defense of liberty not with property, but with a society of equal individuals, then it’s something I can learn from (as well as contribute to). Any leftist could, I suspect.