Ron Paul and Progressives
What debates about Ron Paul tell us about the state of the left
I have to admit it—I’m one of these people that gets excited when I hear Ron Paul rail against the military industrial complex, the barbarity of the War on Drugs, and the massive erosion of civil liberties that has taken place since the Bush presidency. Sure, the twelve-term congressman from Texas isn’t the greatest orator—his declaration after the Iowa Caucus that “We’re all Austrians now!” has to be one the most awkward political moments in recent memory— but he seems to possess that increasingly rare quality: adherence to principle. It isn’t uncommon for American politicians to declare their undying love for the Constitution, but one gets the impression that Paul really has it. It gets more complicated when you ask why.
Paul is a libertarian ideologue. He wants the U.S. government out of Afghanistan like he wants it out of education, the economy, and environmental regulation. And whatever he says, I still don’t really buy that his son—the Tea Party’s favorite Senator from Kentucky—isn’t named after that humorless, poor-people despising author of Atlas Shrugged.
That being said, debates about Ron Paul in left-leaning circles have been surging and both sides have made some legitimate points.
Glenn Greenwald has convincingly argued that a lot of liberals aren’t systematically applying the “lesser than two evils” logic when they trash Paul and defend Obama. After all, our President has fulfilled and now surpassed the Bush precedent on war and civil liberties—any Obama supporters who care deeply about either of those issues would need to make a strong case that Paul’s “evils” are worse than those.
Others have rightfully cautioned against supporting Ron Paul. Putting aside the now famous newsletters and the irresolvable debates about whether or not he’s really a racist or not, his economic proposals run counter to everything the left supposedly believes in.
As The Nation’s Kathy Pollit writes: “It makes no sense for progressive pundits who have devoted their lives to defending the welfare state, progressive taxation, labor unions and the federal government’s ability to protect citizens from abuses at the state level to heap praise on Paul, who vigorously opposes all those things as part of his Ayn Randian anti-government, every-man-is-an-island worldview.”
Former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts, in totally over-dramatic fashion, gave readers of Counterpunch an ultimatum: “America has one last chance, and it is a very slim one. Americans can elect Ron Paul President, or they can descend into tyranny.”
Despite the Alex Jones-esque tone of the piece—not too surprising, considering the conspiracy-minded radio host from Texas is a firm Paul supporter—Roberts makes the well-grounded case that when it comes to Paul’s most dangerous economic plans, “[he] would be isolated in the White House and would never be able to muster the support of Congress and the powerful interest groups to achieve such radical changes.”
On the other hand, Roberts argues, Paul would be able to use his executive power to implement those platform positions of his that progressives most value: putting an end to war, starting to restore civil liberties, and reversing the War on Drugs.
There’s some truth in all of these claims. But these debates point to something more obvious. They show us how desperately progressives need an actual political alternative—a candidate and a party that deeply opposes war, values civil liberties and believes in the redistributive power of government, serious financial and environmental regulation, reproductive rights, and other left positions. It’s true that in the absence of mainstream politicians that actually care about war or civil liberties, Ron Paul can seem tempting. But what’s far more important is having an alternative consistent with other core social-democratic principles.
Alternative left candidates do exist—the former mayor of Salt Lake City running on the Justice Party label and the Green Party’s Jill Stein are probably going to be on the ballot in a number of states. But as usual, these candidates will hardly receive any media attention. And when the freak show that is the Republican primary race comes to a close—keeping in mind that a Ron Paul victory is only slightly more likely than a Colbert/Cain triumph—the “lesser than two evils” logic is most likely to prevail.
We’re headed for a dreary election cycle—maybe not since 1968 has there been so bleak of a choice (one even imagines the DNC has some regrets about choosing Charlotte for the convention—good luck to Obama as he tries to channel his economic populism at Bank of America Stadium). All in all, progressives would do well not to have illusions about either of the two main candidates, just as we shouldn’t have any about Ron Paul and all that he stands for.