The Ron Paul phenomenon

An unconventional, anti-Beltway presidential candidacy is understandably igniting genuine political passion.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published November 6, 2007 10:10AM (EST)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V - Update VI - Update VII)

By far the most significant and interesting political story of the past 24 hours is the extraordinary, record-breaking outpouring of support for Ron Paul's presidential campaign. Therefore, it is being ignored by much of our establishment press -- not a single article about it in The New York Times or The Washington Post (though it is discussed on a couple of their blogs), nor even a mention of it on the websites of CNN or CBS News (which found space to report on Stephen Colbert's non-candidacy). But MSNBC and Fox News did at least both post the AP article on the Paul story.

Regardless of how much attention the media pays, the explosion of support for the Paul campaign yesterday is much more than a one-time event. The Paul campaign is now a bona fide phenomenon of real significance, and it is difficult to see this as anything other than a very positive development.

There are, relatively speaking, very few people who agree with most of Paul's policy positions. In fact, a large portion of Americans -- perhaps most -- will find something in his litany of beliefs with which they not only disagree, but vehemently so. Paul has a coherent political world-view and states his positions clearly and unapologetically, without hedges, and that approach naturally ensures greater disagreement than the form of please-everyone obfuscation which drives most candidates.

Paul, of course, is not only in favor of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, but also emphatically opposes the crux of America's bipartisan foreign policy consensus. He reserves his greatest scorn for America's hegemonic rule of the world through superior military force, i.e., its acting as an empire in order to prop up its entangling alliances and enduring conflicts -- what George Washington lamented as "permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others."

And Paul is as vigilant a defender of America's constitutional freedoms -- and as faithful an observer of the constitutional limitations on government power designed to preserve those freedoms -- as any national political figure in some time. In one interview, Paul put it this way:

As a matter of fact, if you look at every single problem we're facing today, it's because of the lack of respect for the rule of law and the Constitution.

At the same time, Paul is as much of an anti-abortion extremist as it gets, having proposed federal legislation to define conception as the beginning of life, and denying federal courts jurisdiction to adjudicate abortion cases. He is near the far end of what is considered the "right" in terms of immigration policy and favors a drastically reduced role for the federal government in everything from education to health care.

So there is at least something in Paul's worldview for most people to strongly dislike, even hate, if they are so inclined. Yet that apparent political liability is really what accounts for the passion his campaign is generating: it is a campaign that defies and despises conventional and deeply entrenched Beltway assumptions about our political discourse and about what kind of country this is supposed to be.

While Barack Obama toys with the rhetoric of challenging conventional wisdom, Paul's campaign -- for better or worse -- actually does so, and does so in an extremely serious, thoughtful and coherent way. And there are a lot of people who, more than any specific policy positions, are hungry for a political movement which operates outside of our rotted political establishment and which fearlessly rejects its pieties, even if they disagree with some or even many of its particulars.

Moreover, circumstances often dictate political priorities. Individuals who historically may not have been attracted to "limited-government" rhetoric and all of the specifics it traditionally entails may find that ideal necessary now after six years of endless expansions of intrusive federal government power.

Regardless of one's ideology, there is simply no denying certain attributes of Paul's campaign which are highly laudable. There have been few serious campaigns that are more substantive -- just purely focused on analyzing and solving the most vital political issues. There have been few candidates who more steadfastly avoid superficial gimmicks, cynical stunts, and manipulative tactics. There have been few candidates who espouse a more coherent, thoughtful, consistent ideology of politics, grounded in genuine convictions and crystal clear political values. Here is what Jon Stewart said to Paul on The Daily Show:

You appear to have consistent principled integrity. Americans don't usually go for that.

There is never a doubt that Paul actually believes what he is saying, nor is there any doubt that what he believes is the by-product of critical and rational thought grounded in genuine political passion.

Perhaps most importantly, Paul is the only serious candidate aggressively challenging America's addiction to ruling the world through superior military force and acting as an empire -- not by contesting specific policies (such as the Iraq War) but by calling into question the unexamined root premises of these policies, the ideology that is defining our role in the world. By itself, the ability of Paul's campaign to compel a desperately needed debate over the devastation which America's imperial rule wreaks on every level -- economic, moral, security, liberty -- makes his success worth applauding.

I actually think the Paul phenomenon is, in a very rough way, comparable to the phenomenon that fueled the early stages of the 2004 Howard Dean candidacy. Because Dean is now the head of the DNC, he's become a rather mundane Beltway politician, and that is how his candidacy is now widely remembered, but that obscures the highly unconventional genesis of Dean's ascension. When Dean first began to attract attention, he was intense, passionate, and angry -- not merely at the Bush administration but also at his own party, and he was speaking in tones and about ideas that were virtually non-existent in war-crazed, Bush-revering Washington in 2002 and 2003.

Like Paul, Dean didn't actually speak in conventional ideological terms -- he emphasized federalism principles and gun rights and balanced budgets and government frugality -- and he attracted a large amount of support because of the anti-Beltway ethos of his candidacy, including among many people who were previously apolitical and far from ideologically rigid, at least in the standard establishment way of understanding ideology. Just as there are now, there were many conventional Democrats running in 2004. Dean's appeal lay in his unconventionality, just as Paul's does.

Part of the dynamic of an unconventional candidacy is that it can become a repository for a whole array of disparate, unrelated groups. The lack of ideological familiarity enables many people with unconventional (even extremist or bizarre) political views to read into those candidacies whatever they want to see -- even if it isn't really there -- and to use the candidate as a proxy for their otherwise ignored and stigmatized causes. That was true to some degree for Dean, and is probably true to a much larger extent with Paul. But there is still clearly a coherent core to the rationale of both candidacies, and it is characterized by intense dissatisfaction with the mandated assumptions of mainstream political discourse.

Additionally, the establishment's reaction to both candidacies is similar. Even though they both were espousing ideas more substantive and thoughtful on vital issues than any other candidates, both of them were depicted as radical, fringe losers not to be taken seriously. This, despite the fact that they are both eminently rational medical doctors repeatedly re-elected by the people who know them best -- their constituents. But the Beltway political and media elite protect their prerogatives by demonizing anyone who challenges them as an unserious loser, and that is how they depicted Dean (until he joined them) and how they now depict Paul.

I don't want to push the Dean/Paul analogy too far. There are obviously very major differences between them and what fueled each of their candidacies. But the hallmark of both was that they tapped into the widespread and intense scorn for the rancid establishment governing the Beltway, and anything that does so is something to be cheered.

The YouTube video which I'm posting below makes, I think, as strong and compelling a case for Paul's candidacy as anything I've seen, and goes a long way towards explaining the passion it is generating. Early on in the video, one voter says this, which I think is -- again, rightly or wrongly -- more or less representative of the defining sentiment behind the surging support for Paul:

The right guy is the guy who's anti-government, anti-war, pro-personal-liberty, pro-economic freedom. Vote for him, whatever party he is . . . . If you really want to have a choice between a real revolutionary candidate and someone out of the machine, this is how it can happen.

This is a very engaging and revealing video. Personally, I could definitely do without the sappy and cliched Simon & Garfunkel background music and all the prophet talk at the end, but other than that, this expresses rather vividly the real passion that Ron Paul's campaign is understandably igniting:

UPDATE: I want to clarify what I think is one critically important point in response to some of the comments. Paul's opposition to having the Federal Government involved in things such as education and health care is constitutional in nature. His argument is that the Constitution only permits the Federal Government to exercise explicitly enumerated powers in Articles I and II and, pursuant to the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution . . . are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Thus, his argument, at least on this level, has nothing to do with whether there would be good or bad results from having the Federal Government exercise powers in these areas. His argument is that the Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to do so, regardless of whether it's desirable. If one wants the Federal Government to exercise specific powers which the Constitution prohibits, then the solution is to amend the Constitution, not to violate it because of the good results it produces.

While there are certainly arguments to dispute Paul's constitutional view (the Supreme Court, for instance, has had to reach to Congress' Article I authority to "regulate Commerce . . . among the several States" in order to "justify" many of these Federal Government activities), the argument that there are "good results" from having the Federal Government do these things -- or that there would be "bad results" if it didn't -- isn't a coherent or responsive reply to Paul's position.

It's either constitutional or it isn't for the Federal Government to exercise these powers, and it's irrelevant (for this argument) whether there is a "need" for the Federal Government to do so (for exactly the same reason that it's irrelevant whether unconstitutional and illegal warrantless eavesdropping is beneficial for guarding against Terrorist attacks). Regardless of one's view of Paul's specific Tenth Amendment theories, it is critical to emphasize -- as a general matter -- that "good results" is not a justification for having the Government violate the Constitution or any other law. That's true when the violations are committed by the Bush administration or anyone else.

UPDATE II: I honestly don't understand why it's even necessary to point this out, but as I saw when I lauded Chris Dodd's recent actions, it absolutely is. Saying something positive about a specific candidate does not mean that one: (a) is voting for that candidate; (b) is encouraging others to support that candidate; (c) believes the candidate espouses every correct view on every issue, (d) sees the candidate as flawless and god-like and the embodiment of political salvation, or (e) hates all the other candidates.

UPDATE III: I erroneously wrote that the NYT had no article on Paul's fundraising. They published this story by David Kirkpatrick on page A20.

UPDATE IV: The most illegitimate argument against Paul is the attempt to tie him to the views of some of his extremist and hateful supporters. I referenced that fallacy above, and elaborated on it in this comment.

And here is Markos Moulitsas -- no Naderite he -- on Paul's fundraising explosion (h/t Lambert): "This is the single biggest example of people-power this cycle." Markos adds that though he wishes it were a Democrat doing this, "it's nevertheless a beautiful thing to behold."

UPDATE V: Melissa McEwan raises what might be the biggest chink in Paul's "consistent, principled" armor: namely, his support for a federal law defining "life" as beginning at conception -- which means, she writes, that he is "advocating forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term against her will, which, by any definition, is -- at best -- an encroachment on her civil liberty."

At the very least, there does seem to be some tension between Paul's advocacy of that law and his federalism principles. Even Fred Thompson emphatically said this weekend that he would oppose federalizing abortion laws, believing that it should be left up to the states.

But there is a consistent, anti-choice libertarian position. Libertarians generally believe that government coercion is illegitimate except to prevent one from directly harming another (hence the justification for laws prohibiting murder, assault, etc.). Thus, libertarians who believe on scientific grounds that a fetus is a "person" are arguably acting consistently (even if misguidedly) by advocating anti-abortion laws.

In any event, I have heard from some Paul supporters today that he has modified his abortion position and now more or less shares the view expressed by Thompson. I haven't seen any independent verification of that but would be interested in seeing it, since there is at least a good argument to make (as McEwan does) that a federal law banning abortion is inconsistent with the principles Paul espouses.

UPDATE VI: I'll be on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight at 6:30 p.m. to discuss these issues. Local listings and live audio streaming are here.

UPDATE VII: PBS' Judy Woodruff conducted a fairly decent interview with Paul a couple of weeks ago during which Paul elaborated on several of his positions, including this:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Abortion, you've said you'd like to make it impossible for the federal government to regulate abortion, which would, in effect, I guess, negate Roe v. Wade.

REP. RON PAUL: Yes, it would, because I think that's a state issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the states would be able to do away with abortion.

REP. RON PAUL: That's right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, in effect, would you like to see abortion banned everywhere? Or what's your position on that?

REP. RON PAUL: I'd like to ban the federal government intervention in abortion. So since I've only been a federal official -- a congressman and then running for the presidency -- I say that we should keep our hands out of it. . . .

The states, they should deal with it, because they're difficult. The more difficult an issue is, the more local the solution ought to be.

I'm not quite sure how that can be squared with his prior proposed legislation that "seeks to define life as beginning at conception" as a matter of federal law, but he said just a couple of weeks ago that abortion laws should be left up to states to decide.

In that interview, he also makes clear that some of his more extremist positions regarding eliminating federal agencies and the like are more ideals, abstract aspirations, and not actual policies he thinks he would be able to implement the day after he is in office. But read the answers he gave on foreign policy and decide for yourself if there is anyone challenging the core premises of our role in the world with anything approaching his level of coherence and persuasiveness.

Glenn Greenwald

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