The Left and Ron Paul
By JEFF TAYLOR
“Equal rights for all; special privileges for none.”
“Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable . . . the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.”
“[The purpose of representative government is] to curb the excesses of the monied interests.”
“The influence over government must be shared among the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates in the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting of the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth.”
“Peace, then, has been our principle, peace is our interest, and peace has saved to the world this only plant of free and rational government now existing in it.”
“Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”
— Thomas Jefferson
You asked for a treatise to explain my support for the “lunatic” Ron Paul. Since you asked, I’ll send you some thoughts.
Why should Americans left-of-center–with commitments to peace, justice, and democracy–see Congressman Paul as a real option rather than as a right-wing wacko? That’s the question. Several years ago, I was hoping that Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) would run for president in 2008. He’s a principled statesman with a consistent record of opposition to war and empire, and support for democracy and civil liberties. He also has the potential to reach beyond his base of liberal Democrats to conservatives and libertarians with his stance on government frugality and bureaucratic waste. So, I was excited about a Feingold candidacy until he bowed out of the race.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) did not appeal to very many voters in 2004 and he is repeating that dismal showing in 2008. Part of his problem was his flip-flop on abortion when he entered the ’04 race. A principled pro-choicer like Feingold and a principled pro-lifer like Paul can earn respect from a wide range of people, but it’s hard to admire someone who jumped from pro-life to pro-choice seemingly as a matter of political convenience. As if the Democratic power brokers would ever consent to the nomination of Kucinich, regardless of how enthusiastic he becomes for “reproductive freedom”! So, from the get-go, Kucinich hobbled his efforts by undercutting his strongest selling point: his integrity.
My favorite candidate for the ’08 Democratic presidential nomination is Mike Gravel, former U.S. Senator from Alaska. But Gravel, like Kucinich, is treated as a joke by the mainstream media, has not raised substantial money, and languishes at the bottom of the polls. Thomas Jefferson was not perfect, but the founder of the Democratic Party had a platform that is not only remarkably good but still applicable and popular in 21st century America. Leavened with the racial egalitarianism of King, Abernathy, and Hamer, the Jeffersonian platform could be used by politicians for electoral success and wise policy.
Senator Feingold and Representative Paul, who have often voted together on major issues of the day despite being tagged as a “liberal Democrat” and “conservative Republican,” are examples of modern Jeffersonians. Senator Gravel is the most Jeffersonian candidate running among the Democrats this year, but he has failed to catch on with a wide portion of the citizenry. That’s where Ron Paul comes in.
Not only does Ron Paul represent Jeffersonian values usually termed “conservative” or “libertarian” today (fidelity to the Constitution, frugal government, states’ rights, Second Amendment, national sovereignty), but he is also a leading example of support for Jeffersonian positions nowadays described as “liberal” or “leftist” (e.g. opposition not only to the Iraq War but to war in general, anti-imperialism, ending the federal war on drugs, hostility to the Patriot Act and other violations of civil liberties). This accounts for the wide appeal of the Paul campaign. It’s precisely the sort of trans-ideological, cross-generational populist-libertarian-moralist coalition that I was hoping to see with a Feingold presidential campaign.
If we stipulate that a candidate polling at least 5% in national polls is a “major candidate,” there is simply no other major candidate in 2008 who is more Jeffersonian, more committed to peace, justice, and democracy, than Ron Paul. He puts pretenders like Edwards and Obama to shame. I like a lot of what John Edwards is saying on the campaign trail today, but I don’t think he means a word of it. He’s a limousine liberal phony when it comes to the rich/poor issue. He supported the Iraq War until it became widely unpopular. He voted for the Patriot Act. He claims to be against outsourcing of American jobs but he voted for permanent normalized trade relations (MFN) for China.
I think Barack Obama would be much preferable to Hillary Clinton as president, but his campaign is built on glossy generalities like “hope,” “youth,” and “unity.” It’s more about style than substance. If you study what he’s had to say about foreign policy when addressing elite audiences, you see that he’s not much different from Clinton and the DLC crowd. He’s in the mainstream of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its perpetual commitment to empire and globalization. Even his strongest selling point for the left–his opposition to the Iraq War in 2002-03–is suspect upon close examination. In his October 2002 speech, he told the anti-war crowd FOUR times that he was not opposed “to all wars.” He summed up his philosophy by saying, “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” There is nothing about war in general that is offensive to Obama. He objected to the Iraq War only on strategic grounds, not ethical grounds.
Referring to the U.S. Senate authorization vote of 2002, in July 2004, Obama told the New York Times, “What would I have done? I don’t know.” Asked about the pro-war votes of Kerry and Edwards, Obama told NPR, “I don’t consider that to have been an easy decision, and certainly, I wasn’t in the position to actually cast a vote on it. I think that there is room for disagreement in that initial decision.” Not exactly a stunning statement of the peace position! Obama told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in November 2006, “We cannot afford to be a country of isolationists right now. 9/11 showed us that try as we might to ignore the rest of the world, our enemies will no longer ignore us. And so we need to maintain a strong foreign policy, relentless in pursuing our enemies and hopeful in promoting our values around the world.” So 9/11 occurred during a period in our history when we were minding our own business (practicing “isolationism”)? That’s a novel explanation of events!
In April 2007, Obama told the CCGA, “I reject the notion that the American moment has passed. I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world why this is so.” Spoken like a true neoconservative. This messianic imperialism continues throughout the speech: “In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. . . . World opinion has turned against us. And after all the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, many Americans may find it tempting to turn inward, and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs. I insist, however, that such an abandonment of our leadership is a mistake we must not make. . . . We must lead the world, by deed and example.”
Obama even endorsed the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a bloodletting that had nothing to do with U.S. national security: “No President should ever hesitate to use force–unilaterally if necessary–to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened. But when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others–the kind of burden-sharing and support President George H.W. Bush mustered before he launched Operation Desert Storm.”
In contrast to Obama’s narrow and perhaps opportunistic reasons for opposing the Iraq War, Ron Paul has consistently opposed every U.S. military intervention since the 1970s. He’s the only major candidate who openly speaks out against the American empire and imperialism. Can you even imagine Hillary Clinton or John Edwards using the e-word or the i-word? Not in connection with our own government! When it comes to foreign policy, Ron Paul sounds as radical as Noam Chomsky. In fact, Paul is more radical because he refused to vote for Bush in 2004 while Chomsky was willing to vote for Kerry over a real anti-empire candidate like Nader. Paul not only talks the talk; he walks the walk. Yet he’s more acceptable to Middle America than someone like Chomsky or Howard Zinn because he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1960s and he has an obvious patriotism that makes him less vulnerable to the “hate-America” smear.
Ron Paul is the only major contender who calls for cutting off the billions of dollars of foreign aid we give to the Israeli government each year (and all other foreign aid as well, including the money going to Egypt and Colombia). None of the “progressive” Democrats care about justice for the Palestinians or dare to question the power of the pro-Israeli-government lobby. Congressman Paul does.
None of the leading Democrats voted against the Iraq War or the Patriot Act. Paul voted against both. All of the leading Democrats have voted time and again to fund the war in Iraq, thereby ceding the only power they have to end the war. Paul has always voted against Defense Department appropriations which include funding for the war. Unlike leading Democrats in the Clinton-Gore-Kerry tradition, Ron Paul opposes the death penalty because he believes in the sanctity of life.
Only Ron Paul funds his campaign without the assistance of PACs and the corporate rich. There is simply no other Democrat, including John Edwards, who has an equal record when it comes to relying on grassroots support, opposing plutocratic policies, and earning the enmity of Big Business. This is why the Wall Street Journal and FOX News detest the “Ron Paul Revolution.” The revolution includes stripping the overprivileged of many of their political and economic privileges. While the Manhattan-K Street-Hollywood crowd disdain Paul, supporters working on his behalf raise $6 million in a single day from the “common people” (average contribution: $100). If that’s not democracy at work, I don’t know what it is.
Ron Paul opposes both the warfare state and the welfare state. The welfare state includes much-publicized handouts to poor people (although far fewer than in the past, thanks to the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich gutting of AFDC), but even more importantly it includes middle-class entitlements and billions in taxpayer giveaways to the wealthy. Paul’s opposition to NAFTA and GATT is motivated not only by his belief in national sovereignty, but also by his suspicion of cozy deals between Big Government and Big Business.
Ron Paul does not play favorites. He wants to end corporate welfare across the board. His monetary policy of using sound, constitutional money would help the poor by curtailing the hidden “inflation tax.” A Paul effort to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and other manifestations of federal big government would make special interest lobbies unhappy but they would not hurt poor or average citizens. On the contrary, it would free up money and power to deal with problems at the state and local levels. Lower levels of government have been far more “progressive” than the feds in most policy areas over the years, in things ranging from corporate regulation to health policy to medicinal use of marijuana.
Ron Paul is not perfect as either a candidate or a policy maker. I don’t agree with him on everything. He has a few personal flaws and weaknesses. He has some disreputable supporters (e.g., racists and anti-Semites who like his opposition to globalization and plutocracy). As I write in my book, in contrasting the mainstream media’s depiction of politicians like John Kerry to more genuine liberals like Cynthia McKinney, “The disingenuous nature of their careers and campaigns is politely ignored while the flaws, real and imagined, of party mavericks are trumpeted by the smug talking heads and the frothy news magazines.” (p. 256) As with possible Green Party candidate McKinney, Paul’s real and imagined flaws are in the process of being magnified by the mainstream media as his popularity rises.
Journalists with the corporate press are enthusiasts of war, empire, global capitalism, political correctness, Leviathan statism, and other respectable projects of the Power Elite. Such things are the antithesis of Ron Paul. If you’re forming your opinion of Paul on the basis of coverage by the New York Times, The New Yorker, and NPR, it’s not surprising that you think he’s a “lunatic.” If you listen carefully, you’ll “learn” that he’s not only a lunatic, but a dangerous “racist lunatic.” It’s not true, but the truth is irrelevant when the special interests of the wealthy and powerful are threatened.
Meanwhile, a principled leftist like Alexander Cockburn recently wrote, “Huckabee’s single rival as a genuinely interesting candidate is another Republican, Ron Paul, who set a record a few days ago, by raising $6 million in a single day. Unlike Huckabee, Paul’s core issues are opposition to the war and to George Bush’s abuse of civil liberties inscribed in the U.S. Constitution. His appeal, far more than Huckabee, is to the redneck rebel strain in American political life–the populist beast that the US two-party system is designed to suppress. On Monday night Paul was asked on Fox News about Huckabee’s Christmas ad, which shows the governor backed by a shining cross. Actually it’s the mullions of the window behind him, but the illusion is perfect. Paul said the ad reminded him of Sinclair Lewis’s line, that ‘when fascism comes to this country it will be wrapped in a flag and bearing a cross.’ In the unlikely event they had read Lewis, no other candidate would dare quote that line.” (CounterPunch, December 22/23, http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn12222007.html)
Even though they disagree on some policies, Cockburn can respect a Republican who publicly warns against imperialism and fascism, and who views the Constitution as a still-binding set of rules . . . instead of “just a G**-d***** piece of paper,” as George W. Bush was quoted as saying to members of Congress in 2005. (http://www.capitolhillblue.com/artman/publish/article_7779.shtml)
I know it’s hard for many to see the possibility of any good Republican, but it’s worth remembering that the GOP heritage includes not only the plutocracy of Calvin Coolidge but also the democracy of Robert La Follette, not only the Wall Street of Thomas Dewey but also the Main Street of Robert Taft. Paul is in that La Follette-Taft tradition of anti-monopoly at home and non-intervention abroad. If the Gravel or Kucinich campaigns had caught fire during the past year, we would see some anti-war Republicans crossing party lines to support one of their candidacies as the vehicle of choice in 2008. Instead, we’re seeing some Democrats backing Paul.
While the stray neo-Confederate may like Ron Paul, he is also the recipient of more African American support than any other Republican. Paul is backed by both realistic veterans and idealistic pacifists, Christians and atheists, John Birchers and NORML members. It’s a kaleidoscope campaign–not of pandering or double-talking but of an honest commitment to an array of deeply held American values. Liberty and peace are popular. It’s not a cult of personality like Obama.
Who’s the real kook: the middle-class woman in Peoria concerned about the unconstitutional monetary system or the neoconservative in Washington who wants to remake the world in our image through the barrel of a gun? Who’s the real threat: the yahoo in Mississippi who thinks multiculturalism is destroying our traditional culture or the corporate lobbyist who buys and sells elected officials? Who’s the real isolationist: the young person who doesn’t want to tell people in other countries how to live their lives or the intellectual who turns our nation into the pariah of the world by sending Americans off to kill foreigners?
I don’t expect that you’ll support Ron Paul during the primary season, but I wanted you to at least understand why he could have some appeal for a three-time Nader voter such as myself. Many anti-war, pro-limited-government, grassroots democracy advocates will support Edwards, Obama, or some other mainstream candidate in the coming months, but I think we’re selling ourselves short when we do so. We may well end up with crumbs from the table in the end because that’s how the system is set up. But if we start the process by making it clear that we’ll settle for crumbs, we assure that we’ll never get anything more. Radical change will never happen because the Establishment understands that progressive voters can be taken for granted. In the end, most will fall into line behind the candidate with the (D) behind her/his name, no matter how unprogressive s/he is.
To me, voting for Kucinich, Gravel, McKinney, or Paul makes some sense even though they’re unlikely to win. At least we’re asking for something honest and principled during the first round of voting. Ron Paul isn’t the perfect candidate and his Jeffersonianism is not as full-bodied as I would prefer (e.g., he’s too weak on the ecological dimension), but at least he’s a step in the right direction and his ability to attract a wide range of grassroots support is commendable. He’s not the only good choice, but he’s no lunatic and there is some logic behind his campaign. It’s not everything, but it is something. In a rigged system with a populace divided by secondary issues and exploited by a bipartisan elite, it may be the best we can do in 2008.
The Ron Paul campaign does not represent a madness brought on by the moon. It’s closer to the truth to say it’s a hopeful manifestation of the sun shining on the political realm. It brings some clarity and accountability to government.
Jeff Taylor is a political scientist. His book Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy was published last year by University of Missouri Press. He contributed a chapter to the book A Dime’s Worth of Difference (Cockburn and St. Clair, eds.). For more information, see: http://www.popcorn78.blogspot.com.