There’s been a recent debate in the progressive blogosphere, elevated out of numerous conversations on Twitter, about Ron Paul, which have in turn surfaced major questions about what it means to be a liberal in America today and how ideological views are expressed in the electoral context. These are hard questions, in part because so many people have invested their ideological hopes into political parties and individuals who don’t actual map well onto activists’ beliefs. Confronting the notion that your efforts to achieve the change you want in the world have not succeeded because you saw the vehicle as a politician who just doesn’t believe the same things as you is hard. When it’s extended beyond an individual to major swaths of one of our two political parties, it gets even harder to confront.
While there are many different facets of the debates that are being surfaced around Ron Paul, I see there as two primary thrusts to this conversation.
The first is that President Obama has not governed along the lines that he campaigned on (or, more accurately, as many of his progressive supporters expected him to campaign on – expectations built through Obama not being truthful and supporters believing what they wanted to believe). As Glenn Greenwald points out, some of Obama’s largest failings from the left have been in relation to his continuation of George Bush’s surveillance state, his codification of indefinite detention, his gross expansion of executive powers through things like assassinating an American citizen with no due process, and conducting a war in Libya that expressly lacked Congressional approval. This has included a war on whistleblowers which would make any Republican authoritarian proud. Additionally, Obama has stocked his administration with Wall Street bankers who crashed the economy and has coddled Wall Street while failing to help the 99% crushed by this collapse. Taylor Marsh details Obama’s (and the Democratic Party’s) failures to protect women’s rights, notably around Plan B. These are major failings. The President, ostensibly the largest representative of liberalism in America (by virtue of the Democratic Party’s past association with this set of ideas), is advancing radically conservative policies that were routinely decried by liberals when George Bush was responsible for them.
The second is that Ron Paul is a major party presidential candidate who occupies a very similar space as liberals on issues of war, surveillance, civil liberties and drug policy. These are not positions being advocated by any other Republican candidate and they are, as we saw above, not positions held by Barack Obama. Paul does not necessarily arrive at these positions through the same logical argument as most liberals – he opposes large-scale military spending not because he is a pacificist, but because he wants a tiny government. Matt Stoller has the definitive piece on the tensions Ron Paul creates for liberals, especially regarding the split between Ron Paul on foreign policy and Ron Paul on domestic and economic policies.
What’s remarkable to me is the extent to which any approving citation by liberals like Greenwald or Stoller of Ron Paul’s notably good positions on foreign policy and the drug war is how reflexively they get accused of supporting Ron Paul or condoning of Paul’s reprehensible racist newsletters. Greenwald goes so far as to spend eight paragraphs explaining and predicting how frequently people make tribal responses to any criticism or support of a given pol, thereby assuming statements like “Ron Paul is to the left of Obama on surveillance,” means “I support Ron Paul over Obama.” Nonetheless, that’s exactly the sort of response Greenwald received (as we see with tweets from these prominent liberal bloggers).
The mere mention of an alternative to Obama, be it a primary challenge, a third party challenge, a Republican to his left on many issues or whatever else, simply causes fits. It’s remarkable to watch, especially as it relates to positions where Obama has been unquestionably not what the Democratic Party has sold us for the last eighty years. This isn’t to say that Ron Paul is better than Obama or someone all liberals should vote for. As Greenwald frames it, it’s about making a choice as to where ones priorities are. Do you care about war and peace? The drug war? Well then Obama might not be the right person for you. But if you care about social programs and a government that provides services, Ron Paul is undoubtedly not the right person for you. Greenwald writes:
It’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else. An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:
Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.
Without my adopting it, that is at least an honest, candid, and rational way to defend one’s choice. It is the classic lesser-of-two-evils rationale, the key being that it explicitly recognizes that both sides are “evil”: meaning it is not a Good v. Evil contest but a More Evil v. Less Evil contest. But that is not the discussion that takes place because few progressives want to acknowledge that the candidate they are supporting — again — is someone who will continue to do these evil things with their blessing. Instead, we hear only a dishonest one-sided argument that emphasizes Paul’s evils while ignoring Obama’s (progressives frequently ask: how can any progressive consider an anti-choice candidate but don’t ask themselves: how can any progressive support a child-killing, secrecy-obsessed, whistleblower-persecuting Drug Warrior?).
This is really tough stuff that’s hard to confront. Tom Watson makes a strong case against Ron Paul that’s worth reading, in that it mostly stays away from the ad hominem demonization and makes the case about Watson’s priorities.
As for me, I think I’m in a pretty similar place as Katrina Vanden Heuvel, who tweeted: “I have big problems w/Ron Paul on many issues.But on ending preemptive wars & on challenging bipartisan elite consensus on FP, good he’s in.” This also seems to be the position of Greenwald and Stoller. It doesn’t make a political statement of support (in my case, there is none) but acknowledges the value of having someone saying these things with a national microphone.
Stoller writes about his experience working with Ron Paul’s congressional staff while he worked for Alan Grayson. Paul has been a part of some strange bedfellows work with liberal Democrats – stuff that is really important and valuable and cannot be easily dismissed by any intellectually honest observer, like auditing the Fed. What Paul shows in his work on the Hill on these issues and what he shows as being a voice for anti-war, pro-civil liberties positions which are not held by any other major presidential candidate is that there is a rupture in the political spectrum as aligned by the Republican and Democratic Parties. There is no clean left/right breakdown in the parties. Rather, both parties are conservative and elite serving. Paul offers the rare example of the possibility trans partisan agreement, something that used to be common in American politics. For example, liberal northern Republicans worked towards a civil rights bill for years with liberal Democrats before it finally passed. It is entirely possible for people of different political parties to agree and work together on one issue and disagree vehemently on other issues. That this is considered complicated or controversial is fairly mind-boggling. Tribalism and fealty to party have made this less common and less possible, as we see by the angry reactions to liberals saying good things about some of Ron Paul’s positions.
But what makes me particularly mad is the notion that speaking approvingly of a politician who is anti-war, anti-surveillance state, and pro-civil liberties, while also seeking to reduce the power of the elite-serving Federal Reserve is something that is simply improper for liberals, especially when a Democrat sits in the White House. This is offensive in the highest degree and the responses to Greenwald and Stoller in particular rise to the level of attempted silencing of dissent. It simply doesn’t do to support the protest movements of the Egypt and Tunisia, while opposing protests against similar problems in the United States. Or to put it differently, you can’t be an honest supporter of Occupy Wall Street if you oppose criticizing the President on issues of war, surveillance, civil liberties, and Wall Street power.
And though no one mentioned in the post has yet come out in political support of Ron Paul, so what if they do? Who has standing to tell an anti-war activist that they can’t support the individual they deem to be the most anti-war person running for President? Certainly not people who condoned the President’s unauthorized war in Libya. As for me, I’m in a similar place to Taylor Marsh, who described her vote as “up for grabs.” I don’t know who is out there to grab my vote, but voting for Barack Obama again doesn’t sound so appealing to me. But neither does voting for Ron Paul, whose stances on most domestic issues are anathema to my liberalism. There’s a beautiful option available to all Americans: writing in the person they want to vote for. While I don’t know yet who I will vote for, the idea of writing someone in is certainly an option for me. Oh and before anyone objects that this would cost Democrats the election, I live in Washington DC, which tends to go 90% for the Democratic candidate. First, my vote is not crucial in any game theory of how the election will play out and second, it’s my vote, thank you very much.
There is a real debate to be had about the direction of the Democratic Party and how liberalism can best be served in American politics. But I’m getting really tired of people preaching about what is and is not appropriate criticism of the President, what is and is not helpful (to what and who, I don’t know), or who liberals can say nice things about. If Occupy Wall Street is an indication of anything, it’s that our current political and economic structures are broken. We need new solutions and I find it hard to believe that the new solutions will exist on the clean, partisan lines that currently exist. That means there are openings for trans-partisan organizing where we work with the people and organizations who agree with us on a particular issue. As Stoller notes, sorting out “the contradictions of modern liberalism” is going to be a tough process and debates like the one that is catalyzing around Ron Paul should become more common. And that’s fine by me.