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On Ron Paul and Progressivism

I wrote previously about Ron Paul’s newsletters, and I still think there’s reason to condemn not only the writings but the worldview they espouse, one which Paul embraces even as he disavows some of the finer points of the newsletters. But I think there’s more to say about this incident and what it means about American politics.

First of all, let’s stipulate that the “perfect candidate” that professes every single one of your deeply held beliefs doesn’t practically exist, unless the candidate happens to be you. Failing that, you can line up in support of candidates on some issues and oppose them on others, and if you rally enough mass support, the more popular issues get emphasized and the less popular ones de-emphasized.

Paul rose to prominence among his base of young people on the strength of antiwar views, defenses of civil liberties, and in some respects an extreme libertarian position on the economy, particularly antipathy toward the Federal Reserve. But these views are all broadly popular among the mass of the citizenry. I find it extremely telling that, when the call came from on high to “take down” Paul and make him unelectable, the powers that be didn’t choose those antiwar issues, which are out of step politically with the Republican Party. Instead they chose the 20 year-old racism charges. They’ve taken this to such a level that we are told that, if Paul wins the Iowa caucuses, the caucuses don’t matter.

In other words, isolationist foreign policy and prioritizing liberty above security, views which were supposed to be toxic in a Republican primary, must have been polled, and to the horror of neoconservatives and the Republican establishment, they found those views to have broad GOP support. This is a very good sign going forward. The belligerence of the GOP, the law and order posse, to imperialism, is a mile wide and an inch deep. You can mask it with xenophobia for a while, but those views actually have no support among the party which is assumed to embody them.

It turns out that Paul has lots of other views, which he de-emphasized over the years. This includes the appeals to racist and bigoted elements of the conservative fringe, as well as paranoiac John Birch Society beliefs. In the 1990s, Paul discoursed about United Nations plots for one-world government, the abolition of the freedom of religion, secret rule by the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, and other whacked-out theories and conspiracies. You cannot explain this away; it’s central to Paul’s critique of current governmental structures. It’s somewhat central to his appeal.

But let’s add one other note. Those defending Paul on the racism charge do make a keen argument, that his critique of the US drug war is in its own way a condemnation of historical racism. [cont’d]

In 1988 Paul made a presidential campaign stop at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws while running on the Libertarian Party ticket. “What was so bad about the period from 1776 to 1914?” Paul wondered, referring to a time in American history when drugs were legal on the federal, and, in many towns, local level. “In the 20th Century, the doctors, like all business people, decided that there ought to be a monopoly. ‘If you wanted a little bit of codeine in your cough medicine, it would be much better if you come to me so I can charge you $25 for a prescription.’”

Paul, in a speech aired at the time on C-SPAN went on. “Before the 20th Century there was none of that and it was the medical profession as well as many other trade groups that agitated for the laws. And you know there’s a pretty good case made that this same concept was built in with racism as well. We do know that opium was used by the Chinese and the Chinese were not welcomed in this country,” Paul said. “We do know that the blacks at times use heroin, opium and the laws have been used against them. There have been times that it has been recognized that the Latin Americans use marijuana and the laws have been written against them. But lo and behold the drug that inebriates most of the members of Congress has not been touched because they’re up there drinking alcohol.” […]

The reaction of the American government, and its people, to drug use was — and still is — a complex mix of factors, involving lobbying by the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol industry, temperance advocates, and religious movements. Historically, the argument has played out — and continues to play out — amid a backdrop of racism and class antagonism. Racism and bigotry were generally not the drivers of prohibition movements, but instead were the weapons used by temperance advocates to achieve their ends. The movement to ban alcohol, for instance, gained its strongest adherents without resorting to bigotry, but when World War I broke out, the movement was quick to tie beer and booze to instantly despised German immigrants, pushing the effort over the Constitutional hump.

I don’t think you can separate virtually any figure supporting the drug laws in this country from the roots of racism, if you wanted to make the connection. So you have to choose between someone who allowed unfortunate racist comments to go out under his name, but who parted ways with the policy most likely to put minorities in chains over the last century, and more mainstream figures, who abhor such public expressions of racism but support these structurally racist policies.

I don’t know that there’s a right answer here. For all his bluster on the drug war, Paul just wants the states to come up with their own laws, so if you’re in a state under the spell of a “law-and-order” electorate with centuries of racial prejudice behind them, I think only the names on the backs of the agents facilitating the drug busts and mass incarceration would change. For all the correct anti-imperialist rhetoric, Paul would also shut off the US completely to outside appeals for support, meaning that millions of people suffering around the world from floods and earthquakes would never benefit from the superior logistical and financial support this country can provide, and the positive feedback that has on our international standing. I have never heard Ron Paul utter a word about the threat to the right of private property ownership from banks stealing homes. And Paul’s libertarianism ends with respect to a woman’s womb.

His view of government is almost entirely anti-progressive and problematic in a host of respects. That it has become popular among a small yet growing number of Americans represents a failure of the left, actually, to provide any kind of alternative to the war machine and surveillance state. You don’t actually have to accept the baby and the bathwater here; you can create a coherent, progressive vision of American domestic and foreign policy without devolving into rants about one-world government and the North American Union. The public deserves to have that kind of vision in our national debate.

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David Dayen

David Dayen