For a brief moment in early October, the political punditry took note of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the long-shot libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Paul was the only Republican to raise more money in the third quarter of this year than the second quarter. In fact, with a haul of more than $5 million in the quarter, he has more cash in the bank than former front-runner Sen. John McCain.
If this were only a question of an obscure matter in some corner of the Republican universe, socialists probably wouldn’t give it any notice. However, Paul has managed to attract support from a wider layer of people, including those opposed to the Iraq war. To them, Paul comes off as a straight shooter who speaks unpopular truths against a two-party establishment that would rather not listen.
Indeed, that is probably one of Paul’s strongest qualities. Whatever one thinks of his politics–and most of this column will be sharply critical of them–he’s not a phony. He believes what he says, and he has a record of many congressional votes when he stood alone or with single-digit minorities against a tide of opinion. He’s no hobnobber or power broker. He annually returns to the U.S. Treasury money unspent by his staff.
But why would opponents of the war–generally thought to be on the left side of the political spectrum–be open to the appeal of one of only four members of Congress to endorse Ronald Reagan for president in 1976?
When it comes to the war, Paul does take a number of positions that put him to the “left” of Democratic Party liberals. While Democratic leaders were outraging their base supporters in approving the $124 billion war-funding bill last May, Paul voted against it. Antiwar activists would certainly find little to disagree with Paul’s explanation for his vote:
Only with the complicity of Congress have we become a nation of preemptive war, secret military tribunals, torture, rejection of habeas corpus, warrantless searches, undue government secrecy, extraordinary renditions, and uncontrollable spying on the American people. The greatest danger we face is ourselves: what we are doing in the name of providing security for a people made fearful by distortions of facts. Fighting over there has nothing to do with preserving freedoms here at home. More likely, the opposite is true.
Paul supports repealing the USA PATRIOT Act and dismantling U.S. military bases overseas. He opposes a U.S. attack on Iran. On the domestic side, he opposes gun control, the Real ID Act and calls on the U.S. government not to discourage the use of natural remedies and supplements that the big pharmaceutical companies oppose.
Taken separately, each of these positions would find a hearing among those who consider themselves on the left. But these stands can’t be separated from the rest of his transparently reactionary agenda.
That is because Paul’s positions, no matter how left-sounding, flow from a fairly (although not totally) consistent conservative worldview.
On the one hand, he promotes a libertarianism that verges on fantasy: he seems to advocate a pre-20th century world of rugged individualism, with minimal government and an economy based on the gold standard. On the other hand, a strong strain of “America First” nationalism runs through his positions.
According to Paul, “Property rights are the foundation of all rights in a free society.” So the “freedom” he advocates is a society with no income taxes, little or no government programs for the poor or disadvantaged, and no regulation of occupational safety and health or food and drug standards.
Interestingly, one exception to his views is abortion. Paul touts himself as anti-abortion, apparently seeing no contradiction between his views on personal privacy and the right of women to control their own bodies.
What should be equally disturbing to progressives is the “America First” character of Paul’s foreign policy, which bears a strong resemblance to right-wingers like Patrick Buchanan–or the even farther-out fringes of the nationalist right in the U.S.
A handwritten fundraising letter Paul sent to supporters earlier this month sounds as if a member of a right-wing militia or an old right outfit like the John Birch Society could have written it:
I don’t need to tell you that our American way of life is under attack. We see it all around us–every day–and it is up to us to save it.
The world’s elites are busy forming a North American Union. If they are successful, as they were in forming the European Union, the good ol’ USA will only be a memory. We can’t let that happen. The UN also wants to confiscate our firearms and impose a global tax. The UN elites want to control the world’s oceans with the Law of the Sea Treaty. And they want to use our military to police the world.
A substantial part of Paul’s foreign policy emphasizes “border security,” cracking down on “illegal aliens” and saving the U.S. from a NAFTA-based attack on U.S. sovereignty.
For this reason, Paul voted to bar the U.S. government from informing the Mexican government of the location of border outposts of the racist Minuteman Project vigilantes. And, belying his image as a down-to-earth country doctor, he voted in favor of reporting to law enforcement undocumented people who seek hospital care.
There’s no getting around the fact that the Ron Paul who is attractive to antiwar activists is the same Ron Paul who believes that the UN threatens “U.S. sovereignty” and that U.S. borders are being overrun by illegal immigrants.
This should lead us to a couple conclusions about the nature of Paul’s politics.
First, libertarianism–at least the type that Paul, the 1988 Libertarian Party candidate for president, upholds–provides no way forward for people who lean left. Those who are impressed by Paul should recall that Milton Friedman, the archconservative economist whose free-market ideology has devastated millions of lives, also opposed the military draft.
Second, while traditional conservatives have criticized U.S. expansionism and interventionism, this doesn’t make them allies of the left. One of the strongest opponents of NATO and the Marshall Plan in the 1940s was Republican Sen. Robert Taft, the leading conservative of the day and chief sponsor of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act.
Those on the left who admire Paul’s stands against the Patriot Act and the war should recall the old adage that “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” They should take a deeper look at the rest of his politics–because most of them wouldn’t want to live in the kind of society that Ron Paul wants.