Against possibly my better judgement here, I’m going to post my thoughts about Ron Paul. Recently, two of my favorite bloggers, Glenn Greenwald and Dave Neiwert, butted heats over what’s happening with Paul, who he really is, and what his surprisingly successful candidacy means in this election cycle. The fact that neither one of them was being dishonest about Paul, but both found that the other person’s perspective was odd – almost offensive – really demonstrates the minefield that Paul’s candidacy has become.
From Neiwert’s perspective as an expert on white supremacist groups and related far-right extremism, he’s seen Paul as a fellow traveller with these groups for years. His post here details some of the history of those connections. Where I find some agreement with Greenwald is that Neiwert seems to be attributing the popularity of Paul’s far-right libertarian message with an ascendance of far-right racism. There’s obviously an element of that in his support, but the reason that Paul is becoming so popular today has very little to do with racism. When you think of left vs. right as being a struggle between more government and less government, Paul is certainly the most far-right candidate in the Republican field. But in that context, far-right is far from being analogous to racist. And when Paul says, “Well, they’ll be disappointed if that’s why they’re supporting me,” I tend to agree with him in some respects. But his history of ties to the groups that Neiwert has been following also amounts to a legitimate reason to doubt him, especially when he starts sounding like Lou Dobbs on immigration.
In recent decades, “states’ rights” has often been synonymous with the movement to keep the federal government from eliminating policies of segregation that existed in the American south. Many people today believe that ending these policies was a valid and proper use of the federal government, but Congressman Paul has doctrinaire views of the Constitution and what limits it places on the federal government. There’s no reason to conclude that he arrived at these views out of racism, but adopting that ideology certainly aligned him with those whose animosity toward federal power is rooted in the belief that the federal government is foisting “multi-culturalism” on the individual states. And as a Congressman from Texas, it’s very likely that this was some element of his voter base. Whether he needs to disavow this support now in order to appeal to more voters is really the big question, although so far, his candidacy doesn’t seem to be slowed by it at all. And this has nothing to do with racism.
The Bush Administration has made it abundantly clear that the idea that Republicans are more federalist, or support the typical conservative notions of small government, has long been an illusion. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have supported the strong use of federal power whenever it suits their needs. And while most Americans (myself certainly included) don’t have a well-developed legal understanding of the ins and outs of federal power vs. state power, we all recognize circumstances where the federal government oversteps its bounds and needs to be restrained.
Following drug policy and related topics for years, two circumstances quickly come to mind, and help shed some light on why the idea of “states’ rights” means something very different to someone who’s not old enough to remember the civil rights era (the same people who are also driving Paul’s amazing fundraising success online). The first is the federal drinking age. Under pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 forced states to stop selling alcohol to those under 21. Before this, some states had already moved their drinking age to 21, while others had not. Ideally, this could have set up a situation where the states could compare experiences and determine whether raising the age to 21 was a good idea. Instead, you now have to rely on anyone who’s gone to college in the past 20 years to tell you how much of a disaster this policy is.
As any sane person would expect, raising the drinking age did nothing to stop underage people from drinking. All it did was force the drinking underground, hidden from authorities and other potential supervision, where the likelihood for people to be irresponsible or end up in dangerous situations went up substantially. Why was all of this was done? Because both the Reagan Administration and activist groups like MADD elevated the philosophy (launched by Nixon) that drug use and related moral failings were a federal concern, one for which states needed to have their own judgements overruled if they weren’t sufficiently in line with the moral majority in Washington DC.
The second circumstance involves what’s been happening over the past decade with various state medical marijuana laws. Despite the fact that some states decided to legalize the use of medical marijuana, the federal government just ignored these actions and kept enforcing the antiquated federal law that treats marijuana as a dangerous drug with no medical value. A cancer patient from California eventually took her case against the federal government to the Supreme Court, and the Court’s liberal majority ruled that the federal government had the right to take medicine away from cancer patients because they believed that the federal government has the right to regulate interstate commerce. And still today, the DEA and the Justice Department still very actively try to prosecute people involved in providing medical marijuana to patients who need it, and Congress continues to give them the A-OK.
Of course, these instances are only part of why Ron Paul’s campaign is resonating so powerfully, especially among younger voters. Many people see him more generally as the candidate who believes most fervently in the power of free markets, which has a big appeal to young voters (especially techies) and isn’t necessarily seen as an extension of the “states’ rights” philosophy. But his opposition to federal power is the message that has carried his success, thanks primarily to a Bush Administration that’s given us a disastrous foreign military occupation, warrantless wiretapping, the Military Commissions Act, the Patriot Act, massive increases in federal spending, and federal agencies whose corruption and politicization are only outdone by their incompetence. And it certainly helps that many of the leading Democrats have, at best, been wishy-washy in their oppostion to these things. Ron Paul is not. He speaks with the kind of certainly that appeals to voters who see the political situation in Washington, DC as the perfect storm of special-interest pandering, a thoroughly inept media, and poll-driven fecklessness leading to perpetual incumbency.
While his message is resonating, and I find myself truly admiring the run he’s having, I definitely have my doubts about both him and his overarching philosophies. For one, his very firm constitutional basis for determining “states’ rights” isn’t so cut and dry in my mind. While I can easily run through a number of instances where the federal government needs to back off and let states deal with their own affairs, I don’t think that the federal actions that went into ending segregation in the 1960s, or the decision to legalize abortion, were a mistake. I tend to draw the line over whether the the federal government is protecting individuals from a particular state law or protecting the state from its own decision-making. This is its own separate post, and one for which constitutional scholars would probably have a field day (especially if I related it to my support for Roe v. Wade). Either way, I find myself somewhat stuck between Paul’s more extreme view of a very limited role for the federal government and the Democrats’ slow evolution away from their own more extreme beliefs in federal power (every Democratic candidate now wants to reverse the Bush Administration’s policy towards medical marijuana patients in states where it’s legal). As a pragmatist, I admire the intellectual foundation of the Constitution and the results its achieved but I also wonder whether the realities of our 21st century existence means that we can’t always apply 18th century thinking to 21st century problems.
At certain times, I’ve tried to play devil’s advocate with those who try to claim that Paul is a racist. I like to point out that Paul’s desire to end the federal drug war would likely do more to help minority communities than anything any of leading Democratic candidates have stated they’ll do. In the past, I’ve tended to think of this when I think of Paul’s claims that his racist supporters would be disappointed with him as President. The drug war is the single most damaging force in America’s black communities today. Our drug laws, combined with our enormous prison system, has been the driving force behind the devastation of many of our inner cities. It fuels the gang culture, drives the market for illegal guns, and still manages to put millions of non-violent people in prison, many of whom would be good husbands and fathers if it were not for laws that serve no other function than to put more of them in jail. Listen to the loud ovation Paul received at a recent Republican debate in front of a largely black audience when addressing these issues. It’s impossible to watch that clip and then make the argument that Ron Paul is the candidate who speaks for white supremacists.
But where I have major doubts about Paul center around his views on immigration. Earlier, I referenced this article he wrote in 2006, and I have trouble squaring that with some of his other views. As much as he talks about and gets support from people who champion free markets and the free flow of goods and labor, his views on immigration sound like he’s been hanging out with Lou Dobbs. Even worse, in order to make his argument, he touches upon an argument that has often been used as justification for maintaining the federal drug war:
We must reject amnesty for illegal immigrants in any form. We cannot continue to reward lawbreakers and expect things to get better. If we reward millions who came here illegally, surely millions more will follow suit. Ten years from now we will be in the same position, with a whole new generation of lawbreakers seeking amnesty.
This kind of bad logic has often been applied to the drug war in order to justify the federal prohibitions. Repealing the drug war is basically “rewarding lawbreakers”. And by Paul’s logic here, the fact that these lawbreakers would be rewarded will serve as an enticement for millions more to break the law. All of this relies upon the false belief that our laws have any effect at all in these circumstances. They never have and they never will. As we learned during alcohol prohibition, and we’re re-learning now with other substances, prohibitions don’t work when you’re dealing with basic human desires. And the immigration issue deals with primary human desires for survival. What’s most disappointing about Paul’s stance on immigration is that he fails to even mention the affect that drug prohibition has been having in Mexico and fueling the current migrations north. It indicates to me that while his overarching philosophies have often pointed Paul in the right direction on these issues, he still sounds like he’s sometimes flying blind and not getting the big picture for issues that should be clearer to him.
Paul’s candidacy and the rabidness of his supporters is having an interesting effect on this election season. He’s clearly the best candidate on the Republican side, but whether or not he appeals to Democrats probably depends on whether people think his refreshing certainty on views that strike the anti-Bush anti-war chord (ending the Iraq War, repealing the Patriot Act, etc) outweigh his anti-progressive views on whether the federal government should be counted on for addressing some of the major problems we face (global warming, health care, etc). It’s easy to mock him for believing that the free market will protect endangered species, but is that really any more ridiculous than believing that we can defeat drug traffickers in Mexico? As a nation, we’ve drifted towards a point where certain absurdities have been mainstreamed, while others are marginalized. In times of great fear and insecurity, we tend to find comfort in believing that government can accomplish things it can’t. And when those fears and insecurities manifest itself in mythmaking about the power of government, someone like Ron Paul needs to come along to right the ship.