Is Ron Paul the Best Hope for Progressives?

The Texas congressman is more conservative than Romney, but he's also more progressive than Obama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the last man standing in the Republican presidential race besides presumptive victor Mitt Romney, even after a strategy statement misunderstood by many as “dropping out.” Since that announcement, Paul has won his second state, Minnesota (Maine was the first), and is on target to end up controlling presidential voting delegations in such states as Iowa, Louisiana, and Missouri. Far from fading as a cultural force, Paul continues to draw huge crowds, sometimes over five thousand students, on campuses as well.

As the presidential field has shaped up to a certain Obama vs. Romney in the major parties, the desire for a challenger championing either the serious right or serious progressive left grows. And Ron Paul—though he continues to deny any third party plans and his political machine has clearly hitched itself to the GOP for now—is strangely a viable candidate for either role, should he choose to accept it.

Paul is in many ways the rightest of right wingers, with his desire to kill the income tax, end government interference in medical care, and get to a balanced budget in three years with no tax hikes. A third party Paul, should he make such a radical choice, would provide a choice for right-wingers dissatisfied with Romney’s small-government bonafides.

Yet despite Paul’s impeccable Tea Party credentials on tax and spending issues, he would be an even more appealing choice to progressives dissatisfied with President Obama. Even while running for the GOP presidential nod, Ron Paul has presented a political vision in many respects to the left of the Democratic Party.

President Obama wants to continue and expand every aspect of the war on drugs, including the war on state-legal medical marijuana operations. Paul thinks government attempts to arrest people for actions that harm only themselves are inherently illegitimate. Obama’s administration has set records in deportations. Paul mocks border walls as un-American in Republican candidate debates.

Obama approves of enormous bailouts to huge financial institutions, and his administration’s high-level economic planning is run almost entirely by insiders from such institutions. Ron Paul is opposed to what he (and leftists) calls “crony capitalism.” Paul’s free-market policies would leave corporations with no more power over the American people than the corporations get by selling people things, things people choose to buy. (Unlike the products of the hated health insurance companies, which ObamaCare mandates that we all purchase.)

Even Paul’s stated environmental policies—certainly very far from implementation even in a world where Paul was president—of imposing liability via tort on people and corporations who harm others through pollution, rather than allowing them to do so but “regulating” them—seem more in line with what a progressive who doesn’t want the fatcats getting away with harming the innocent should want.

Paul’s belief in unfettered free markets is supposed, in the minds of leftists, to mean unbridled corporate power. But America’s plutocracy loves activist government—as long as it’s helping them, as Obama’s programs of giveaways to banks and investment firms does. Paul was thus the only GOP candidate with kind things to say about the Occupy movement, for recognizing the dangers of crony capitalism, and the only candidate whose fans proselytized among them.

Paul’s greater appeal to an honest progressive goes even further. Obama has expanded the president’s powers to unilaterally imprison and even kill American citizens beyond even George W. Bush’s attempts. Paul gets thousands of students who gather to hear him booing any mention of the controversial yet sadly little-known National Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama, giving legal cover to the presidential power of unilateral imprisonment. Obama has started new unauthorized wars, greatly expanded a civilian-killing drone program, and presided over the biggest defense budgets in history. Ron Paul campaigns for peace and withdrawal of the U.S. military from the world. In doing so, he’s done more than Noam Chomsky to normalize discussion of U.S. foreign policy as the behavior of a criminal empire, not as the world’s great defender of liberty.

President Obama loves the Patriot Act and hates whistleblowers; Paul is opposite on both points, including defense of accused WikiLeaker Bradley Manning.

On a wide range of issues involving individual autonomy and liberty, and protecting people from oppressive concentrations of power, Paul is clearly more progressive than Obama.

Progressives love income redistribution, though, and Paul does not. Still, while Paul is opposed in principle to things like government funding for NPR and even medical care, he mocks his fellow Republicans who act like such programs are the most important place to start practicing austerity—the former because it’s cultural red meat to their base, the latter because it feeds an ugly strain of opposition to “welfare bums” that plays no part in how Paul campaigns.

While Paul is the loudest and most consistent voice for many progressive goals, he rejects their choice of tool to equalize income, which is why progressives' disappointment with Obama hasn’t led them to turn to Ron Paul. But Paul and the movement for peace, civil liberties, and ending government's explicit support for corporate power that he leads offers progressives an alternative, and a dilemma: Are those values more important than fealty to the Democratic Party and hugely expensive income redistribution programs?

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired (Broadside).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Randian||

    if progressives actually cared about social and civil liberties, you would have a point. They actually only care about restricting economic liberties, and adopt social/civil liberties as a convenient cover.

  • Octavian||

    ^^^THIS^^^

    Brians' being naive...I hate to see it. Principled progressives would never vote for anyone supporting an agenda which seeks to reduce the size and scope of government.

  • Sudden||

    Or, alternatively, so-call progressives will adopt the movement and in the course of doing so, transform it into something wholly alien to it's original philosophical tenets. That prospect scares me more than any other.

    In a way, Paul has spent too much time courting the left in his anti-war rhetoric and anti-fed rhetoric, both things which principled progressives can agree with to an extent. But the danger is that the people he brings into the movement will maintain those positions but never be swayed to the overarching thesis of liberty in a broader perspective and end up turning the movement into something other than what Paul intended.

  • ||

    Opposing the Fed is something principled progressives would support? It was the brainchild of Theodore Roosevelt's National Monetary Commission and enacted by Woodrow Wilson. It was born of the Progressive movement as much as the income tax and direct election of senators.

  • SIV||

    Principled progressives demand the Fed pursue full employment through printing.
    DR K SEZ INFLATION=JOBZ!

  • Amakudari||

    Yes, more this. Opposition to the Fed from the libertarian front has to do with monopoly currency issuance. Opposition from the left is against half of its dual mandate, and you can guess which half.

  • Drake||

    "Principled progressives"

    Never met one. Maybe there was such a thing long ago. Not any more.

  • CodeWarrior||

    Yes, that is a scary thought.. they've already done it to the Democrat party and have infiltrated the Republican party as well. They've also infiltrated our schools and have begun the brainwashing of our kids.. Our society has become infected with progressivism... it surely needs an enema..

  • Jesse James Dean||

    srsly, Paul is no progressive. One could say that he is more liberal that the Dems, but not more "progressive"

  • ||

    I think your problem is thinking any progressive is intellectually honest. Reasoning does not count with them. They want bigger government at any cost and "the rich" to pay for it. They don't pay attention to what government actually does on civil liberties, drug policy, reproductive rights - they just know a Team Red candidate cannot possibly be better than a Team Blue candidate on any of those.

  • ||

    Progressivism is all about collectivizing the people and pushing us all towards a glorious new future. There is ZERO chance of compromise with a staunch individualist like Ron Paul who think that the state shouldn't punish or coerce people for self-regarding behavior it doesn't approve of.

  • Old Mexican||

    Paul's greater appeal to an honest progressive goes even further.


    If only the population of those was above zero - ah, what a sight that would be!

  • SIV||

    Paul would do better appealing to the mermaid and unicorn voting blocs.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    In my experience, every progressive I know would never vote for Ron Paul (or Rand Paul) because of 1 reason: they believe in federalism, regardless of the issue.

    I hear very regularly that Ron Paul has a good point about imperialism/the drug war/civil liberties etc, but "I would never vote for him because he believes that the federal government shouldn't make all decisions about everything.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    In my experience, no progressive would vote for Ron Paul because he's had an "R" in front of his name for several years... That letter is all that matters to many on both sides.

  • dan'o||

    I think at the core of progressive beliefs is an implementation of perceived morality into civics. That would explain why such vague platitudes such as "fair share" and "equality" have such legs. That government officials are elected by the populace seems to guarantee accountability, though Robert J Ringer demonstrated otherwise (conclusively in my opinion.)

  • hk||

    It isn't quite that complex.

    Progressive = Populist.

    Let me paraphrase their arguments:

    Whatever the will wants, they get, and fuck rich people. And how dare rich people leave our country when we raise their taxes to outrageous rates compared to the rest of the industrialized world.

  • hk||

    Also let's punish corporations whenever they lose money, they must have broken some law.

    And we need a higher capital gains tax even though that doesn't even get higher revenue.

  • hk||

    Oh and my favorite progressive argument: Greece has cut their spending too much. Lol.

  • JeremyR||

    I don't think you understand "progressives". For them, the answer is always more government.

    Sure, they don't like the Drug War. But only the illegal part - they want the government to heavily regulate and tax it.

    Ditto for gay marriage. Ron Paul thinks the government shouldn't be in the marriage business in the first place. They think the government should decide what marriages are, just that it should include everything.

    For the foreign policy/drones/civil liberties - progressives only care about that stuff when a Republican is in the office. Simply by being a lefty, Obama is a man of peace. He's even got a Nobel Prize to show for it.

    Beyond that, look at all the agencies that Paul wants to eliminate - the EPA in particular is something that every progressive holds dear to their heart.

  • Gladstone||

    I remember Roderick Long claiming that the left believes government to be a necessary evil.
    Not really sure how the left sees government as "evil" when their beliefs seem to be that the solution to everything is more government. And the only time the government is in fact evil is when Republicans are in charge since they "hate government" and are corrupt. And Republican are corrupt since they don't believe in big government and their corruption is part of a sinister plot to make people cynical about big government. Of course the solution to all this is more government Run by the Right People (i.e. Democrats).

  • Jesse James Dean||

    Gladstone from Cracked?

  • Gladstone||

    LOL, no. I do look at their lists occasionally.

  • QueerLibertarian||

    There's a few of us out there. I'm a former liberal democrat who started looking into libertarianism after my self described "progressive" senator co-sponsored PIPA. I was like "why am I even voting for these people?" Around this same time was when I was watching the republican debates and liked a lot of what Ron Paul was saying.

    Now, I'll admit the right wing economic positions did put me off a bit at first. But I gave it a chance, read up on Austrian economics a little, and it does seem to make sense. I think a lot of my hesitation was more from ignorance than anything. Once I realized that libertarians are opposed to crony capitalism, I started taking them more seriously. (I assumed they loved crony capitalism as much as republicans do)

    But what made me different from most progressives is that I truly care about civil liberties too much to let some hesitations about economics get in the way.

    TL;DR - I voted for Obama in '08 and I'll be voting for Gary Johnson in '12. And I live in a swing state, for what it's worth.

  • Sudden||

    But what made me different from most progressives is that I truly care about civil liberties too much to let some hesitations about economics get in the way

    I find this statement interesting insofar as, depending on what the civil liberty being debated is, I disagree with it vehemently. Now, when it comes down to habeas corpus rights, 4th amendment search and seizure rights, I share your inclinations towards civil liberties being more important than economic liberties, but there are some civil liberties that I support that I don't place such a significance on.

    My example, I think gay people should be allowed to marry. Having said that, I'd be willing to support someone who agreed with 99% of my economic and (more critically) entitlement-reform agenda even if they opposed gay marriage (assuming they don't support the PATRIOT Act at least). It would be one thing if gays were the target of some insidious campaign of terror, but they're not. The right being contested is a fairly trivial one in the grand scheme. I support them in it, but as a priority, I find the pressing need for serious entitlement reform to be so profound that I'd be willing to tolerate some positions of disagreement as long as entitlement reform were the centerpiece of that person's campaign.

    The way I see it is that the civil unrest in Greece is a grain of sand compared to the ocean of chaos that will erupt in the US when the metaphorical shit hits the fan.

  • ||

    Thanks for telling us about your journey.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end.

    One who uses coercion is guilty of deliberate violence. Coercion is inhuman.

    -Ghandi

  • The Derider||

    Progressives support a woman's right to choose an abortion.

    Ron Paul supports the state criminalizing that choice.

  • Rocky||

    We can see which side you fall on that one based solely on the way you worded it. As a libertarian I take the view that the 'unborn child' has a right to life. That abortion violates the essential tennant of libertarianism "do no harm to another".

  • LolaBee||

    Does that "unborn" child have the right of use to my organs and body for survival?

  • Cavpitalist||

    I don't know...are you responsible for creating his life, thereby making him dependent on your organs and body for survival?

  • DJK||

    Jesus fucking Christ! Not this topic again. Both pro-life and pro-choice can be made consistent with libertarian tenets. Choosing one or the other requires additional axioms. You're never gonna convince one another that one of you is more libertarian than the other based on your views on abortion.

  • The Derider||

    Other things Progressives support that Ron Paul would like to eliminate or restrict:

    1. Public Health Care
    2. Public infrastructure
    3. Consumer protections
    4. Environmental regulations
    5. Public Education
    6. Regulations on Wall Street
    7. Humanitarian aid
    8. Unemployment payments
    9. Food Stamps
    10. Public funding for the arts

    That's just off the top of my head.

  • ||

    Although a couple of these aren't really correct, it shouldn't have taken Derider to make this point. Libertarians share a whole hell of a lot less with the left in this country than they suppose they do. "A conservative that smokes pot" may not be a perfect characterization of the libertarian, but it's closer than "A liberal that owns guns". Of course, many conservatives' lip service to smaller government ends up eroding when you scratch the surface, but the fact that they at least have some desire to think that they want smaller government gives the libertarian a point of ideological similarity he will never have with a progressive/liberal who, despite any agreement on policy in principle, believes that the government is too small and must be expanded in the course of correcting whatever perceived defect there is in the status quo. Sorry guys, the cool kids don't want to be your friends.

  • Rocky||

    I agree PM, that's why Paul has run as a Republican rather than a Democrat. They at least have a similar view of the over size in government.

  • karmavsdogma||

    1. The individual States could do a better job (with any Federal support coming in the form of block grants).

    2. See number 1, although private entities in a truly free society would be an even better choice.

    3. With a free flow of information (something we haven't had until about 20 years ago, and in full force in the last 5), people truly can "vote with their dollar", as they say, alleviating the need for another layer of bureaucracy to add to the cost of government as well as products - something that we know will go a long way towards wrecking what's left of the economy.

    4. Tort law works better than regulation written by vested interests from the sectors they're regulating.

    5. See number 1.

    6. See number 3.

    7. We're broke. We can't afford to help the rest of the world until we dig ourselves out of our hole. Plus, it's morally reprehensible to take money from poor people in this country to hand it over to rich people in the Third World.

    8. Not a priority, and not something he could do on his own. Also, see number 1.

    9. See number 8.

    10. There's plenty of private money in the arts, and if you're going to subsidize one career path, you have to subsidize them all - even the ones you don't like!

    *all of this is my own opinion in response to Derider's post.

  • ||

    I like that Ron Paul tries to remind people that we are not base level drug addled hoarders.

    Reducing government social assistance, and government in general, will not leave those in need with nowhere to turn. People do want to help.

    It is not enough to shame those who behave in a purely avarice manner. How dare anyone say no.

  • The Derider||

    I think is the crux of the disagreement. You predict that reducing government assistance will improve the lives of those receiving that assistance. Progressives predict the opposite. Morality shouldn't enter into it. It's just a disagreement over forecasting.

  • mr simple||

    No, they don't just predict the opposite. Their morality dictates that we all become slaves to what they deem the greater good. That is what I disagree with.

  • Randian||

    Except for, you know, the morality of forcing people to pay for your grand schemes, mind.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end.

    One who uses coercion is guilty of deliberate violence. Coercion is inhuman.
    -Ghandi

  • The Nurse||

    Thanks for this very good article. I haven't read many reason articles after the Reason writers attacked Ron Paul. They let up a few month ago downgrading to the velvet dagger. Now, I believe it is safe for Ron Paul supporters to start reading reason again. I'll send this out to friends. ;)

  • sweeterjan||

    them to turn to Ron Paul. But http://www.vendreshox.com/femm.....-c-15.html Paul and the movement for peace, civil liberties, and ending government's explicit support for corporate power that he leads offers progressives an alternative,

  • Rocky||

    I think there's some confusion as to what a progressive is here. Just being left of the Democrats on issues like drug enforcement or military non-interventionism doesn't make you a progressive. In my view Bush was much more of a progressive with his 'compassionate conservatism' than Paul as he attempted to leverage government into improving society. I think most of us have the same basic goal of community improvement, a healthy growing society. We disagree on how to get there. If anything Paul is as opposite a Progressive as you can get, they (progressives) see the government as a way to achieve those goals, Paul sees it as at best a facilitator protecting against anarachy, at worst an oppressive rights and growth killer.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Yeah, I don't think we should confuse liberals (something like Glen Greenwald) with progressives, who are more like left-wing neoconservatives.

  • cheap sunglasses||

  • joy||

    and a dilemma: Are those values more important than fealty http://www.nikewinkel.com/scho.....-c-40.html to the Democratic Party and hugely expensive income redistribution programs?

  • DWC||

    "Liberal" in the original, actual definition of the term would be more appropriate. Ron is not "progressive" at all (a self congratulatory term if ever there was one). People like Hillary and Obama and Teddy Roosevelt are the very definitions of the term progressive. It is important not to confuse progressive, which has a very particular meaning, with liberal which should have a very particular meaning, although it has been bastardized just like the term conservative has. The fact is that Santorum and people of his ilk have much more in common with Hillary than he has with Ron Paul - in fact they are virtually identical in terms of their perspectives on the role of government and contempt for individualism and liberty. Also, this whole left/right dialectic is just a tool to contain people's perspective within the safe, Romney to Biden range and as long as you adhere to it you are part of the problem.

  • CodeWarrior||

    re:"Paul is in many ways the rightest of right wingers"

    ...thats just funny! lol.. Paul is straight up and down in the middle if anything. The problem is, the overton window has been moved so far to the LEFT that anything CENTRAL looks like extreme right wing thinking. Its like we're living in Europe! We can thank our progressive teachers and progressive college professors for brainwashing our kids into thinking this way. The truth is, they're the secret enemy of freedom and liberty and we just too stupid to realize it. People need to stop listening to the talking heads on TV and start thinking for themselves like individuals and maybe take their kids out of public schools and put them somewhere where they will learn how to be individuals instead of how to be part of the hive..

  • Banh||

    The main problem with today's Liberal/Progressives is that they like their work time socialized and their playtime privatized.

    It's like moving into a new job and doing great work until your co-workers tell you that you're working too fast and making them look bad in front of the boss.

    Libertarianism is rampant on the Left when it concerns personal leisure and habits. Government has no place in playtime, but when it comes to WORK, you'd better catch me if I fall, Uncle Sam, and those neighbors of mine are making too much money so you'd better give me some of that. It's not fair!!!

    Ron Paul is ATTEMPTING to instill some maturity and accountability in the American public, but of the two parties, the Progressives will resist it the most. Don't forget, the Progressives are most like Marxists. Communal Marxist thought is extremely vanilla... NO ONE gets anything special or we ALL GET IT!!!

    A lazy mind is a dangerous thing.

  • Keith3D||

    I don't think the left actually supports libertarianism when it comes to playtime either. They want to legalize pot and ban tobacco.

    It's just the typical "free to do the things we approve of" version of freedom, that everyone from communists to monarchs offer.

  • some guy666||

    more conservative than Romney, but he's also more progressive than Obama. And more racist than the average white texan. Oh yeah...But he didnt know about the content on the newletters of which he owned...Just shows that we are fucked all around and that the flawed libertarian philosophy, just like the crony capitalist dem and republican circus, has no idea on to really make a difference.

  • Grant||

    Good column. Now do a parallel on Gary Johnson

  • Grant||

    Face it! “Progressive” means whatever the user, or hearer, thinks it means. Anything else is “reactionary.”

    "The battle for the world is the battle for definitions." — Dr. Thomas Szasz.

  • joy||

    But Paul and the movement for peace, civil liberties, and ending government's explicit support for corporate power that he leads offers progressives an alternative, and a dilemma: Are those values more important than fealty to the Democratic Party and hugely expensive income redistribution programs?
    http://www.riemeninnl.com/riem-lee-c-22.html

  • Wat Tyler||

    I am deeply disappointed in Mr. Doherty; I thought that he had the knowledge and intellect to know just what a progressive is, and the history of the progressive movement.
    Progressivism was from the start a scientific approach, based on Hegelian dialectic, to create and maintain an organic society with the government acting as the brain of the organism. In other words, a gentle totalitarianism with a ruling elite of intellectuals.
    I understand perhaps how Mr. Doherty confuses the OWSers and potheads with progressives, but they are merely useful idiots to the elite - give them what they want until they are eating out of your hand, then SNAP! grab them by their balls and you got them slaves for life.

  • Wat Tyler||

    Nota Bene to Mr. Doherty: look at the diagram of the World's smallest political quiz here: http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz/
    and see where Ron Paul, the progressives, and the so-called Right are; Right v. Left is just one axis bisected by the Statist v. Libertarian axis.

  • Cornelius||

    As a progressive, I am willing to vote for Ron Paul for all of the reasons Brian has stated since there is no real progressive alternative. I would vote for libertarian candidates in all such situations. The problem is I know that progressives tend to be as sectarian and tribalistic as libertarians do. There is a fundamental gap on economic issues that holds most progressives back and makes them vulnerable to Obama' populist economic rhetoric. Ron Paul has unfortunately not been challenged enough to bridge that gap. I have proposed on my blog that Ron Paul agree to allow the funds he intends to use for his opt out proposal be used instead for unconditional block grants to the states if his opt out proposal would fail to garner the 60 Senate votes needed for passage. Had some mainstream reporter asked this question and Ron Paul given this answer, we would have seen a tsunamic shift in the electorate. Paul could still (although time is all but run out) offer a coalition government with a temporary compromise on economic policy which would advance both libertarian and progressive agendas simultaneously. A slight tweak and the whole corporate duopoly comes tumbling down. Brian, I would appreciate your feedback after visit to my blog.

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