At Occupy Wall Street encampments around the nation last fall, most of the activists rallied against modern American capitalism and in favor of government aid to the now-famous 99 percent. But from New York to Philadelphia, from Seattle to Los Angeles, Occupiers were joined (or infiltrated, in the eyes of some) by activists talking up the benefits of a truly freed market, without government giveaways to favored interests or central bank manipulations of the economy. This minority took its inspiration from Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. The confluence between libertarian and progressive activism surprised many, including Paul himself. But it was the strongest indicator yet that the Ron Paul uprising poses a unique challenge—and potential attraction—to the American left.
Paul vs. Obama
During Paul’s latest bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination, his policies were to the left of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama in many areas. Obama has expanded almost every aspect of the war on drugs, including federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana operations. Paul thinks it’s inherently illegitimate to arrest people for actions that harm only themselves. The Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants. Paul mocks border walls as essentially un-American. Obama presided over enormous bailouts of the nation’s largest financial institutions, and his economic planning team has been largely run by Wall Street insiders. Ron Paul is opposed to what both he and the Occupiers call “crony capitalism.” Even the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, ObamaCare (which Paul opposed), forces millions of people to buy health insurance from the very corporations progressives claim to despise.
Civil liberties and peace are the issues that first made some leftist hearts beat faster when contemplating this curious Old Right congressman. Obama has started new wars unauthorized by Congress and greatly expanded a civilian-killing drone program. Paul opposes drones, calls for an immediate end to all our overseas wars, and wants the U.S. military to withdraw from the world. By taking these positions, Paul has done more than even leftist icon Noam Chomsky to normalize discussion of U.S. foreign policy as the behavior of a criminal empire rather than that of the world’s great defender of liberty.
Obama has strengthened the PATRIOT Act and prosecuted whistleblowers; Paul opposes both actions and has defended accused WikiLeaker (and progressive cause célèbre) Bradley Manning. Obama has expanded the commander in chief’s powers to unilaterally imprison and even kill American citizens, aggrandizing the executive branch beyond even what the hated George W. Bush managed. Paul inspires thousands of students to boo any mention of Obama’s alarming yet largely unknown National Defense Authorization Act, which gives legal cover to the president’s power of indefinite detention.
On a wide range of issues involving individual liberty and protecting people from oppressive concentrations of power, Paul has been more progressive than Obama. Paul’s fans knew this, and many led campaigns to capitalize on it during the 2012 primaries—from talking with the more socialist Occupiers to calling on Democratic voters to re-register as Republicans in a movement dubbed “Blue Republican.”
Peace and civil liberties, however, do not comprise everything in the progressive-left worldview. The first thing many on the left think when they hear the name Ron Paul is not free markets or imperial withdrawal but abortion. The obstetrician’s belief that abortion is murder and thus prohibitable at the state level (though not federally) is a deal breaker for many liberals. His position on marriage equality—that it would be solved if the government got out of the marriage-recognition business—is not a lefty crowd pleaser either.
Perhaps above all, progressives love income redistribution, and Paul does not. For many Democrats, using government to elevate the downtrodden and restrain the wealthy trumps all other ideological commitments.
Paul has sidestepped some of the inevitable flak from this important philosophical difference by soft-pedaling the more blatant “other”-baiting that Republicans usually engage in when it comes to Democrats. So while Paul is opposed in principle to government funding for National Public Radio and even medical care for the poor, he mocks fellow Republicans who act like such programs are where austerity must begin—in the former case because it is statistically insignificant red meat, in the latter because it feeds an ugly strain of hostility toward welfare recipients that plays no part in how Paul campaigns.
As Paul told the leftist magazine Mother Jones in a March 2011 interview, “As a libertarian, I don’t endorse philosophically the many domestic programs, and I’m willing to work on a transition. So I say: Let’s cut the unnecessary wars. Let’s cut the foreign aid. Let’s cut all the empire building, which costs trillions of dollars, and maybe we could tide ourselves over. But for some conservatives to start tinkering with the budget with health care or education for the poor, that doesn’t make any political sense to me.”
On the campaign trail in 2011–12, Paul even spoke (perhaps disingenuously, given his long-established views on the constitutionally limited role for government spending) about how we could take the “savings” from ending our overseas imperial adventures and “spend that money here at home.” Perhaps he was referring to spending by the individual taxpayers from whom the money is currently taken. But to certain willing ears, it must have sounded like a call for a more generous welfare state.
That Paul eschews right-wing attacks on destitute beneficiaries of state largess may seem like a minor point when most leftists contemplate him in full. Occupiers often interpret Paul’s belief in unfettered free markets as a Trojan horse for unleashing sinister corporate power on the poorer classes. Noam Chomsky, even while crediting Paul for wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan, made sure to tell his impressionable fans in a lecture at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in November 2011 that Dr. No’s ideas regarding health care were “just savagery.” Having churches and charity hospitals care for the poor is apparently nothing short of barbaric compared to the virtue of forcing all Americans to buy health insurance.
Yet even Chomsky, perhaps unwittingly, illustrated the contradictions in labeling Paul both a corporate enabler and a free marketeer. Paul’s platform, Chomsky said, was “a call for corporate tyranny.” A mere 30 seconds later, he claimed “the business world would never permit it to happen” because “they can’t live without a powerful nanny state and they know it.”
Occupy Paul Street?
Ron Paul was the only prominent candidate who dared say anything good about the Occupy movement during the Republican primary season. Paul told me he agreed with the protesters that bailing out the well-to-do at everyone else’s expense was worth protesting, even if he didn’t agree with most of the Occupiers’ proposed solutions. “If they were demonstrating peacefully, and making a point, and arguing our case [against crony capitalism] and drawing attention to the Fed—I would say, good!” he said to an impromptu press scrum outside a speech in New Hampshire in October 2011. Paul choose not to engage in the Newt Gingrich strategy of merely telling the protesters to “go get a job right after you take a bath” or the Mitt Romney habit of suggesting that they prefer communism to freedom.