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The Occupy respect was tentatively mutual. Jay Stuart, a Seattle-based chef and Paul fan who spent some time with his local Occupiers in fall 2011, said he found common ground on defense and civil liberties, and was able to talk easily about how corporations should not be receiving bailouts or special favors. Income redistribution, however, was a sticking point.
“A lot [of the Occupiers] feel they are entitled to things,” Stuart says. “Education was one of the biggest I heard, and they think health care is a right for sure. They think it’s very unfair they went to school for four to six years and don’t have a job at the end. I’d try to explain a little bit of why that might be, about the Federal Reserve’s role in the bust, how taxation hurts. At least one guy I talked to got really upset—not quite to violence, but very upset.”
Stuart wasn’t alone. In New York, where the Occupy protest began, Paul-influenced investment adviser and radio host Peter Schiff marched into Zuccotti Park to try to school Occupiers in his Austrian-economics perspective (for footage of the encounter, go to reason.com). At Occupy sites across the country, Ron Paul fans set up their own tables and tents to distribute market-based literature and give talks against bailing out the rich. In October 2011 I sat through a (painfully tedious) committee meeting at Occupy Los Angeles in which Paulites’ complaints about the Federal Reserve and crony capitalism were taken seriously as the group drew up its official list of demands.
Still, many voices on online Occupy discussion boards and in real life painted Paul people as ideological carpetbaggers, grabbing for mental space and street cred that they didn’t deserve. The disagreement was mostly civil, although in October 2011 an Occupy intruder in Philadelphia broke into an unoccupied Paul booth in the middle of the night, stole literature and DVDs, and defecated in the middle of the Paulites’ space. In July 2012 a group of New Hampshire Occupiers chose to officially boot out anyone involved with the libertarian Free State Project from their coalition.
Paul’s radicalism on war and empire has provoked some vigorous debate on the left. In the week before the Iowa caucuses in early January a pair of anti-war activists, John Walsh and Coleen Rowley, wrote an op-ed piece for The Des Moines Register calling on leftists to realize Paul was the best candidate for them because of his seriousness and strength on peace and civil liberties. Walsh, a peace activist and single-payer health care supporter, is one of the leaders of a left-right alliance called Come Home America. Progressives, Walsh says, are more reluctant to join his group than libertarians or paleoconservatives, because they insist on having nearly complete agreement on all issues even with tactical allies.
The first complaint about Paul, Walsh found, was the controversy over newsletters that went out under his name in the 1980s and early ’90s with contemptuous comments about blacks and gays. Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, famous for crusading against crony capitalism, has written that the newsletter controversy precludes him from supporting Paul, despite agreeing with him on such issues as civil liberties, war, and bailouts.
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Other liberal commentators were able to overcome such qualms, although they were immediately attacked for heresy. Last December at Truthdig, longtime left-leaning journalist and commentator Robert Scheer said it was disgraceful that The New York Times and other leading media outlets refused to “seriously engag[e] the substance of Paul’s current campaign—his devastating critique of crony capitalism and his equally trenchant challenge to imperial wars and the assault on our civil liberties that they engender.” Katha Pollitt in The Nation mocked Scheer and other progressive Paul admirers, including Ralph Nader and then-Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald, for their “progressive mancrushes on right-wing Republicans,” averring that “supporting Ron Paul is just a gesture of frivolity—or despair.” Other leftist sites from Mother Jones to the Web home of the hipster pinup queens Suicide Girls felt it necessary to run anti-Paul articles warning progressives why they must resist the blandishments of this seemingly cool old Republican.
Scheer is still sure he was right. “In the current election, among both the Republicans and the Democratic Party, the only person who brought up a significant challenge to the banks as far as the Federal Reserve and crony capitalism go was Ron Paul,” he says. “Paul also had the only principled critique of our imperial ventures and attacks on civil liberties.” Scheer adds that “I tried to vote for him” but didn’t manage to re-register as a Republican in time. Scheer says he believes all this about Paul while remaining “not a libertarian by any means, but a bleeding-heart liberal of the leftist variety.”
Radical outsiders are often attracted to radical outsiders, united in opposition beyond the specifics of proposed solutions. Such a dynamic helped men of the left from Jesse Jackson to the late Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn get excited about Paul’s presence in the 2012 campaign. People on the right also noticed—and decried—Paul’s countercultural appeal, based not only on the specifics of his politics but his frequent stump-speech shoutouts to such peculiar individualist concerns as homeschooling, raw milk, and nutritional supplements. Former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee delivered one of the milder of such critiques, quipping to Jay Leno in May 2011 that Paul events were like a “combination gun show and Grateful Dead concert.”
Some of the left’s Paul sympathizers defended their enthusiasm by pointing out that a President Paul wouldn’t have the final word on government policy. On the radical left site CounterPunch, Charles Davis, who prefers Paul over most Democrats on war issues, noted that even “if Paul really did succeed in cutting all those federal departments he talks about, there’s nothing to prevent states and local governments—and, I would hope, alternative social organizations not dependent on coercion—from addressing issues such as health care and education. Decentralism isn’t a bad thing.”
Similarly, Democratic Party outlier Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio representative who lost his own primary this year and is leaving Congress, says he loves working with Paul despite sharp disagreements over income redistribution. Kucinich admires Paul so much on civil liberties, war, and the Federal Reserve (three key areas where political and media elites like to treat the cross-party mavericks as irresponsible kooks) that he has mentioned Paul as a potential vice president in a fantasized Kucinich administration. “If we had real change in monetary policy,” Kucinich says, “these policy issues of redistribution would not be as compelling. If we could put the Federal Reserve back under control of the Treasury [Department], this would be a whole different world.”
Unfortunately for Kucinich, he has not been able to duplicate Paul’s political success. While Kucinich believes that the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), with whom he works, could function as a Ron Paul-style revolution from the left within his own party, John Walsh, the anti-war activist, is no fan of PDA. “In contrast to Ron Paul,” he says, “their loyalty is to the party over principles.” No one has arisen within the Democratic Party to challenge Obama from the left.
Bleeding Heart Libertarianism