The Ron Paul Legacy

The libertarian Texas congressman has retired. Will his radical ideas stick around on Capitol Hill?

Ron Paul is officially no longer a congressman. Gone from the Washington scene is his tendency to cast lone votes, his unique willingness to point out that government is inherently based on violence. Paul will continue to be a public spokesman for liberty—about the only part of his job as congressman he liked anyway. 

He leaves behind a contested legacy. As Paul’s detractors will tediously point out, being one of 435 in Congress with views vastly different from your colleagues’ means you will neither pass many laws, nor prevent many laws from being passed, nor shape the ethos of the House. Paul did, though, succeed in shifting “Audit the Fed” from an issue no one knew or cared about to a bill that has passed the House twice.

Through his Republican presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, he conjured a large and dedicated army of libertarian activists and politicos where one hadn’t existed before, though we don’t know how many of the 2.1 million people who voted for him in GOP primaries in 2012 are as hardcore libertarian as Paul. Two thriving organizations, Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, arose from those campaigns and survive his congressional career.

But can lasting change within our sclerotic political system arise from a movement as insurrectionist and outside the mainstream as Paul’s? And will he have any heirs to keep what he started rolling? A vote total of 2.1 million is a surprisingly impressive number, to be sure, especially for such a harsh critic of empire, drug wars, and fiat money. But it still represents a decidedly losing portion of what was, nationally in 2012, a losing party.

What the Paul revolutionaries are trying to do, they insist, has been done before. They are trying to use a rowdy, young-skewing throng to force a major party to embrace ideas that seem fanatical to existing party hierarchies. Remember the Barry Goldwater kids in 1960, uniting fervently behind a strongly anti-government author of a best-selling book of popular political philosophy, freaking out the party powers with their youth and outsider enthusiasm? It’s impossible to read a history of the Goldwater movement without seeing how similar the Goldwater and Paul stories are—the anti-state energy, the mistrust and warring with the hidebound establishment, even the streaks of weird paranoia among some of the activists.

Goldwater and Paul were both legislators known more for sternly saying “no” than passing laws. Like Paulites today, the Goldwater movement in the Republican Party in 1960 was “experienced by the old regulars as if it were an alien invasion,” in the words of Rick Perlstein in his great history of the Goldwater movement, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. When Goldwaterites took over state parties, like in Nebraska, the old party regulars fought back to change rules to blunt their opponents’ victory. Both candidates lived off a huge number of small donations, cared more about being right than being president, and were blessed with masses of young, passionate volunteers willing to overturn their lives to knock on doors for their man in bitter cold. Both even saw their delegates involved in scuffles where cops got called at state conventions. And both, their admirers insisted, were leaders of a new American revolution to purify and revive the first one.

From 1960 to 1964, Goldwater morphed from dangerous joke to candidate. And his '64 defeat famously bore fruit in the form of Goldwater supporter Ronald Reagan's rise to world power 16 years later. It’s a story whose echoes sound encouragingly in the heads of many political operatives surrounding the Paul revolution.

A more recent development in the Republican Party—and a more cautionary tale for the future of Paulism—is the aftermath of Pat Robertson’s failed 1988 run. United in outsiderhood, Paul partisans such as Drew Ivers from his Iowa operation were often former Robertson supporters. Robertson advised his people to organize and try to take over the GOP from the grassroots. Thanks to Robertson’s campaign and its aftermath, the Republican Party of the past two decades has been influenced by the Religious Right more than their raw numbers might justify.

The fate of the Christian right reveals a trap the Paul movement must avoid, even as it emulates the Christian right's tactics of inhabiting the party from the bottom up—tactics that have given Paul forces significant control already of state parties in Iowa, Nevada, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota. For giving electoral fealty to the GOP without question, the religious right received little but lip service to its traditionalist ideas, and few actual achievements. The libertarian wing could easily see itself similarly neutered, voting for Romney manqués as far as the eye can see and getting in return just a contemptuous, “What are you going to do? Vote third party?”

Goldwater is not the only example of “radical outsider to candidate” in postwar American politics. While their ideology matches directly only on opposition to war, Paul’s style and success most emulates the Democratic Party’s antiwar challenger Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) from 1968. McCarthy’s youth appeal, anti-war stance, intellectuality, and fights with the party establishment on the caucus and state convention level over delegates, all track Paul’s story closely.

Both were being trounced within their own party, yet polled strongly against or ahead of their presumptive other-party competitor in the general election. Both ran more as themselves than faithful or committed Party members; Paul never endorsed Romney, and McCarthy only endorsed Hubert Humphrey grudgingly in the last week before the election.

Lawsuits over proper delegation allocation were filed on behalf of both McCarthy and Paul. Both were supported by young zealots who were willing to tear down their existing party and build it anew. Both had unconventional, intellectual political styles, and were aware that what success they had came from decentralized efforts of fans more than their own official campaigns. Both saw their active campaigns fizzle in the summer without ever dropping out, and both felt it necessary to steel their supporters for disappointment by admitting they knew they couldn’t win before it was all over (though Paul did so much earlier). And both saw their campaigns as ultimately educational, and about creating a reform movement within their respective parties.

While McCarthy himself fizzled when he tried to run again in 1972, George McGovern’s winning ’72 campaign was in most respects the rise to power of Eugene McCarthyism: anti-war, anti-establishment, and opening up the Democratic Party’s rules and delegate selection in a more populist manner.

Historical analogies don’t prove further victories for Paulism are destined; just that we know it isn’t impossible for factions seen as small, outré, failed, and repudiated to quickly dominate a political party. If Paul’s general outlook has any validity, history is on his side. The problems he and his movement provide unique insights into and solutions for—overstrained fiscal and monetary policy, overreaching foreign and domestic mission—are not likely to disappear in the next decade unless a Paul-like solution is attempted.

But his ideas won’t march on in a vacuum; actual human individuals and groups need to further them. Various possible and presumptive heirs remain or are arising in Washington—including, most literally, his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Ron Paul had a very precise and detailed set of positions, attitudes, and strategies that no single remaining politician shares precisely. But it’s not just Rand Paul and second-term Paul fan Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) around now; an entire mini-caucus of people Paul explicitly endorsed (which he didn’t do a lot of) are currently in D.C., including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) and Steve Stockman (R-Texas)

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  • Paul.||

    Why stop at the article, Brian? You should write a book!

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    What is going on today?

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  • 16th amendment||

    I think there is a libertarian gene. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and any of the others do not have it.

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  • dstarke||

    For those of us who think the Republican Party is past reforming, Ron Paul's leaving Congress is hopefully just a beginning. I think writing eulogies is a little premature. We still need him, and I, for one, think he'll be more effective outside the Republicrat party than in it.

    The Goldwater analogy fits somewhat, but think for a moment where reform got us. There is still no solid small-government conservative party in America. Goldwaterism has failed. I hope, instead, that this is more analogous to the Whig demise. A new party, with new ideas, rising from the ashes of a failed ideology.

    Don't leave us, Ron!

  • Robert||

    How do you know Goldwaterism has failed? It's not like there's ever forever in politics. There's never a final election. What would success look like? Liberty forever? Of course not! It'd be liberty until non-liberty beat it. But totalitarianism hasn't succeeded either. We'll always be between the poles somewhere, it's just a matter of how close to which pole for how long and how often. Goldwaterism may have succeeded by making things better than they would've been otherwise. OTOH, Goldwaterism may have failed by making things not as good as they would've been otherwise. No way to tell.

  • An0nB0t||

    Goldwater was hugely important to the formation of popular libertarianism no matter how much Reagan might have whored himself out and muddied the waters with his rhetoric and unfulfilled campaign promises. It's hard to see the small government mantra (which Republicans continually ignored right up until the Tea Party formed) catching on without Barry. And the Goldwater/Reagan goodwill may not have completely exhausted itself just yet, depending on how badly the next four years go and who winds up with the scepter in 2016.

    Yep, no end to history in sight after all.

  • effinayright||

    Ron Paul looks way too much like "Justified"'s Raylan Givens' criminal dad for me to ever trust him.

  • Flynn Parish||

    I think libertarians should stop trying to win the pure libertarian votes. If there's any chance of getting support from the Paulites, the libertarians have to capitalize the anger toward the government and sclerotic system instead.

  • gaoxiaen||

    We have to take over the Republican Party. A palace coup d'etat. The old socons are dropping like flies. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

  • gaoxiaen||

    To the old asssholes that control the Republican Party- DIAF, the sooner, the better.

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    Particularly Ed Failure.

  • section9||

    Ron Paul showed the way, but his people are going to have to learn to reach out to other liberty-minded conservatives, such as Palin and Ted Cruz, who want to overturn the Bushista Establishment hammerlock on the GOP.

    Rule 12 was passed at the Tampa Convention to make it easier for Jeb to get nominated in 2016. It puts a lot more power in the hands of the State Party Chairs. There are a lot of people in both the Palin and the Paul camps who are of the belief that the GOP may be a dead letter going forward and it may be better to go with the Libertarians or a fusion of the Libertarians and the Conservative wing of the Party.

    The SoCons are losing their influence in the country as a whole, but remain a vital part of the GOP coalition. The only way going forward is to take the GOP from the bottom, but it will take about three election cycles to work itself out until the liberty wing of the Party controls things. Right now, even after the Romney humiliation, the dynastic, bankster wing of the Party still controls things.

    Nevertheless, Ron Paul started a change in the conversation that could lead to an end of Establishment Rule in the Party, if people are willing to take the kinds of actions that will lead that way.

  • pmains||

    AZ Liberty Caucus [which has been successfully hijacked by the Paulistas] favorite AJ Lafaro just won the Maricopa (Phoenix Metro) GOP Chairmanship. Paulite AZ state delegate and GOP National Committeeman candidate, Seraphim Larson won the Pinal County (sorta part of greater Phoenix) chairmanship. Cindy Dorfsmith lost by about 5 votes (out of ~70) for the Coconino County (Flagstaff and surrounding areas) chair, but the Paulites still have a lot of votes there and aren't going away.

  • NYC80||

    For Libertarianism to win, we must accept two things. First, Libertarians have only one competitive advantage: logic. A Libertarian worldview need not contain any logical inconsistencies. The same cannot be said about Conservatism or Liberalism. The second is that this is not enough. Libertarianism offers no bribes. In a democracy (or a Republic), people trade their votes for spoils. It will never be enough to convince people with logic or liberty. They want to use government to steal from one another while feeling good about it, so long as they believe they're better off for it. Freedom is not an interest group and never will be.

    That said, the second point suggests we must compromise on the first. It may mean compromises that contradict logic. It may mean a "little tyranny" as Paul called it, but it could win. People who adhere to Libertarian ideas because of logic should accept that we must tolerate some inconsistency if the alternative is always losing. If we can have less government and more liberty, at the cost of a bit more than we really believe is necessary, that's a compromise I'm willing to make. The question then becomes, "What's the minimum amount of government necessary, and in what areas, to cobble together a coalition of people who could actually win?" It's not pretty, and I feel like a cynic for stating it, but otherwise we're just on the sidelines yelling as the rest of society drags us down the road towards totalitarianism.

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