Campaigns/Elections

Ron Paul, for the People

Can a libertarian Republican appeal to Democrats?

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Ron Paul may not be the next president of the United States, but he is already in effect the president of meetup.com.

You might remember that online community site from the Howard Dean explosion leading into the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. It was widely credited with being key to his burgeoning people power that scared the rest of the Dem pack four years ago.

Deanmania ruled for a while, at least until votes were actually cast. He did not, as you might notice, end up president, or even the Democratic nominee. But he did assure a political future for himself as chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Looking at the meetup numbers, Paul partisans can't help but feel a swell of hope—and wonder if Paulmania has some chance of reaching escape velocity between now and the actual primary season.

Ron has 8,763 meetup group members. For politicians actually running this year, he's more than 100 percent ahead of his nearest rival, Barack Obama. And that's not all: Paul's got about twice as many YouTube subscribers as he has meetup members, while Obama, who is supposed to be similarly exhilarating to the grassroots on the Democratic side, has only 6,589.

Despite these numbers in a world where concerted activist action can bring impressive paper results, and even gather more real-world cheering than competitors, Ron still isn't doing much in the polls, despite an impressive amount of specialty national media (from Maher to Dobbs to Stewart to Colbert), even in those polls which bother to include him. (Paul partisans have some good reasons to feel picked on and excluded by mainstream media, to be sure.)

It's no coincidence that meetup.com made its first big political splash for a Democrat, Dean. Conceptually, the meetup model fits well with a certain story that Democrats like to tell about themselves—all cutting edge and grassroots and people power, the sort of things a party that was, until 2006, largely out of federal power needs to court and cultivate.

That thought, and my experience at a meetup-generated Paul supporters meeting this week in Pasadena, made me wonder about Paul's potential to appeal to disaffected Democrats.

The meeting, which I stumbled into by accident (I hadn't signed up for Paul's meetup group myself and was unaware it was happening), had, even two and a half hours after its official beginning, a good 75 people filling the room. Attendees told me more than 100 were there at peak—which I found quite impressive, but the Paul rally coordinator I spoke to seemed disappointed. There were more people under the age of 30 in this room then I saw at the national convention of the Libertarian Party in Portland in 2006.

When I asked one former Democrat at this gathering, who told me he got excited by Paul during the first televised GOP debates, whether he was a common phenomenon, both he and another supporter (who came to Ron from the hard money side) shook their heads wonderingly as if I'd asked them something as ridiculous and obvious as if Ron Paul believes in the Constitution; it's a constant phenomenon, they insist. The hard money guy, who likes to wear his nifty "Ron Paul Revolution" t-shirt (with the "evol" in revolution laid out to make the "love" backwards part stand out), says he's constantly approached by interested civilians, many of them Democrats, excited and eager to know more.

All either of them had was anecdotes, not thorough data. But no one is polling Democratic voters on their thoughts on Ron Paul, so that's all we've got to go on. The appeal makes sense on some level, especially when you look at the weak-kneed pasts of most of the antiwarriors leading the Dem pack and contemplate the list of issues that sum up Paul on a business card being handed out at this event.

It has the "ronpaul2008.com" address on top, and lists as Ron's stances: "Voted against Iraq War. Voted against Patriot Act. Never voted to raise taxes. Never voted to increase government. Opposes Internet regulation. Opposes War on Drugs. Opposes Torture. Supports non-interventionist foreign policy. Supports habeas corpus." (That's the full list.)

Now, some Democratic intellectuals of the Jonathan Chait variety seem to think raising taxes is a primary political imperative, but I'm sure even most Democratic voters aren't going to actually mind too much that he's against raising taxes. So Paul has in many senses the best of the supposed appeal of Reaganite conservatism (small government, keeping the feds out of our lives), and is for many rights and against many abrogations of rights that progressives support.

And this list of stances (perhaps wisely) doesn't mention immigration at all—where Paul's position, outside the modal libertarian let 'em in but don't put 'em on the dole line, probably appeals to more American voters than does that modal libertarian line. Thus, one wonders why Paul isn't considered a shoe-in for victory by acclamation, as he seems to have something big to offer almost every impassioned voting constituency. And he's even major party. (Not to mention that his noninterventionist foreign policy has something in common with the one that President Bush was elected on in 2000.)

One of the keys to why Paul should have wider appeal is that while he is certainly very libertarian, he is in many ways more federalist and constitutionalist than libertarian in a strict sense. He's willing to leave all sorts of things to the states rather than imposing small-government solutions from the top down. He represents—or should, to most thinking voters—little in the way of a threat to their interests, insomuch as their interests don't involve living off the federal teat or using federal power to their advantage. As Paul told me when I interviewed him for my book Radicals for Capitalism, "the freedom philosophy shouldn't be challenging to too many people, when you emphasize that all I want to do is leave you alone."

Progressive gadflies at the Nation such as Alexander Cockburn and John Nichols have had kind words for Paul, the former bordering on an endorsement. Paul has spoken of his affection for, and cooperation with, progressive Dem favorite Dennis Kucinich. Democratic voters need to decide, after eight years of Bush, if they can dedicate themselves mostly to stopping government from doing all the bad things they think Bush has done, from wars to Patriot Acts, or if it is more important to use government's power to do all the good things they insist must be done.

I suspect they will ultimately fall back on the latter, and not rush into every open primary state away from their own lame pack to push Paul forward in Republican primaries.

In the voting booth, momentum often seems to overcome affection (was Kerry really particularly beloved by anyone, even his family?) and the inertia of centrism often overwhelms potentially exciting change.

And undoubtedly, culturally and intellectually, Ron Paul is coming from a very different place than most Democratic voters, and especially from most Democratic intellectuals. (At this Pasadena meeting, the most prominent literature being handed out was issues of the Birch mag New American.) See the Suicide Girls softcore hipster porn web site for a list of reasons why most American progressives, the more they learn about Paul, might want to run away. And no matter how much evil they see in Bush, it is very hard for American liberals to let go of a dream of a powerful do-everything state that will do just what they want it to do, and no more.

Ron Paul is the most energetic and consistent advocate on an issue of paramount political importance, especially to left-progressives—ending our involvement in Iraq. He's willing to leave many controversial issues to states and localities. He wants to leave most of us alone to manage our own affairs, as either individuals or smaller polities. He's a dedicated enemy of some of the most evil and repressive policies currently afoot in America. If America's progressives can't manage to give him at least two cheers, the fault lies not with their candidates, but with themselves.

Still, I'm not taking any bets on Ron Paul being the chairman of the RNC in 2009, either.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism.

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