Among the other firsts of his campaign, Ron Paul is probably the only presidential contender to be compared to a Samuel L. Jackson movie. The Texas congressman, a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination, was being lightly grilled by Kevin Pereira, a host on the videogame-oriented cable channel G4. "Young people online, they were really psyched about Snakes on a Plane, but that didn't translate into big ticket sales for Sam Jackson," Pereira said. "Are you worried that page views on a MySpace page might not translate to primary votes?"
The reference was to the Internet sensation of 2006, an action movie whose cheesy title and premise had sparked a burst of online creativity: mash-ups, mock trailers, parody films, blogger in-jokes. Hollywood interpreted this activity as "buzz," and New Line Cinema inflated its hopes for the movie's box office take. When the film instead did about as well as you'd expect from a picture called Snakes on a Plane, the keepers of the conventional wisdom declared that this was proof of the great gulf between what's popular on the Internet and what sells in the material world.
Ron Paul is popular on the Internet, too, with more YouTube subscribers than any other candidate, the fastest-growing political presence in MySpace, a constant perch atop the Technorati rankings, and a near-Olympian record at winning unscientific Web polls. Like Snakes, he is the subject of scads of homemade videos and passionate blog posts. When Pereira mentioned the movie, he was making a clear comparison: Yes, your online fans are noisy, but will their enthusiasm actually translate into electoral success?
It's an interesting analogy, because the conventional wisdom about Snakes on a Plane is backwards. The reason the online anticipation for Snakes didn't translate into big ticket sales is because there actually wasn't much online anticipation for the movie. Yes, some of those parodists were interested in seeing the finished film, whose notoriety has given it minor cult status. But the others couldn't care less about the studio's product. Their online activity was an end in itself, a great big belly laugh at the expense of goofy high-concept movies. Their riffs and spoofs were far more entertaining than any actual feature about airborne reptiles was likely to be. Those fans weren't waiting for a show. They were the show.
That's one difference between Snakes and Paul: The congressman's fans really do want him to do as well as possible in the polls. But victory isn't the only thing on their minds. For many of them it isn't even the topmost thing on their minds. Like those Snakes on a Plane spoofs, the grassroots activity around Paul's campaign is interesting and valuable in itself. Here are three reasons why:
It's transpartisan. Paul's fan base stretches all the way from Howard Phillips to Alexander Cockburn. His libertarian message has resonance, as you'd expect, among free-marketeers dismayed by the GOP's love affair with federal spending. It is also attractive, as you'd expect, to lefties who like his opposition to the Iraq war and the post-9/11 incursions on our civil liberties. But the race has no shortage of anti-spending conservatives and antiwar liberals. Paul is especially appealing to people who don't fit the narrow stereotypes of Blue and Red: to decentralist Democrats, anti-imperialist Republicans, and a rainbow of independents.
The Internet makes it easier for such dispersed minorities to find each other, and the congressman's candidacy has given them a new reason to seek each other out. When Pittsburgh's Paul backers gathered via the MeetUp site, which arranges get-togethers for users who share a common interest, the blogger Mike Tennant attended. He found at least one Democrat, at least one anarchist, several disillusioned Bush supporters, a member of the Libertarian Party, a member of the right-wing Constitution Party, "and a whole roomful of folks disillusioned with the two-party duopoly… The one thing that unites us all is a desire to have a president who actually believes in liberty and has a record to match his rhetoric." Paul fans have been arguing forcefully for their candidate at both the conservative Web hub FreeRepublic and its liberal counterpart, Daily Kos—where, to be sure, they are met by angry opposition from more conventional Republicans and Democrats.
It's idea-driven. Were you wondering how Paul answered that question about Snakes on a Plane? He said, "I don't worry much about that at all. I worry about understanding the issues and presenting the case and seeing if I can get people to support these views." Some politicians are in this race because they really want to run the country. Some are in it because they want to be vice president, or be secretary of state, or extract some other prize from the eventual nominee. Paul is in it to inject ideas into the campaign. He wants to get votes, of course, but like Henry Clay he'd rather be right than be president. (Unlike Clay, he really is right most of the time.)
For Paul, it's a victory just to be on stage with Rudolph Giuliani arguing for a non-interventionist foreign policy, because it serves as a reminder that it's possible to be a fiscal conservative with bourgeois cultural instincts and yet oppose the occupation of Iraq and the effort to extend that war into Iran. That novelty, coupled with his fans' online activity, has earned Paul a rash of TV interviews: In the last two months, he has appeared on This Week, The Daily Show, Tucker, Lou Dobbs Tonight, and The Colbert Report, among other venues, raising his profile far above the other second-tier candidates. Each appearance is an opportunity not just to ask for votes but to express his anti-statist ideas, spreading a message rarely heard in the context of a presidential campaign.
It has a life of its own. After Jesse Jackson's populist campaign did unexpectedly well in 1988, many of his supporters hoped the Rainbow Coalition would become an independent grassroots force. But Jackson was more interested in his own political career, and he opted to make it a smaller group he could control. Similarly, Ross Perot resisted every effort to make the Reform Party something more than a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. When it slipped out of his control anyway, and in 2000 gave the world two competing presidential nominees, he stiffed both and endorsed George Bush instead.
A different fate befell the left-wing "netroots" that embraced Howard Dean in 2004 and Ned Lamont (among others) in 2006. They've maintained their decentralized character, and they're obviously larger than any particular pol. But unlike the Perot movement or even the Rainbow Coalition, which included left-wing independents as well as Democrats, the netroots aren't larger than one particular party. They may hate the Democratic establishment, but they're still devoted Democrats.
The Paul movement is different. Unlike the Jackson and Perot campaigns, it is open, decentralized, and largely driven by activists operating without any direction from the candidate or his staff. Unlike the netroots, it has no particular attachment to the party whose nomination its candidate is seeking. Paul himself left the Republican fold in the '80s to run for president as a Libertarian, and he still has friendly ties to that party. When he returned to the GOP and to Congress in the election of '96, the national party establishment threw its weight behind his opponent in the primaries, an incumbent who had originally been elected as a Democrat. Paul turned to independent sources to fill his campaign coffers, raising substantial sums from the libertarian, constitutionalist, and hard-money movements. Those have always been his chief base of support.
Barring a complete meltdown of the party gatekeeping apparatus, Ron Paul will not be the Republican nominee next year. And he says he has no plans to run as an independent. But you can't erase all the traces of a self-directed, transpartisan, idea-driven movement. Long after Snakes on a Plane was relegated to the cult-movie shelf, the people who spoofed it online are still writing blogs and editing mini-movies, applying the skills they honed mocking an action flick. Howard Dean is just a party functionary today, but the troops who assembled themselves behind him are still active in the trenches, their original leader nearly forgotten. I suspect that Paul will have a longer shelf life than Dean or Snakes. But whatever becomes of him after this election, his fans will still be there, organizing rallies, editing their YouTube videos, launching their own political campaigns, and spreading ideas.
Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.