The straw poll victory of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, with a plurality of 31 percent, spurred a wide range of reaction and emotions. If you weren't already a fan of the radically libertarian Republican congressmen, his victory wasn't the thing to make you start taking him seriously.
Many agreed that Paul's win, if meaningful, could only bode ill for the Republican Party's prospects. David A. Harris at TalkingPointsMemo thinks Paul's ascendance means the GOP is determined to give up on the Jews (since Paul has suggested that certain U.S. foreign policy decisions benefit Israel more than they benefit the U.S.). Earl Ofari Hutchinson at Huffington Post thinks Paul's win means racism and nativism is on the rise in the GOP, as he fantasizes about non-existent race-based jibes in Paul's CPAC speech.
In the real world, Paul's speech was mostly about fiscal probity and saving the U.S. from a debt-driven dollar collapse. Paul applied principles of limited government and restrained spending to a place where most Republicans fear to tread: foreign policy. He stressed the vital importance of the free exchange of ideas, including a long shout-out to Eugene Debs, the socialist leader jailed by Democratic god Woodrow Wilson for saying the wrong things, and freed by Republican President Warren Harding.
Paul talked to the assembled activists of the unity of liberty, including the liberty to eat and smoke what you want. He harkened back to old Republican icons (such as President Dwight D. Eisenhower with his military-industrial complex warnings) to give his constitutionalist libertarian version of conservatism a usable past. His talk was rambly, perhaps not ready for prime time, but united by a bracing vision of a government that did only what its Constitution intended it to do. This makes him radical indeed.
That radicalism makes it unsurprising that the Republican assault on Paul in America's most prominent print outlets had actually ramped up in the week before the CPAC victory. Coincidence, or a subterranean sign that the forces of respectable Republicanism were feeling the pre-shocks of the CPAC Paulquake? In The Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter (now there's a pedigree that should give you free rein to lecture conservatives about strategy) Michael Gerson openly called for an old-fashioned purge of Paulites (along with "racists and conspiracy theorists" and "acolytes of…Tom Tancredo and Lyndon LaRouche"—neither of them polled double digits at CPAC). Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal pre-emptively referred to Paul's squad of dedicated activists for small government as "assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged" in the week prior to the surprise CPAC win.
Those who tend to agree with Paul were delighted by his victory, more excited than Paul was himself. Paul told me earlier this week that "I see [the CPAC win] as making progress, but I wouldn't overblow it. I try to put it into perspective. I probably get more excited about what's happening when I go to a college campus and get 1,500 students excited about what I'm doing. If they did a national poll of all Republican voters, I mean obviously I'm not going to be running the show." (Paul still insists he is "firmly undecided" about another presidential run.)
The standard bastions of the right-wing were not amused by the shenanigans of the crazy kids at CPAC, and many noted that Paul's victory should not be seen as a sign the Republican Party is his for the grabbing. Former presidential candidate and TV talk show host Mike Huckabee wrote off CPAC—that is, many thousands of the most dedicated and engaged political junkies and activists available to the GOP—as being too libertarian and thus irrelevant to his Republican Party. Neocon intellectual chieftain Bill Kristol thinks Paul's win means nothing; why, Kristol pointed out on Fox News, the majority of those CPAC kids are under 25! Surely, crazy fads sweeping the young and politically motivated have no significance for a political party's future, right?
The lefties at Daily Kos noted that Fox News, the definers of the GOP as a media brand, were not too thrilled about Paul's victory and dismissed its importance. The American Conservative recognized that while "Ron Paul people" may have had the plurality at CPAC, the widespread boos that accompanied the announcement of his win shows that he was probably widely reviled by the 69 percent who didn't pick him.
Political analyst Patrick Ruffini at The Next Right has a balanced, non-fan's perspective that I think gets it about right, explaining what the standard bastions of conservatism should both fear and credit Paul and his fans for:
In 2007, the Paulites were an oppositional force trying to submarine the GOP's commitment to the war on terror, thus threatening traditional conservatives. Today, libertarians and conservatives have come together against Obama's endless expansion of the State, with Ron Paul supporters supplying creative organizing tactics and boots on the ground.
….in terms of grassroots organization, Paul supporters are some of the best—if not the best—that we have. The iconography of the tea party movement is heavily libertarian (think the Gadsden Flag) and that's no coincidence. If you broke down the organizers and even those in attendance [at CPAC], you'd find more than your fair share of Ron Paul supporters. This is a categorical shift that's happened in the last year.
Victory in a CPAC straw poll (which belonged to Mitt Romney the past three years, smacked down this time with 22 percent to Paul's 31) does not mean national leadership, the nomination, or the presidency. But beyond their affection for Paul himself—the most consistently and radically pro-liberty political figure of any significance on the Republican scene—a poll of CPAC attendees reveals encouraging facts about their general political attitudes: 80 percent claimed their "most important goal is to promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens" versus a mere 9 percent whose most important goal was to "promote traditional values" and 7 percent to "guarantee American safety at home and abroad regardless of the cost or the size of government."
I predicted last September that Ron Paul could well be playing a Goldwater in 1960 role—the first stirrings of a strongly anti-government coalition whose electoral effectiveness won't become manifest for a while—and the CPAC victory is an encouraging sign in that direction. The usual caveats apply about the unknowability of the future, and the generally predictable pusillanimity when it comes to liberty of both the voters and politicians who have tended to decide the Republican Party's direction.
Still, it does feel like something is happening, and we don't know what it is, do we Dr. Paul? I've been following Ron Paul's career since 1988, when my buddies in the University of Florida College Libertarians brought him—then the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate—to our campus to speak. He drew 100 or so people, copped a front page story in the college paper, and fed into my and my comrade's youthful sense of a subterranean liveliness in ideas and politics that it was still possible to dredge, at least for a moment, to the surface. Swaying masses in that libertarian direction seemed…well, I suppose it was the goal, but in the same sense that interstellar travel might be seen as the "goal" of reading and thinking about science fiction. Libertarian Party politics seemed at best an entertaining vehicle toward the semi-actualization of some wild, hopeful imaginings.
I was pleasantly surprised when Paul won his way through opposition from both Republicans and Democrats back to his Texas House seat in 1996. I first wrote about him as a profile of an entertaining GOP curiosity for the American Spectator in 1999. His political colleagues were alternately confused or amused by him, often good for a pro forma expression of respect for his steadfast refusal to compromise, but he was clearly the sort of anomaly that would just drive party leaders crazy if he multiplied.
By the time I was writing my book on the history of the libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism, which I completed in early 2006, Paul had settled into seeming like just a cute libertarian blip in the world of standard politics. I interviewed him for the book again, but did not give him nearly the play that events since then have proven he deserved. I was one of the first journalists to note his candidacy in January 2007, and followed him on the campaign trail for Reason in late 2007. I watched in amazement as his money bombs exploded and he forged a mass, youth-oriented movement, one that survived his campaign, and saw his oldest hobbyhorse, attacking the Federal Reserve, become almost mainstream.
Still, exciting as that disturbingly exhilarating feeling of having been, just maybe, on top of history can be, Paul's rise to prominence is also, I confess, unnerving.
Various high-end libertarian luminaries—from Milton Friedman to Murray Rothbard—predicted that the appearance of crises for which libertarians had provided prescriptions and solutions would likely be key to public acceptance of libertarian governing principles. And indeed, in his CPAC talk Paul directly credited what public respect and attention he's won since his failed presidential campaign to the fact that he predicted the current economic crisis, based on his understanding of Austrian business cycle theory and the dangers of low interest rates in causing boom-bust cycles.
Despite Paul's cheery statement in the CPAC speech that he thinks the country could be a lot better off a year from now, the Paulite vision, if taken seriously, is pretty goddamn scary. It's not scary because he's scary, or because his ideas in application are inherently scary, but because he predicts very scary results from decades of government mistakes, overreach, and hubris. So much inflation, so much fiscal mismanagement, so much debt, so much imperial overreach, will, Paul regularly predicts, lead to a total collapse in the value of the dollar—a prospect that will have very dire effects for nearly all of us, nationally and internationally.
Despite his CPAC optimism, Paul told me earlier this week that "if we came to our senses," avoiding collapse is "not difficult at all. You just allow a correction to occur, let bankruptcies and liquidation of debt happen, then we go back to work and produce and build a sound money and within a year or so everyone will be doing quite well."
But he then admits that he doesn't see the political possibility of that kind of hard, frugal sense coming to bear before it all comes down. More likely we'll see "the catastrophic event that will come in the next several years because we are on the verge of it now. We can't sustain this kind of deficit financing through the Federal Reserve." A sovereign debt crisis awaits for the United States. As Paul notes (and as I tried to explain to Glenn Beck's audience the other week), this does not mean the end of our ability to meet the economic needs of humans on Earth through production and trade. Not the end of the world per se; still, the collapse of the reigning system of money by which we exchange our title to wealth will be ugly and harm anyone who has tried to save in anything denominated in dollars.
So there's a very good reason anyone with any skin in the game of the status quo—politician, commentator, or citizen—has to find it very difficult to take Paul seriously. That so many citizens and activists in the Tea Party movement are taking him seriously is scaring the establishment for good reason. Paul doesn't just represent an opposition politician, he represents an absolute denial that "the system" makes any sense, has any justice, or is sustainable. It is this radical oppositionism that makes it so easy for standard issue pundits to just write his fans off as nuts and a bit scary.
Newsweek started to get at this important aspect of the Paul phenomenon, noting that "tea-partiers, Paulites, etc.?seem less interested in finding practical solutions to Washington's endemic problems than in tearing down Washington itself. As the 2010 elections approach, this nihilistic feeling will only grow stronger."
That's because the radical solutions that the Paul worldview demands—an end to overseas military adventurism, ending government's ability to manipulate paper currency, severe cuts in spending on all the myriad income-shifting promises Washington has made the past 80 years—don't register as "practical solutions" to (for lack of a better word) the establishment. They seem like nihilism, though they are actually a belief in the American Constitution.
Any standard Republican or movement conservative really can't take Paul seriously without massive cognitive dissonance. You mean, we really really have to obey the Constitution, we really can't keep borrowing and inflating forever? Signs like the CPAC vote of a significant number of politically active youngsters believing in Ron Paul are indeed a sign of an apocalypse of sorts for the world that most politicians and pundits know. If Ron Paul is right, then everything they know is wrong.