Ron Paul: Man of the Left

How the libertarian Republican scrambles progressive priorities


At Occupy Wall Street encampments around the nation last fall, most of the activists rallied against modern American capitalism and in favor of government aid to the now-famous 99 percent. But from New York to Philadelphia, from Seattle to Los Angeles, Occupiers were joined (or infiltrated, in the eyes of some) by activists talking up the benefits of a truly freed market, without government giveaways to favored interests or central bank manipulations of the economy. This minority took its inspiration from Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. The confluence between libertarian and progressive activism surprised many, including Paul himself. But it was the strongest indicator yet that the Ron Paul uprising poses a unique challenge—and potential attraction—to the American left. 

Paul vs. Obama

During Paul's latest bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination, his policies were to the left of the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama in many areas. Obama has expanded almost every aspect of the war on drugs, including federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana operations. Paul thinks it's inherently illegitimate to arrest people for actions that harm only themselves. The Obama administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants. Paul mocks border walls as essentially un-American. Obama presided over enormous bailouts of the nation's largest financial institutions, and his economic planning team has been largely run by Wall Street insiders. Ron Paul is opposed to what both he and the Occupiers call "crony capitalism." Even the president's signature legislative accomplishment, Obama­Care (which Paul opposed), forces millions of people to buy health insurance from the very corporations progressives claim to despise.

Civil liberties and peace are the issues that first made some leftist hearts beat faster when contemplating this curious Old Right congressman. Obama has started new wars unauthorized by Congress and greatly expanded a civilian-killing drone program. Paul opposes drones, calls for an immediate end to all our overseas wars, and wants the U.S. military to withdraw from the world. By taking these positions, Paul has done more than even leftist icon Noam Chomsky to normalize discussion of U.S. foreign policy as the behavior of a criminal empire rather than that of the world's great defender of liberty. 

Obama has strengthened the PATRIOT Act and prosecuted whistleblowers; Paul opposes both actions and has defended accused WikiLeaker (and progressive cause célèbre) Bradley Manning. Obama has expanded the commander in chief's powers to unilaterally imprison and even kill American citizens, aggrandizing the executive branch beyond even what the hated George W. Bush managed. Paul inspires thousands of students to boo any mention of Obama's alarming yet largely unknown National Defense Authorization Act, which gives legal cover to the president's power of indefinite detention. 

On a wide range of issues involving individual liberty and protecting people from oppressive concentrations of power, Paul has been more progressive than Obama. Paul's fans knew this, and many led campaigns to capitalize on it during the 2012 primaries—from talking with the more socialist Occupiers to calling on Democratic voters to re-register as Republicans in a movement dubbed "Blue Republican." 

Peace and civil liberties, however, do not comprise everything in the progressive-left worldview. The first thing many on the left think when they hear the name Ron Paul is not free markets or imperial withdrawal but abortion. The obstetrician's belief that abortion is murder and thus prohibitable at the state level (though not federally) is a deal breaker for many liberals. His position on marriage equality—that it would be solved if the government got out of the marriage-recognition business—is not a lefty crowd pleaser either. 

Perhaps above all, progressives love income redistribution, and Paul does not. For many Democrats, using government to elevate the downtrodden and restrain the wealthy trumps all other ideological commitments.

 Paul has sidestepped some of the inevitable flak from this important philosophical difference by soft-pedaling the more blatant "other"-baiting that Republicans usually engage in when it comes to Democrats. So while Paul is opposed in principle to government funding for National Public Radio and even medical care for the poor, he mocks fellow Republicans who act like such programs are where austerity must begin—in the former case because it is statistically insignificant red meat, in the latter because it feeds an ugly strain of hostility toward welfare recipients that plays no part in how Paul campaigns. 

As Paul told the leftist magazine Mother Jones in a March 2011 interview, "As a libertarian, I don't endorse philosophically the many domestic programs, and I'm willing to work on a transition. So I say: Let's cut the unnecessary wars. Let's cut the foreign aid. Let's cut all the empire building, which costs trillions of dollars, and maybe we could tide ourselves over. But for some conservatives to start tinkering with the budget with health care or education for the poor, that doesn't make any political sense to me."

On the campaign trail in 2011–12, Paul even spoke (perhaps disingenuously, given his long-established views on the constitutionally limited role for government spending) about how we could take the "savings" from ending our overseas imperial adventures and "spend that money here at home." Perhaps he was referring to spending by the individual taxpayers from whom the money is currently taken. But to certain willing ears, it must have sounded like a call for a more generous welfare state. 

That Paul eschews right-wing attacks on destitute beneficiaries of state largess may seem like a minor point when most leftists contemplate him in full. Occupiers often interpret Paul's belief in unfettered free markets as a Trojan horse for unleashing sinister corporate power on the poorer classes. Noam Chomsky, even while crediting Paul for wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan, made sure to tell his impressionable fans in a lecture at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in November 2011 that Dr. No's ideas regarding health care were "just savagery." Having churches and charity hospitals care for the poor is apparently nothing short of barbaric compared to the virtue of forcing all Americans to buy health insurance.

Yet even Chomsky, perhaps unwittingly, illustrated the contradictions in labeling Paul both a corporate enabler and a free marketeer. Paul's platform, Chomsky said, was "a call for corporate tyranny." A mere 30 seconds later, he claimed "the business world would never permit it to happen" because "they can't live without a powerful nanny state and they know it." 

Occupy Paul Street?

Ron Paul was the only prominent candidate who dared say anything good about the Occupy movement during the Republican primary season. Paul told me he agreed with the protesters that bailing out the well-to-do at everyone else's expense was worth protesting, even if he didn't agree with most of the Occupiers' proposed solutions. "If they were demonstrating peacefully, and making a point, and arguing our case [against crony capitalism] and drawing attention to the Fed—I would say, good!" he said to an impromptu press scrum outside a speech in New Hampshire in October 2011. Paul choose not to engage in the Newt Gingrich strategy of merely telling the protesters to "go get a job right after you take a bath" or the Mitt Romney habit of suggesting that they prefer communism to freedom. 

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

Ron Paul has not been the only libertarian making a concerted effort to sell progressives on the idea that their economic goals can be met through nonstatist means. In the rarefied world of academic philosophy, a group of libertarian political thinkers operating under the rubric "bleeding heart libertarians" has been toiling on the same project.

While most bleeding heart libertarians seem reluctant to embrace or support Ron Paul specifically, they are fighting for the same mental ground as Paul, on a distinctly nonpolitical battlefield. John Tomasi, a bleeding heart libertarian who teaches political science at Brown University, recently published Free Market Fairness (Princeton University Press), which argues that modern liberals who want to maximize the well-being of the poor should embrace free markets more than they do. Tomasi preaches to the left that respect for economic liberties is a key part of respecting individual autonomy and that a properly freed market generates enough wealth to benefit the least well off. Paul, in his more folksy and Constitution-anchored style, has been saying largely the same thing.

Robin Koerner, a Brit who launched the "Blue Republican" idea in a Huffington Post column, suggests that libertarians offer progressives who "believe we will all die" without the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a deal like this: "OK, but how about we agree we will have that argument in a world where we still have a Bill of Rights and don't kill people as a default international relations tool? Where we don't have crony corporate capitalism? Can we agree if we got there, you as someone who leans left will have a world so much more like you want and I as a classical liberal will have a world so much more like I want, and in that world let's argue about the EPA and FDA."

Despite the common ground Paul has unearthed between libertarianism and the left, the Paul political machine has linked itself to the Republican Party for two election cycles now. His intended political heir, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), endorsed Mitt Romney for president in June, when many of his father's fans still believed Ron Paul still had a distant shot at the nomination. Progressives are not likely to get into bed with the modern GOP, no matter how simpatico a particular Republican seems.

Did inertia and partisan stubbornness keep progressives from embracing a promising champion of their cause? Or do they care more about abortion and income redistribution than the war and civil liberties issues they emphasized during the presidency of George W. Bush? Either way, it's too late now. Paul is on the verge of retirement with no obvious successor. Progressives probably won't see his like again anytime soon.