Rand Paul's Rise Highlights The Huge and Deadly Gap Between Popular Opinion and Political Action in This Here Greatest of All Democratic Republics


Washington Monthly has a huge feature on Rand Paul's rise in its July/August issue; it's not on the whole enormously illuminating for those who have even half-paid attention to Reason's copious coverage of the man in the past couple of years, focusing largely on his delicate attempt to not completely repel the foreign policy powers that be in the GOP while still mostly opposing their beliefs (with some sideswipes at his dad, Ron Paul).

But the piece by Stuart A. Reid, himself a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, toward its end hits on something true and important and sad about foreign policy and democracy, that is, that in this democracy it mostly doesn't matter what We The People think about foreign policy:

[Paul] is popular not only because he is young, savvy, and articulate but also because he has exploited a long-standing gap between American citizens and their political leaders on foreign policy. When pollsters from Rasmussen asked likely voters this January, "Should the United States be the world's policeman?" only 11 percent answered yes. No wonder Paul's message of restraint has found such a warm reception.

The brashest of Paul's positions—the immediate cutting off of aid, the major downsizing of military bases, the imposition of significant congressional authority—will likely never become U.S. foreign policy. But his effect on the rhetorical landscape could prove more lasting. Paul, George Will said, has "expanded the range of what is discussable." The challenge he poses to advocates of military intervention is particularly potent, and particularly useful at a time when Washington is debating our intervention in Syria.

On the day Paul and I spoke, Rasmussen polled likely voters about the conflict in Syria. Seventy-three percent thought the United States should stay out. The Senate, meanwhile, was coming to its own consensus on Syria. The chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, had just introduced legislation that would provide arms and training to the opposition, and McCain and Democratic Senator Carl Levin would soon take to the Senate floor and demand missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad's forces.  

I have written about citizen impotence against state foreign policy hyperpower a decade ago. May Rand Paul help break that spell.