The strange and scary candidacy of Ron Paul

Like Kevin Drum, I have a hard time imagining Ron Paul actually winning the GOP nomination. But with Paul’s recent surge in the Iowa polls and Nate Silver projecting a 20% chance of a Ron Paul Iowa victory, it might be worthwhile to actually dedicate a post to his strange and scary candidacy.

Some on the left, including Ralph Nader, have oddly embraced Ron Paul at times. Tentatively embracing Paul is somewhat understandable given his opposition to the wars, opposition to the drug war, and support for civil liberties. Paul’s motivation for those positions differs from those on the left, but I guess if policy preferences align, it may not matter precisely why.

Paul’s Shady History
Except for those few policy overlaps however, Ron Paul is an unmitigated disaster as a candidate. For most of his career, Ron Paul has strangely occupied the same fringe, right-wing political space as survivalists, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists. For more than a decade, Paul published a racist, homophobic, conspiracy-rich newsletter known as The Ron Paul Survival Report. In the newsletter, Paul discussed the coming race war, the New World Order, the enjoyment gays derive from contracting AIDS, and even more twisted stuff.

Ron Paul’s only defense to date has been that he did not write the newsletters and did not know what was in them. Although it is plausible that Paul did not write the newsletters — prominent people tend to have people write for them — it is doubtful that he had no idea what was being published under his name for ten years. The name of the newsletter itself, the Ron Paul Survival Report, is a clear homage to the survivalist fringe that Paul’s newsletter appeared to be targeting. Paul would have known generally what it was about from the name alone.

Even if his totally implausible defense on the newsletter was believed to be true, a number of recorded statements reflect similar sentiments. For instance, when challenged on his written claim that “95 percent of the black males in [DC] are semi-criminal or entirely criminal,” Paul defended himself saying “These aren’t my figures […] that is the assumption you can gather from [criminal justice statistics].” When challenged on his written statement that “only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions,” Paul’s spokesman defended by saying that this statement is true because only 5% of blacks share the same views as Paul.

In addition to those recorded statements, Paul appeared in a 1998 John Birch Society video along with other conspiracy theorists claiming — among other things — that the UN was going to come into the US and take everyone’s guns, a frequent worry among the New World Order conspiracy nuts. Paul has also received considerable vocal support from white supremacists and conspiracy theorists including the premiere white supremacist website Pictures of him hanging out with Don Black, the founder, have recently been circulating the internet. The most famous American conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, and his base of right-wing conspiracy nuts at have been beating the drum for Ron Paul for years now.

Generally, it may not be fair to fault someone for attracting disgusting communities of support, but Ron Paul has clearly been courting and participating in these communities for decades. Regardless of whether Ron Paul believes all the crazy stuff he has published and said, he at least knew what he was doing when publishing it: reaching out to fringe groups to boost his support.

As the New York Times notes, creating a “right-wing populist” coalition of libertarians, paleoconservatives, and racists to boost the libertarian cause has long been an intentional strategy among tacticians within the libertarian community. It was this coalition of support that got David Duke into congress a short while ago, much to Ron Paul’s longtime cohort Lew Rockwell’s delight. This long-term intentional effort at building a broad coalition for right-wing populism arguably manifested itself with the recent Tea Party, a movement that Ron Paul has heavily involved himself in.

Paul’s Platform
Amazingly enough, Paul’s tilt towards the racist and fringe right wing is not even the scariest thing about his presidential candidacy. A quick glance at his platform and history of policy advocacy reveals a political ideology that would absolutely devastate poor and working people.

Ron Paul is a famous supporter of re-implementing a gold-backed currency in line with with the policy preferences of the heterodox Austrian School of Economics. Paul is so committed to the gold standard that he persistently peppers federal reserve officials with gold-related questions during congressional hearings, including one comical exchange between Paul and Ben Bernanke where Paul asks “Do you think gold is money?” and Ben Bernanke replies simply “no.”

This might seem like a technical issue, but outside of the rather marginal Austrian School, the idea of moving back to a gold standard with inflexible monetary policy is almost universally panned in the economics community. The famed libertarian economist, Milton Friedman, won a Nobel Prize showing that the gold standard and tight monetary policy of the sort Ron Paul is advocating caused the Great Depression. Up against Ron Paul’s extremism, Milton Friedman’s monetarism makes him look like a bleeding heart liberal.

In addition to his gold obsession, Paul also has promised to impose $1 trillion of austerity in his first year in office. The U.S. GDP in 2010 was $14.58 trillion. Cutting $1 trillion would push GDP downward by more than 6.5 percent without even counting any multiplier effects. By comparison, GDP shrank by 8.9 percent in the worst quarter of the recent recession. In a fragile economy like this one, Paul’s sudden austerity is sure to throw the country into another recession, causing an enormous number of job losses. Combined with his inflexible monetary policy, Paul’s austerity would be an absolute disaster for employment and production.

Ron Paul’s libertarianism also leads him to oppose welfare programs that help poor and working families avoid starvation and homelessness. He wants to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, programs which keep millions of seniors out of poverty. He opposes efficient universal healthcare, opposes the Civil Rights Act, opposes union protection, opposes abortion, and opposes just about anything else a typical right-winger does. The only thing unique or revolutionary about Paul’s political positions with respect to poor and working people is that they are even more extreme than the policies Republicans usually trot out there.

For certain populations, these are very appealing positions to hold. Religious conservatives, racists, conspiracy theorists, and those who think the poor are lazy have a lot to like about Ron Paul’s candidacy. Those on the left however should be distancing as much as possible. Somehow, Ron Paul has managed to sire a LaRouche-style army of young white college students to beat the Ron Paul drum endlessly across the internet and even on the ground in Iowa. Paul’s branding of himself as some sort of anti-establishment hero no doubt accounts for this support.

Because it is very unlikely Paul will win the GOP nomination or the presidency, I am not that concerned that his scary platform will ever see the light of day. I am concerned however that some on the left will buy into the bizarre hype, and waste their time on his candidacy, especially with prominent figures like Ralph Nader promoting the idea that Paul is an ally to progressives. He is not an ally, and the quicker he gets knocked back into irrelevancy the better off we will all be.

Centrist third party destined to fail

Thomas Friedman’s article on an upstart third party in Sunday’s New York Times has been generating buzz. Friedman explains that the new party — Americans Elect — will be one of a radical centrist variety. Eschewing the normal nominating processes, it will harness the power of the internet to nominate its own candidates for President and Vice President, stipulating that they cannot both come from the same political party. This is supposed to lead to the nomination of more representative candidates that will challenge the entrenched interests of the two major political parties.

On first glance, it is not clear what distinguishes Americans Elect from the spectacularly failed Unity08 movement which made a similar splash in the early parts of the 2008 presidential election. Americans Elect is wrapped in the same sort of vague centrism and similarly requires multi-party representation on the ticket. Unlike Unity08, it appears that Americans Elect at least superficially understands the necessity of actually organizing to get on the ballot, something which is quite difficult due to ballot access laws that are designed to frustrate third party participation.

Other than that, its chief novelty I suppose is its heavy dependence on internet participation. Its polished website and internet nominating process makes it somewhat distinct from Unity08, but not in a good way. Absent mass participation — which I am willing to predict will not materialize — the nominating process will almost certainly devolve into a comical circus of fringe candidates with dedicated internet supporters. Judging from how often Ron Paul supporters organized to spam internet polls last election cycle, I can already see him being a big contender once he loses in the Republican primary.

My real problem with Americans Elect, however, is not its internet-heavy process or its remote chances; rather, it is its reliance on the tired political rhetoric of populist centrism. According to this rhetoric, the Democratic party is an uncompromising left-wing political machine, and the Republican party is an equally uncompromising right-wing political machine. They are both controlled by hyper-partisan interest groups that seek to polarize the American people who are, on this view, actually more in agreement with one another than disagreement. If only we could find the sweet spot right in the middle of the right-wing and left-wing, we would somehow find the correct governance.

This populist centrism is surprisingly widespread. For instance, Jon Stewart’s whole persona as one of the few mature, reasoned, and therefore legitimate political commentators is premised on just such a populist centrist line. Additionally, you can hear the sentiment echoed in the voice of the everyday person who remarks that they are not a Democrat or a Republican, and that they are conservative on some things and liberal on others. Of course, this is a view you have to line up behind to position yourself as someone who is truly politically independent.

The chief problem with this centrist line is that it is not truly centrist, at least not on any normal political spectrum. As Paul Krugman succinctly points out, the modern-day Democratic party is really a moderately right-wing party. The policies that they pursue are the same ones that Republicans advocated less than two decades ago. The idea that finding some arbitrary point in between the moderate right-wing Democrats and the more extreme right-wing Republicans will generate excellent public policy is completely without merit. This is an especially strange rhetorical line when one considers that the center — when conceived of as being in between the Republicans and Democrats — is constantly shifting.

More than that, populist centrism seems to completely reject the idea that there are actually good reasons to have a defined political persuasion other than vaguely “in the middle.” It is not mindless partisanship or political dogmatism to line up behind a unified conception of the role of government that forwards a coherent program based on a particular worldview. In fact, that approach to doing politics actually makes sense because it is based on carving out a definite position based upon theories, arguments, and ideas. It differs from the amorphous centrism of parties like Americans Elect which defines solid political ground as being relational to existing political tides — the relation being of course in the center of them.

That Americans Elect will almost certainly fail goes without saying. However, in its failure it will probably provide at least some boost to the frustratingly incoherent rhetoric of populist centrism. That contribution, no matter how small, will only help to make the mainstream political discourse more vacuous than it already is.