Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ron Paul and his followers

-- by Dave

I think Atrios, Markos, and Glenn Greenwald are quite right about Ron Paul's recent fund-raising prowess -- it's truly a remarkable feat, and it shows once again the real power of the Internet. As Markos puts it:
This is the single biggest example of people-power this cycle. And as annoying as it is that we're seeing it from a Republican -- and a crazy one at that -- it's nevertheless a beautiful thing to behold.

I think all of us have been wondering when Republicans were going to figure out this netroots fund-raising thing. A lot of it has to do with conservative top-down politics, which is very hierarchical and all about message control -- which is the kind of organizing you see on the right blogosphere. But the Web works best as a free-flowing information medium that taps into individuals' creativity and energy, and the left blogosphere has that trait in spades, which means they've proven much more capable of tapping into the Web's fund-raising potential.

Still, someone from the right was bound to figure this out, and it was almost certainly going to have to be someone from outside the Republican establishment. So Ron Paul it is.

Of course, I can't say I'm too surprised. Anyone who has been critical of Paul online has become well aware just how organized online he and his followers are. Mention his extremist background and the flying monkeys descend en masse.

But unlike, at least, Greenwald in his post, I'm not so sure that this is a largely positive development. In fact, taking in the longer-term picture of where the Republican right is heading, it seems to me a genuinely ominous development with dangerous ramifications.

Let me note, first, that I'm a great admirer of Greenwald's work, and I think the initial thrust of this post was essentially correct -- the Paul story is being absurdly overlooked. But when he writes:
Regardless of one's ideology, there is simply no denying certain attributes of Paul's campaign which are highly laudable. There have been few serious campaigns that are more substantive -- just purely focused on analyzing and solving the most vital political issues. There have been few candidates who more steadfastly avoid superficial gimmicks, cynical stunts, and manipulative tactics. There have been few candidates who espouse a more coherent, thoughtful, consistent ideology of politics, grounded in genuine convictions and crystal clear political values.

Well, we have to part company. Because as I've been explaining in some detail (along with Sara), Paul has so far managed to pull off something of a neat trick: Appearing thoughtful and principled, even though his beliefs and principles are largely derived from the extremist far right -- a fact that he's wisely muted in the campaign. You don't hear Ron Paul talking about the New World Order a lot in the press, largely because no one is asking him about it -- but in reality, he hasn't changed his beliefs appreciably since the days he was touring the militia K-ration banquet circuit.

That is to say, Greenwald is right, so far as it goes: Paul is consistent and coherent within the realm of his belief system, but those beliefs aren't simply the benign libertarianism that Paul has erected as his chief public image, and which Greenwald appears to have absorbed. Paul's beliefs, in fact, originate with the conspiracy-theory-driven far right of the John Birch Society and Posse Comitatus. He's just been careful not to draw too much attention to that reality, even though he has occasionally let the curtain slip.

I would say the vast majority of "Patriot" movement followers and similar far-right extremists, in fact, are actually very wonkish in the same fashion as Ron Paul about their beliefs, and construct arcane and fairly rigorous rationalizations for them, very consistent within their universes, many of them to an impressive degree. But that overlooks, of course, that their founding premises are almost entirely bogus.

Greenwald is hardly alone in missing this element: I think a large number of voters have managed to do so as well.

In one of his updates, Greenwald notes:
I want to clarify what I think is one critically important point in response to some of the comments. Paul's opposition to having the Federal Government involved in things such as education and health care is constitutional in nature. His argument is that the Constitution only permits the Federal Government to exercise explicitly enumerated powers in Articles I and II and, pursuant to the Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution . . . are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Thus, his argument, at least on this level, has nothing to do with whether there would be good or bad results from having the Federal Government exercise powers in these areas. His argument is that the Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to do so, regardless of whether it's desirable. If one wants the Federal Government to exercise specific powers which the Constitution prohibits, then the solution is to amend the Constitution, not to violate it because of the good results it produces.

While there are certainly arguments to dispute Paul's constitutional view (the Supreme Court, for instance, has had to reach to Congress' Article I authority to "regulate Commerce . . . among the several States" in order to "justify" many of these Federal Government activities), the argument that there are "good results" from having the Federal Government do these things -- or that there would be "bad results" if it didn't -- isn't a coherent or responsive reply to Paul's position.

First, it should be pointed out that Paul's positions regarding public education aren't simply relegated to federal concerns -- Paul's position is that there should be no publicly funded education at all. He is, after all, a leading supporter and associate of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State, and is one of the signers of their petition proclaiming, "I favor ending government involvement in education."

More importantly, it needs to be pointed out that the reasons for accepting the courts' reasoning regarding Commerce Clause-based federal oversight of various matters are not simply that the outcome is desirable, but that the government's interest under the clause is quite real. It's frankly hard not to see that there is a real interstate interest in federal involvement in civil-rights, labor, and environmental law. Moreover, revoking that involvement in fact would be a genuinely radical step that would overturn years of established law and practice regarding such matters as civil rights.

The far right has been railing about the expansion of government powers under the Commerce Clause since the days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when the Clause was used to uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (though there was an animus toward this reasoning dating back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938). As such, it has been a constant target of various far-right conspiracy theories regarding the structure of American government for many years.

Mostly, so-called "constitutionalists" -- embodied originally by the old Posse Comitatus and various tax-protest groups led by such anti-Semites as Martin "Red" Beckman, and in later years by such "Patriot" groups as the Montana Freemen and various militias scattered around the country -- have been whipping on every example of Commerce Clause-based regulation and federal involvement, because they understand that schackling the federal government's powers is a fundamental part of their larger strategy of returning all political powers to localities, allowing for a return to the "organic" Constitution -- you know, the original Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which conveniently omits the prohibition of slavery and the equal-protection clause and the federal income tax and women's suffrage.

At least, that's what a lot of "constitutionalists" think, though it's not clear to what extent Paul concurs with them -- he seems to accept, at least, the legitimacy of the 14th amendment. But if you run through the broad array of kooky theories about the federal government promoted on the far right, you can find any number of Ron Paul's positions -- particularly regarding the gold standard, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, and the United Nations -- floating about there. Notably, Paul also played a significant role in Congress' ongoing failure to confront the growing problem of conspiracy-driven tax protests by diverting the blame to the IRS itself.

But that's who Ron Paul is -- a "constitutionalist" who deals in conspiracy theories and extremist anti-government beliefs. It's who he always has been, and who he is now. It isn't just an accident that Paul very recently spoke to a group with troubling racial ties, or that he attended a Patriot Network banquet in his honor in 2004, or that he gave an interview to a conspiracist magazine the same year. Hell, he's been operating within those same circles since 1985.

The real problem with the success of Paul's candidacy is not only that it helps to legitimize and mainstream his extremist beliefs, but that it also dramatically empowers the very extremist elements that Greenwald dismisses as an insignificant faction of his support.

Glenn writes:
The most illegitimate argument against Paul is the attempt to tie him to the views of some of his extremist and hateful supporters. I referenced that fallacy above, and elaborated on it in this comment.

Therein he writes:
I'm really uncomfortable with judging someone by the support they attract. When The NY Sun wanted to discredit Walt/Measheimer, they did it by asking David Duke if he agreed with their book, and when he said that he did, they published a big article about it, implying that Duke's agreement must mean the argument is racist.

And, of course, a lot of the money that has been donated to Clinton and Obama -- A LOT -- is from the largest corporations that many of their supporters blame for most of the nation's ills. Should Clinton or Obama be responsible for the actions of their corporate donors?

Paul is out there arguing against worldwide organizations as well as clearly oppposing our unbending support for Israel. That is going to attract some anti-semites and other assorted crazies and haters, but that is most assuredly not the same as saying that Paul himself is anti-semitic or hateful.

Connecting a candidate to the views of some of his supporters without more smacks a little of guilt by association (not say you're doing that), and I doubt any candidate is really immune to that sort of thing.

But this isn't "guilt by association" -- first, the argument isn't that Paul is a racist per se, but that he is an extremist who shares a belief system held not just by racists but other anti-government zealots as well. Paul is identified with their causes not simply because he speaks to them, but because he elucidates ideas and positions -- especially regarding the IRS, the UN, the gold standard, and education -- identical to theirs. This is why he has their rabid support. There is an underlying reason, after all, that Paul attracts backers like David Duke and the Stormfront gang: he talks like them.

Second and perhaps most importantly, there are legitimate reasons for anyone to raise objections to Paul's associations, speaking before the Patriot Network, the CofCC, and similar groups -- he's a public official, and he is lending the power of his public office to legitimizing radical-right organizations like this. Think of why it would be wrong to appear before the Klan, or the CofCC, as Trent Lott and Hayley Barbour have done in the latter case.

It's not merely what it implies about your own beliefs and standards -- it's that you've lent the power of your public office to empowering and raising the stature of racists. You of course have the right to do so -- but the public has every right to criticize you for it as well, as it should. After all, what this comes down to is not so much beliefs and values but judgment. One expects, after all, a congressman to display better judgment than to appear before a group of nutcases. Ron Paul didn't, and hasn't, for a simple reason -- he's one of them.

And just as his associations with far-right extremists have empowered those groups -- a favor now being returned in the form of their avid support for him even as he attempts to strategically distance himself from them -- his recent stunning successes mean the further empowerment of these groups. And that is why, over the long term, we ought take much greater pause in considering the value of his success.

So far, Ron Paul has been cagey about his larger agenda and his core belief system, and I think that's helped him tremendously in deflecting talk, in large part because most of the questions have been about racism, which he can readily deflect. I do wonder when someone is going to ask him about the New World Order, though. The response might help open people's eyes to the Ron Paul Reality.


Here are links to our previous reportage on Paul:

The trouble with Ron

Ron Paul vs. the New World Order

Man of the Hour

Six impossible things before breakfast

Return of the New World Order

The real Ron Paul surfaces

No fault of his own

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