The Ron Paul Phenomenon

Ron PaulFor those who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Republican candidate for president. His “netroots” are bigger and stronger than any other Republican candidate, perhaps stronger than any other candidate. Any positive story about Ron Paul that makes it to Digg or Reddit is almost certain to make the front page.

All of this begs the questions: Who is Ron Paul? And why are people supporting him?

In the shortest form, Ron Paul is a conservative libertarian, a former obstetrician, and a Congressman from the state of Texas. He’s the only Republican running against the war in Iraq and he’s for the abolition of about as much government as people want him to kill.

All of that’s interesting, and certainly rare among Republicans. But how did Ron Paul raise over $4 million in a single day–more than anyone but Hillary Clinton? After all, most count him as unlikely to get the Republican nod, his support is well under 10% in both the early primary states and across the nation. This turns on its side the notion that a candidate only gets money for being electable.

In seeing all of this, I can’t avoid the feeling that Ron Paul’s supporters like him mostly for what he’s not. His supporters seem to thrive on news of every “mainstream” slight of their candidate–most recently Fox New’s Sean Hannity has been fueling their ire. They also love to rail against the fact that when he wins after-debate polls, they’re regularly dismissed as hacked. Though such stories would seem to validate the idea that Paul is a non-electable non-entity, they actually energize his “netroots” and help him to raise ever more money.

So let’s make a short list of the things Ron Paul isn’t: (1) he’s not a “neoconservative” hawk–in fact his foreign policy is probably the most isolationist of any candidate; (2) he’s not a mainstream candidate–validated by the repeated stories of scorn; (3) he’s not a traditional Republican–he’s unaffiliated with and unsupported by the “Religious Right,” and doesn’t seem troubled by that; (4) he’s against the IRS and most other government entities–whether or not he’s for the FairTax, people like that he hates parts of the government as much as they do.

I can’t avoid the feeling that this list of the things Mr. Paul is not does more to empower his support and fund raising than anything he is. Nowhere do we see reasoned defenses of his isolationist foreign policy, or validation for the idea that the federal government should be made as small as possible. And his supporters seem to thrive on that very fact, they never seem to find it odd, or uncomfortable.

Ron Paul’s support seems to be both diffuse and uninformed. As just one example, Daniel Meissler who calls himself “a serious Ron Paul supporter” came to a shocking realization in September: “Ron Paul is Seriously Flawed as a Candidate: We’re Just So in Love with Him that We’re Not Paying Attention.” Though I’m tempted to say that the headline alone points to the fact that few supporters know much of what he stands for, a quick list of some of Mr. Meissler’s grievances:

  1. He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  2. He’s not for federally funded public education (federally subsidized college loans)
  3. He not for national health care
  4. He would abolish consumer protections
  5. He would abolish the EPA and other environmental safeguards
  6. He would overturn Roe vs. Wade

All of these “flaws” are things that one would legitimately expect from a libertarian Republican, but Mr. Meissler (and many who commented on his post) were unaware. Seduced by what he was not, they had–and Mr. Meissler still does–supported him regardless of his positions.

In a country satisfied with neither its president nor its legislature, Ron Paul allows people something to turn to and support that is clearly not of the tradition of those institutions. He’s been adopted by the disillusioned and the distracted, satisfied by what he’s not, untroubled by what he is. The successes of his campaign are, to me, the perfect illustration of the independent voter’s malaise with modern American politics. But that hardly means he’d make a good president.

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7 responses to “The Ron Paul Phenomenon”

  1. I don’t think Ron Paul is everyone’s candidate, but to say there isn’t any reasoned logic behind his view point is off. I mean his new book is tome to the logic behind his efforts and always cites examples and analogies of his principles working.

    Here’s what you said:

    1. He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state

    Ron Paul does believe in this, this is why he believe marriage should not be sanctioned by the government since it’s religious institution, not government one

    2. He’s not for federally funded public education (federally subsidized college loans)

    Before DoE was established we were #1 in education, we are now #36 due to DoE regulation. Ron Paul wants to get rid of federal taxes and let local government decide how to run their school system, so you could just raise state taxes to make up for it and you’d actually have more money available from lower administration costs. Ron Paul is saying you should have power over how your money is spent.

    3. He not for national health care

    Ron Paul is for free market health care. Right now prices are high cause we give pharmaceutical companies monopolies and don’t let people explore alternatives. Ron Paul would allow people to buy medicine across border, and buy insurance across state lines which would increase competition which would drive prices down and quality up.

    4. He would abolish consumer protections

    He would get rid of Federal Consumer Departments. He encourages self-regulation which is more efficient and effective, take a look at The US porn industry and the Better Business Bureau as examples of Self-Regulation. It’s up to consumers to shape the country through action. Having organizations like FDA is the incentive for Lobbyist to corrupt the government since it gives the government the power grant them monopolies and prevent competitors from entering the market.

    5. He would abolish the EPA and other environmental safeguards

    Again, Lobbyist make the government stimulate growth in the wrong area like we’ve done with Corn Ethanol even though we know Hemp Ethanol and Sugarcane are better alternatives. If you leave it to the market and get rid of all subsidies (ethanol and oil are subsidized) the market will generate affordable and sustainable alternative due to consumer demand. He’s pro tax incentives for researching alternative fuel sources.

    6. He would overturn Roe vs. Wade

    No where in the constitution does it give the federal government power to ban or to protect abortion. Unless an amendment is passed this is an unconstitutional decision. It’s a state issue cause it’s complex and Ron Paul is the first admit it.

  2. Alex, two points I would make. The first is that those grievances about Ron Paul aren’t mine, they’re taken from Daniel Meissler (the links to his opinions and justifications are in the post).

    The second, and perhaps more important, point is that you seem to share many of Mr. Paul’s views about state’s rights and policies. If you share his views and like the man, I’m very glad that you support him. But I think many of Paul’s fans and contributors probably aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about his stances on policy as you are. They seem to, as I say, like him for what he’s not more than for what he is.

  3. Well, Ron Paul isn’t winning because of mainstream media coverage and he’s not winning because of his charisma, so I have to assume it has something to do with the message. Any “anti”-establishment candidate can always pick up 1-2% in the polls, but Ron Paul’s support is different than Kucinich’s or Gravel’s support because Dr. Paul has a good compromise plan – separation of powers among the states.

    Take almost any controversy in social issues, and one might conclude that allowing states to define their own policy is something that liberals and conservatives can agree on. Not only is Washington D.C. limiting the liberal agenda in California by sending DEA agents to arrest sick patients, but it also forces all states and all sub-cultures contained within to conform to a single definition of educational truth and a single (shrinking) definition of citizen’s rights. At the same time, the metro D.C. area has become the richest part of the country in terms of wealth per capita. What’s going to happen to our economy in the long run if NY Banking or California technology is second-place behind a government desk job?

    I would also suggest that “isolationist” has been thrown about incorrectly. Isolationism specifically refers to BOTH non-military intervention AND anti-trade policies. On trading issues, you could call Bush an isolationist because he raised steel tariffs or because he continues to refuse trade with Iran or Cuba. Ron Paul is incredibly pro-trade, he just believes in bilateral trade (which also makes a lot of sense to me.) Rejecting Wilsonian military interventionism isn’t exactly the same as shutting ourselves off from the world. In fact, we might find some new friends or even repair relationships with old allies.

    But, I like this article! You’ve nailed some of Ron Paul’s greatest strengths and weaknesses in this campaign. I just happen to disagree with the conclusion and I think he would make a great president!

  4. underground, I would argue that Ron Paul is more of an anti-establishment candidate than Kucinich or Gravel. Kucinich, and to a lesser extent Gravel, seem to have roughly the same positions as all other candidates in their party. In Kucinich’s case, I think it’s conceivable that he’s really what most Democrats want, but are afraid to say they do. Ron Paul doesn’t really seem to be what most traditional Republicans want.

    And I would hardly call devolving powers to the states a compromise position. The United States is, well, supposed to be united. If it were instead a loose conflagration of states, all the economic and social benefits of that unity would begin to erode. If California legalized drugs, stem cell research and abortions while other states across the country are making alcohol, stem cell research and abortion illegal, the country would have less and less coherent logic for its existence. The same would be true if Texas were to, say, determine its own immigration policy that were rather more open to illegals than people in Kentucky want. Compromise and national issues built this country and increasing state’s rights would be a big step backward. I shudder to think what a federal government run by a libertarian would have done on civil rights in the 1960s. My troubling suspicion is that it would have done nothing, which is, at best, an uncomfortable possibility.

    On isolationism, I think you make a fair point. I was referring principally to military non-interventionism. I’m not really sure where he stands on trade.

  5. I just don’t think federalizing social issues is the magic bullet its made out to be.

    Europe doesn’t have a singular education policy, or a single continental medical program – yet the left praises the social progress they have achieved in a system of independent states connected by free trade. The U.S. Department of Education is less than 30 years old, but are our students more globally competitive than they were or is our educational policy stuck in a quagmire debate over economically irrelevant issues like creationism, prayer in school, and abstinence?

    Comparing nations, I cannot make the logical stretch that Europe would be better off if each state sent 30% of its GDP to Brussels in hopes that some of that tax money would make it back to the people in the form of social programs. They keep the money local and they show us a great example of government efficiency.

    As far as civil rights, I would love to see a federal government who is fundamentally limited to and focused on protecting the constitutional rights of non-discrimination based on race and gender. Although the growth of federal government is often justified in terms of enforcing legal equality, that does not address the fact that the DEA’s War on Drugs results in an inherently racist distribution of arrests, or that HUD serves the purpose of racial segregation (intentionally or not, it does help create segregated communities that are perpetuated with federal funding.)

    Of course, my favorite part of the Ron Paul campaign is that it opens up topics for political discussion that have been largely marginalized for a long time. 🙂

  6. I don’t really understand the Europe analogy. The members of the EU were independent countries that chose to come together; the states of this country typically formed because they wanted to be a part of the United States and a member of its federal government. The other place that that analogy falls flat is that the EU is increasingly becoming a federal system with a stronger and stronger federal power center in Brussels. The new “constitution-lite” they just passed in Lisbon makes that clear.

    On education, I think you’re ignoring the fact that issues of “creationism, prayer in schools, and abstinence” (education, I presume) would still waste time and create controversy in exactly the same way they do now. Those issues are currently fought over by local school boards and states, not within the DOE.

    On civil rights, I’m not sure how a weak federal government that has granted almost all sovereignty to the states could ever hope to enforce any law, never mind a law that wasn’t favored by a majority of the people in a state.

    Your argument about the DEA also seems confused. Yes, too many people serving time for drugs are minorities, but that’s because they’re more likely to be picked up and prosecuted by local authorities, not the DEA. Most of the minorities serving time were picked up by city cops and prosecuted there, the DEA never touched them. I’m not acquainted with the argument that HUD fosters segregation, so I’ll forgo responding to that.