Thursday, November 07, 2013

Ron Paul unleashed

No one should complain that American political rhetoric is getting too bland and over-cautious. As Kevin Drum and others pointed out a few days ago, "Ron Paul basically called for armed revolution this week":
Way back in 2012, when he was running for president, Ron Paul seemed to some people like a breath of fresh air. Sure, maybe he was a bit of a crank, but at least he didn't sanitize his beliefs in order to avoid offending people. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.

But, um, maybe not. At least, not based on this look into Paul's libertarian id, delivered last night at a campaign rally in Virginia for Ken Cuccinelli:
"Jefferson obviously was a clear leader on the principle of nullification," the former Texas congressman said of the third president. "I’ve been working on the assumption that nullification is going to come. It’s going to be a de facto nullification. It’s ugly, but pretty soon things are going to get so bad that we’re just going to ignore the feds and live our own lives in our own states."

....He tore into the Constitution’s 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1913, it’s the one that allows for the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote. "That undermined the principle importance of the states," said Paul.

He criticized the 16th Amendment, which allowed the federal income tax. After the crowd chanted "End the Fed," Paul decried the printing of more money by the Federal Reserve. "We need someone to stand up to the authoritarians," he said. "They’re dictators."

....He stressed that the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms" was not for hunting, but to allow rebellion against tyrannical governments. "The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits," he said. "Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally."  [JW: those boldings are Kevin Drum's]
Huh. I don't remember him being willing to deliver harangues quite like this during last year's debates. I guess he was holding back after all, just another mealy-mouthed politician unwilling to buck the polls and tell the people the raw truth. [....]
This incident suggests three sorts of reflections:

=> There is one curious feature of American political rhetoric over the past three decades to which people have become so accustomed that I think many of them have stopped noticing how odd it is. Since 1980 or so, which of the two major political parties in the US is the one that constantly and proudly uses the language of revolution, rebellion, and revolutionary change? It's certainly not the Democrats. Instead, "revolutionary" rhetoric and imagery now come almost exclusively from the Republicans—and not just from the fringes. We've moved from the Reagan Revolution though the Gingrich Revolution ... up through the Tea Party. Fred Barnes's enthusiastic book about the Bush II presidency, published in early 2006 when Bush still seemed to be riding high, was titled Rebel in Chief. And so on. This rhetorical pattern is one more symptom of the fact that right-wing radicalism, not any sort of conservatism, now sets the tone on the American right. These people (and not just the ultras) confidently boast about their eagerness to blow things up. An interesting question is why they, or anyone else, go on calling this attitude "conservative".

=> Of course, not all Republican politicians and pundits go for this kind of rhetorical radicalism (and substantive extremism), and even some of those who use the rhetoric don't always take it very seriously. Occasionally, they even worry that apocalyptic political theatrics and invocations of "Second Amendment remedies" can become public-relations liabilities that turn off significant numbers of general-election voters. But it is important to bear in mind that a great many right-wing voters and office-holders really do take this stuff very seriously. One reason to pay attention to Ron Paul, reactionary crank though he may be, is that the things he says resonate deeply with the way that a lot of Americans see the world. And in their minds, as in Ron Paul's, a willingness to contemplate extreme remedies is linked to the continuing, widespread vitality of what Richard Hofstadter once called the paranoid style in American politics. When tyranny and national catastrophe are upon us, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" (as Barry Goldwater, or rather his speech-writer, once put it).

Furthermore, Republicans who don't share this view of the world (or don't fully share it) usually treat this kind of talk as a normal, acceptable, and respectable part of mainstream political discourse. Yes, there are some exceptions (the most prominent tend to be former Republican office-holders who have retired and will no longer be running for office), but they're exceptions. And the rest of us are too ready to let them get away with it.  There is an interesting asymmetry here. Kevin Drum again:
This comes via Ed Kilgore, who asks, "Can you imagine a statewide Democratic candidate anywhere, much less in a 'purple state,' associating himself or herself so conspicuously with such ravings? No, you can't." This is what I was talking about yesterday: liberals don't have the equivalent of a tea party because there just aren't very many liberals who hold views this extreme—and the ones who do are pretty marginalized. In the Republican Party, however, this kind of thing barely even lifts any eyebrows.

And the most remarkable part of all this is that the rest of us—centrists, liberals, non-insane Republicans, the press, etc.—are expected to shrug off this kind of thing as nothing more than a sort of boys-will-be-boys stemwinder, not to be taken seriously. Remarkable indeed.
=> Then there's Ron Paul himself. When Kevin Drum pointed out that Ron Paul has "seemed to some people like a breath of fresh air" (not just in 2012, but as far back as his 2007-2008 presidential run, which first brought him widespread attention), my first reaction was:  yes, stupid people. But the situation is actually a little more complicated than that. Ron Paul has also attracted indulgence, and even approval, from some ordinarily intelligent and decent people who were beguiled by the fact that he seemed to agree with them on one or another issue they thought was important—legalizing marijuana, neo-isolationism in foreign policy, cutting back military spending, opposing "big government," or whatever. Plus, he did show some disdain for the usual norms of political correctness in presidential politics. A combination of selective attention and wishful thinking led such people to overlook the obvious, unambiguous, and overriding fact that Ron Paul is, and has always been, a poisonously reactionary political troglodyte with consistently demonstrated willingness to use neo-Confederate, racist, and xenophobic appeals.

Some of those people may now be starting to notice what Ron Paul actually stands for. I notice, for example, that on Tuesday Andrew Sullivan, who actually endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination back in 2007 (along with Barack Obama on the Democratic side), got off the Ron Paul bandwagon:
As for Virginia, Cuccinelli’s relatively strong showing suggests to me that the Tea Party is far from dead, and that the prospect of the poor getting health insurance still energizes them enormously. And tonight, I have to say, the respect I had for Ron Paul was obliterated by the following inflammatory rhetoric:
Jefferson obviously was a clear leader on the principle of nullification. I’ve been working on the assumption that nullification is going to come. It’s going to be a de facto nullification. It’s ugly, but pretty soon things are going to get so bad that we’re just going to ignore the feds and live our own lives in our own states.
That’s loaded Confederate rhetoric, and when combined with this statement – “The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits. Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally” – it crosses the line to promoting sedition. I’m done with him.
Better late than never. But let's not forget that Ron Paul is just one (slightly exaggerated) symptom of a bigger problem. And although his son Rand Paul has tried to cultivate a less "inflammatory" style, fundamentally he's a chip off the old block. How long will he get a pass?

—Jeff Weintraub