By Luke Brinker
An astonishing 68 percent of self-described “very liberal” voters view paleolibertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul favorably. It’s unlikely that Paul’s views on abortion rights, same-sex marriage, evolution, the social safety net, government regulation of the economy, or climate change are responsible for that figure. On all of those issues, Paul’s views are diametrically opposed to the liberal position. But Paul’s opposition to war and the curtailment of civil liberties have clearly resonated.
Paul’s civil liberties record certainly has much to recommend it. He raises important questions about the concentration of power in the executive branch and has consistently opposed the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects. Unlike most members of his party, Paul endorses the use of civilian trials for such suspects. And in a break with bipartisan orthodoxy, Paul is unafraid to call the War on Drugs the abject failure that it is. All of that said, Paul’s bigoted newsletters, combined with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, same-sex marriage, and a woman’s right to an abortion suggest that not all citizens would enjoy equal liberty in his United States.
Meanwhile, Paul’s foreign policy positions are far from left-liberal. To be sure, he opposes American overseas adventurism, but as Ben Adler notes, Paul’s anti-war views are rooted in a deeper isolationism:
Just because Ron Paul opposes imperialism and unnecessary invasions of foreign countries doesn’t mean he has a liberal or progressive bone in his body. Paul is a nationalist and isolationist, staunchly opposed to multilateral organizations. This isn’t good for international peacekeeping or other humanitarian efforts, nor arms control. Paul opposes all foreign aid. Promoting democracy and human rights are of no interest to Paul, even through peaceful means. He also opposes immigration and wants to eliminate America’s constitutional policy of birthright citizenship.
As Michael Cohen explains in Foreign Policy, Paul’s foreign policy would undermine many progressive aims. “There is far more to Paul’s view than just his opposition to U.S. military adventurism,” writes Cohen. “Paul also believes that the United States should depart from all international organizations and global alliances. This includes not just NATO, but also the United Nations and the World Health Organization.” Indeed, in 1990 Paul appeared in a crazed video of the John Birch Society claiming the UN would take away Americans’ gun rights, property rights and their right to practice religion freely.
In spite of all aforementioned flaws, however, might Paul make a useful contribution to American politics? Stephen Walt thinks so:
But I think it’s clear that Paul comes with too much baggage to persuade many people to follow his banner, and his views on other issues provides the media and other mainstream groups with an excuse to ignore the more interesting parts of his message. If by some miracle Paul managed to win the Republican nomination, the general election would probably look a lot like Johnson’s crushing defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
But that historical analogy got me wondering. Contemporary political historians argue that Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement, which came to fruition with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Paul has done surprisingly well during this primary season, and his views clearly resonate with a sizeable core of young and fairly well-educated voters. Is it possible that Paul’s brand of foreign policy restraint just needs a better champion, one who is both more broadly appealing but also not saddled by so much poisonous baggage? In short, just as Ronald Reagan eventually built on the Goldwater movement and made its core principles appealing to many Americans, might Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy be awaiting the arrival of a candidate (in 2016, or maybe 2020) who can put them in a more attractive package?
If Paul’s strong youth support tells us anything, it’s that there’s a substantial audience among Millennials for a radical rethink of American foreign policy. (Okay, some young voters are probably thrilled that there’s a candidate who doesn’t care if they smoke pot.) But I’m not quite persuaded by Walt’s analysis here. Let’s start with his analogy: Goldwater certainly articulated many of the conservative principles that Reagan did in 1980, but it’s not particularly useful to think of Goldwater’s candidacy as a harbinger of things to come. For one, Goldwater ran squarely against the New Deal, including Social Security. Reagan, a onetime FDR Democrat, ran against the consequences of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Moreover, it’s a mistake to think about American politics as consisting of ideological periods. Reagan’s election was the result of Jimmy Carter’s perceived incompetence in foreign affairs and economic stewardship, not a resounding voter endorsement of right-wing conservatism. If one were to take each election result as an indicator of voters’ ideological mood, one would have grown very confused of late: Substantial Democratic triumphs in 2006 and 2008 were followed swiftly by a Tea Party wave in 2010.
Finally, if the US does scale back its imperial ambitions – and I believe it will – I doubt it will be because Ron Paul kindled a flame in the imagination of the popular consciousness. Instead, a more humble US will come about as a result of geopolitical factors that are already affecting international relations – the strain on American resources amid a torpid economy, military overstretch, and the rise of new superpowers like China and Brazil. Walt’s theory rests on a Great Man view of history, in which powerful individual actors decisively shape the march of events. But as students of history and politics know, complexity is the name of the game in world affairs. Events usually shape actors.