A Paul Primer
The non-centrist centrist: Ron Paul's complex GOP line-dance
Duality is part and parcel of American political culture. With few exceptions, all major elected positions are held by members of one or the other party. Duality is even reflected in the language we use to discuss political issues. Politicians and pundits talk about bipartisanship, implying that there are only two possible solutions to any given problem — the Democrats' solution and the Republicans' solution.
Meanwhile, every other party is grouped into the single collective term “third party.” A more extreme version of this argument says that our political system actively excludes non-centrists who are ideologically inconsistent with the two main parties. This exclusion is carried out in a variety of ways: lack of media exposure, financial disadvantages, exclusion from debates.
So it is always surprising and refreshing to hear non-centrist ideas make their way into the mainstream. Case in point: Dr. Ron Paul. Though he is running on the GOP ticket, many of his ideas stand in stark contrast with the GOP party line.
Paul does not consider himself a Libertarian, but his views are consistent with the kind of Libertarianism that argues for strong state’s rights and limited federal government. His economic views closely resemble Libertarian anarcho-capitalism, a system which advocates unfettered free markets democratized by consumer choices, with little or no governmental role in stimulating or managing the economy. Paul is strongly critical of the Federal Reserve and argues for a return to a gold-based economy and an almost entirely privatized infrastructure. On foreign policy issues, Paul supports ending all foreign military aid and withdrawing from off-shore armed conflicts.
It may come as a surprise to many that some of Paul's foreign policy views are in total agreement with someone who couldn't be farther away from him on the ideological spectrum, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Chomsky was asked how he felt about Ron Paul’s claiming that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East contributed to the kinds of anti-American resentment that make 9/11-style terrorist attacks possible.
“What [Ron Paul] said is completely uncontroversial,” Chomsky remarked, going on to note that Wall Street Journal opinion polls of people in the Middle East and internal U.S. government documents reached exactly the same conclusions as did Paul. Indeed, given the public's views on U.S. foreign policy generally, one could argue that his foreign policy is perhaps the biggest reason for Paul's mounting popularity.
His economic views tend to be more complex. Drawing on the work of Austrian economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Hans Hermann-Hoppe, Paul argues that most or all of the economic troubles we face can be ultimately traced to undue influence from the state sector, influence which interferes with the normal workings of a free market.
But ironically, many of Paul's economic policies favor increasing government influence on the economy. Paul argues for a Congressional audit on the Federal Reserve to try and limit the Fed's influence on economic issues. Not only does this by definition increase governmental influence on the economy, but it is doubtful that such an audit would even achieve Dr. Paul's goals. No Congress, at least to the extent that its members would want to continue to have political careers, would order the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates and make it harder for businesses and people to loan money.
Paul has on occasion said that he does not support corporate personhood, maybe the most controversial of government interferences into economic institutions, but has stopped short of saying if he would make an effort to repeal it should he be elected president. We would be remiss to fail to mention that Paul is in fact a direct beneficiary of corporate personhood. The now-infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision created SuperPACs under the judicial precedent of corporate personhood. Ron Paul's SuperPAC Endorse Liberty has raised $1,020,055, a mere fraction of Mitt Romney's monstrous $30 million Restore Our Future, but more than the SuperPAC that supports Rick Santorum. It would be difficult to gauge how popular Paul would be without the use of SuperPAC money, but it's a fair guess that it has helped his campaign a great deal.
Perhaps where Ron Paul is most divisive is on social issues. Paul signed the Personhood USA pledge, a de facto endorsement of a federal ban on abortions. Paul has publicly stated that the legality of abortions should be settled by individual states, yet part of the Personhood USA pledge states that a fetus “must be recognized as a person possessing the right to life in federal and state laws without exception and without compromise” (my emphasis). Paul included a signing statement reiterating his view that abortion laws should be decided by states, but it is perhaps easy to see why many of his supporters viewed signing the pledge as a ploy to garner the support of mainstream conservative evangelicals.
The most controversial part of Paul’s campaign has been the emergence of a blatantly racist column printed in a newsletter, The Freedom Report, which was published by Paul’s now-defunct company Ron Paul & Associates. Paul’s campaign claimed that the article was written by someone else and Paul’s supporters claim that the newsletters are nothing more than a red herring to besmirch Paul’s name. But even if Paul did not write the column, it was published under his name and he is responsible for its content. Of course it should go without saying that the reaction would have been the same — perhaps even more severe — had one of the other GOP candidates published similarly racist content.
Paul tends toward vagueness in public speaking, often resorting to simplified platitudes when asked to clarify his stances on issues. But that vagueness belies a complexity about his political ideas, sometimes conservative evangelical, sometimes libertarian, sometimes even liberal.
Regardless of how you feel about Paul and his views, the public's unprecedented dissatisfaction with both parties seems to suggest that we have outgrown the constraints of a two-party system and that bringing political candidates from outside those ideological constraints to mainstream prominence is the only solution for a country whose centrist leaders seem unwilling or unable (or both) to produce any real solutions. Whether that outside candidate is Ron Paul or someone else is for us to decide.