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What’s Challenging About Paul?

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Apparently, a twitter storm has broken out about the post I don’t want to get into, but Greenwald’s latest has a couple things I wanted to respond to on the merits, so I thought I’d go ahead. On this:

As Matt Stoller argued in a genuinely brilliant essay on the history of progressivism and the Democratic Party which I cannot recommend highly enough: “the anger [Paul] inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.” Ron Paul’s candidacy is a mirror held up in front of the face of America’s Democratic Party and its progressive wing, and the image that is reflected is an ugly one; more to the point, it’s one they do not want to see because it so violently conflicts with their desired self-perception.

One thing missing from both Greenwald and Stoller are cites from people who find that Paul challenges their “desired self-perception.” Who, exactly, expects Obama or any Democratic president to be good on the drug war? I’m as strident a critic of Naderist “not a dime’s worth a difference” arguments as you can find anywhere, but I certainly agree that the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs really is one area where the differences between the national parties are trivial. On national security, the differences are less trivial (I don’t think that Al Gore or Obama would have invaded Iraq and I don’t think McCain would have wound it down), but certainly Obama has advanced any number of awful policies. Paul’s isolationism isn’t my ideal foreign policy orientation, either, but if you want to say that on balance it’s preferable I won’t argue with you. The thing is, I don’t know who disagrees with this. I don’t think I’m alone in not finding Paul to be an admirable political figure but is happy that he’s expressing positions on these issues, and I don’t think any civil libertarian is under the impression that Obama or any Democratic president is likely to share their values in an absolute as opposed to relative sense. Progressives are prone to idealizing past Democratic presidents — although I note that if anything especially with FDR this is rather more common among the harshest Obama critics — but not really current ones. And I don’t think it’s news that Paul expresses more agreeable positions in isolation than the other Republican candidates; I don’t know who disputes this.

My second puzzlement is why Greenwald thinks that for a conventional left-liberal Obama vs. Paul might be a tough choice. If you scroll to the italicized section — which does do a pretty good job of evaluating the real tradeoffs inherent in supporting Obama — there are two related problems. First, what Paul would like to accomplish is compared what Obama can accomplish under institutional constraints, and second the comparison is cherry-picked in a way that underplays the grotesque extremism of Paul’s economic agenda. Paul wants to return to a 19th century state, supplemented by a constitutional amendment that would make performing an abortion first degree murder in all 50 states. It’s true that this means an end to much of the bad stuff that the federal government does, but the modern welfare and regulatory state is an immense amount of babies to throw away with this bathwater. (And while it’s true that Paul wouldn’t succeed in eliminating the 20th century welfare state, it’s also true that “America’s minorities” would continue to be “imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason,” as there are severe limits to what the president could unilaterally do to end the drug war.) If you want to say that Obama/Paul is a clash between lesser and greater evils I don’t have any objection to that, but Paul is very much more evil, and it’s not close.

Anyway, Ron Paul will not be the Republican nominee and will not be president, so the question is whether his vision is an attractive one even compared to other political figures, and the answer is that obviously is an extremely unattractive one even if we leave his racist newsletters out of it. But I’m still glad he’s using his platform to make a case against the drug war and American imperialism.

UPDATE BY ROB:

I want to add a bit to this, focusing mainly on Tom Hilton’s post about the same subject:

Similarly, Paul’s positions on civil liberties issues aren’t actually about civil liberties as we understand them; they’re about his opposition to Federal authority. (An opposition that is somewhat conditional, it should be noted.) For example, in talking about the death penalty, he makes clear that he opposes it only at the Federal level. His opposition to the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, and domestic surveillance come from the same root as his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He has no real objection to states violating the rights of their citizens; it’s only a problem if the Feds do it.

The assumption underlying this is that people are freer when states (as opposed to the Federal government) have more power. Now, it may seem obvious to some of us that the distinction between one arbitrary administrative unit and another isn’t exactly a human rights issue, but let’s just consider for a moment: does state or local control actually translate to more liberty?

It’s wrong to think of Ron Paul’s racism and his libertarianism as two distinct parts of his political persona, when in fact they are deeply tied together. White supremacists understand what Glenn, apparently, does not; the absence of Federal authority makes it easier for private actors and local governments to repress the civil and political rights of minorities. Paul’s libertarianism emerged in a regional and cultural context that was deeply hostile to Federal efforts at integration. The newsletters give strong indication that none of this is lost on Ron Paul. A notional President Paul is just as likely to use the powers of the office to gut Federal enforcement of a wide range of civil liberties protections as he is to do any of the things that Glenn would like him to do.

….Edroso with the shorter.

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