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Ron Paul, Obama, and the liberal dilemma

January 16, 2012

One of the more bemusing cultural and political occurrences I’ve observed over the past few years was the premature canonization of Barack Obama by some in the liberal and progressive set. Turning to satire and humor, I believe that Aaron McGruder captured this sentiment brilliantly:

I recall vividly the day following Obama’s presidential victory and only feeling mild elation. I very much wanted to feel more ecstatic about his victory given the symbolic win it represented for racial progress and equity against white supremacy and hegemony, but my excitement fell flat. Perhaps my cynicism got the best of me–it often does–and I was unable to balance a largely symbolic victory with the realities plaguing the African-American community at-large.

In the years following, I have come to realize something else, something that escaped me on the morning of November 5, 2008: While words like hope and change are inspiring following eight years of warmongering and growing economic inequality, they are simply words, and there was little evidence–beyond the rhetoric, and certainly not found in his voluminous writing–that Obama represented a truly progressive political direction. I say this as a liberal possessing a decidedly social democratic perspective, not the neoliberal globalist ideology that has dominated the modern Democratic Party and much of the left for quite some time. Obama was mistakenly identified by the left as something of a progressive messiah, when he has always been a centrist, New Democrat. Supporters of Obama will argue that he campaigned to the left of Hillary Clinton, herself a neoliberal stalwart, but in 2012, political insiders suggest that a Clinton vice-presidency will ensure Obama another four years in the White House.

Now it is Ron Paul, with his tireless advocacy for civil liberties, impassioned stance against imperialism and war, that has captured the attention of many liberals and progressives. And while these issues–civil liberty, imperialism, and war–are largely absent from the national dialogue, you can’t, as Tim Wise notes, “separate the man from his movement,” and Paul’s regressive libertarianism should be seen as an affront to progressive liberalism. Rather than be satisfied that Paul is injecting these issues into political discourse–albeit from a libertarian perspective–we on the left should be more concerned that, as political scientist Corey Robin writes,

Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating.  The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support).  But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.

As Robin points out, Paul’s articulation and construction of these issues is not the same as those on the progressive left–and this is a critically important point, one that seems lost by those of us on the left who admire Paul’s position on these issues. Robin argues quite powerfully that Paul’s distinct form of libertarianism leads to social disaster and that Ron Paul is,

[U]nacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.

And while Paul continues to raise these issues, there fails to be a progressive liberal critique of his positions. This is alarming for many reasons, not the least of which because Paul’s states-rights-based libertarianism does nothing to advance progressive liberalism–and in fact, is much more of an impediment than representative of an ally or benign interloping.

Glenn Greenwald is right to say that,

[O]n many issues that progressives themselves have long claimed are of critical, overarching importance (not all, but many), there will be virtually no debate in the election because there are virtually no differences between the two candidates and the two parties on those questions. In the face of that fact, there are two choices: (1) simply accept it (and thus bolster it) on the basis that the only political priority that matters is keeping the Democratic Party and Barack Obama empowered; or (2) searching for ways to change the terms of the debate so that critical views that are now excluded by bipartisan consensus instead end up being heard.

However, Ron Paul does not support critical views on the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties that are aligned with progressive liberal or social democratic perspective. Paul has–successfully?–raised these issues, but his critical view of civil liberties, for example, includes repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And from the black perspective, I intuitively agree with Tim Wise when he suggests,

I want those of you who are seriously singing Paul’s praises, while calling yourself progressive or left to ask what it signifies — not about Ron Paul, but about you — that you can look the rest of us in the eye, your political colleagues and allies, and say, in effect, “Well, he might be a little racist, but…  How do you think that sounds to black people, without whom no remotely progressive candidate stands a chance of winning… How does it sound to them — a group that has been more loyal to progressive and left politics than any group in this country — when you praise a man who opposes probably the single most important piece of legislation ever passed in this country… ?

But where Tim and I diverge is that I care very little that Ron Paul might be racist. Rather, I reject an ideology–conservative libertarianism–that opposes, in purely intellectual terms, the merits of the defining legislation of the Civil Rights Movement. Ron Paul draws comparisons to former Arizona senator, 1964 Republican presidential nominee, and seminal conservative political leader Barry Goldwater, a dangerous comparison that continues to go unacknowledged by many on the left–and it’s a frightening prospect to consider as an African-American. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Goldwater,

While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

That philosophy is conservative libertarianism and Paul is its leading proponent. Ben Adler, contributing writer for The Nation, is correct to describe Paul as a Goldwater conservative. It is quite difficult, then, as an African-American progressive with a social democratic bent, to applaud Ron Paul. It is less difficult for some of my peers, but this shouldn’t be the case: it is not simply a matter of prioritizing “anti-imperialism” and right to due process (a civil liberty) above Civil Rights (also a civil liberty), but about competing political philosophies and ideologies. There is a social democratic critique of imperialism and civil liberties to be made, and the left ought to be constructing it.

The initial acceptance of Obama’s corporatist neoliberalism and now the tepid tolerance toward Paul’s conservative (I say, regressive) libertarianism by the left suggests that there is little left, left. The neoliberal wing of American liberalism has so thoroughly displaced social democratic liberalism that we on the left are now praising the intellectual heir to Barry Goldwater for simply “raising important issues.”

What we ought to be asking ourselves is why are there virtually no differences between the two major parties on these issues? I would argue that it is because neoliberal globalism has displaced social democratic liberalism as the dominant faction of the left–leaving us with progressive liberals who are made eager to become bedfellows, however strangely, with regressive libertarians.

One Comment
  1. Joshua Logue permalink

    Ha, Jesse and I were talking about this just the other night when you and Matt were talking.
    I am SHOCKED at how many ‘liberals’ are getting on the Ron Paul bandwagon. While I appreciate his percieved honest approach at political discourse, and seemingly coherent political ideology, you can’t deny that the man’s philosophy is wildy different from those of any progessive or socially democratic person.
    It’s very tempting to think of oneself as an individualist hero, but reality is that we haven’t come up with years of socially based legislation because everyone was bored – there was a need.
    Plus, as my friend Field pointed out, you have to wonder why Ron Paul is so pro-deregulation when he comes from a district that stands to make a lot of money with more lax polution laws….
    Oh well, I guess it’s ‘moral hazard’ to live in an area where people can make money by dumping a bunch of crap into your drinking water.

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