The New York Times Magazine has an interesting look inside the mind and the candidacy of Ron Paul. The Times makes an interesting reference to Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and how many of Rep. Paul’s supporters trace their origins back to the far-right John Birch Society and other conspiracy-minded organizations.
Rep. Paul has managed to assemble a fringe candidacy — attracting everyone from radical libertarian activists to left-wing anti-war protesters. The problem with this, as the Times notes, is that the only thing that holds them all together is their dislike of the status quo:
“We’re in a difficult position of working on a campaign that draws supporters from laterally opposing points of view, and we have the added bonus of attracting every wacko fringe group in the country. And in a Ron Paul Meetup many people will consider each other ‘wackos’ for their beliefs whether that is simply because they’re liberal, conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, evangelical Christian, etc. . . . We absolutely must focus on Ron’s message only and put aside all other agendas, which anyone can save for the next ‘Star Trek’ convention or whatever.”
But what is “Ron’s message”? Whatever the campaign purports to be about, the main thing it has done thus far is to serve as a clearinghouse for voters who feel unrepresented by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. The antigovernment activists of the right and the antiwar activists of the left have many differences, maybe irreconcilable ones. But they have a lot of common beliefs too, and their numbers — and anger — are of a considerable magnitude. Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States. But his candidacy gives us a good hint about the country the next president is going to have to knit back together.
The Ron Paul phenomenon is an interesting one from a political science standpoint because it shows how the paranoid style is still an active force in American politics. It isn’t because Rep. Paul is a political genius — the Times piece makes it clear that he’s not exactly up to speed on modern politics, not knowing what The Daily Show is or knowing about GQ Magazine. It’s because Rep. Paul has become a symbol for those who live on the paranoid fringes of American politics. His message is all about rejectionism — rejecting foreign entanglements, rejecting the war, rejecting the Federal Reserve, etc. His campaign is attracting the hard left and the isolationist right because they can both latch onto one of his positions and seem to care little about the others.
Ultimately, cranky radicals will be with us forever — there are always those whose sensibilities include seeing sinister conspiracies in common events. Rep. Paul simply attracts those sorts — and while those people may love posting to blogs and spreading their theories, they’re not a political constituency. Even Rep. Paul himself knows that he has a virtually nil chance of winning. However, he seems to have stumbled upon the right message at the right time to become a fringe candidate who has managed to garner the support of the disaffected in American politics.
At the same time, there’s a problem with that. The paranoid style is not a healthy style in American politics — the radicalism of the John Birch Society was not a healthy force in American politics during their Cold War heydays. The sort of conspiracy theories spun by Rep. Paul’s supporters — the 9/11 “Truthers,” the Federal Bank conspiracies, the anti-Israel lobby — all of those are comforting fictions to some, but fictions nonetheless. Those who buy into these alternate realities only feed their own paranoia, further isolating themselves from the American mainstream. While the vast majority of them are harmless — when that sort of paranoia spirals out of control, people like Timothy McVeigh end up taking action. It certainly isn’t the case that Ron Paul supporters are the equivalent of the Oklahoma City bombers — far from it. What is true is that an atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy leads to more and more radicalism and less and less civic engagement.
Rep. Paul is hardly a bad guy — he’s a crank, but a harmless and affable one. His rise to pseudo-celebrity is less about his own political skills, and more about being in the right place at the right time. Certainly the idea that the government has grown too large and too intrusive isn’t crazy — in fact, it’s rather crazy to argue that the state of our federal government would be shocking to the Founders of this nation. The problem with Rep. Paul’s candidacy is that it is based out of that paranoid style in American politics, and that style isn’t a healthy one. Rep. Paul may end being the political heir to the Lyndon LaRouche movement, but that’s hardly a good position to be in.
Rep. Paul does have real principles, and some of his positions are workable. It would be nice to see some serious discussion about returning to the principles of constitutional federalism that our Founders intended. However, those realistic positions are washed away by the bizarre cult of personality that has grown up around Rep. Paul — and in some ways, that’s the tragic aspect of the whole thing. Rep. Paul’s success has been as an avatar for the political fringe, but that avatar may well end up swallowing the real Ron Paul — an affable country doctor with some interesting political views and a strong sense of public service.