The Depoliticization of Ron Paul

Even amidst growing concern over his racist and homophobic newsletters, a recent poll found that registered Democrats have quite favorable opinions of Ron Paul. Much has already been said about the Ron Paul Political Report and Ron Paul Survival Report, so I won’t rehash the contents here. I do, however, have a few thoughts on his anemic response to the letters, the overall relationship between libertarianism and racism, and the tendency of the political Left to approach Paul with kiddy-gloves.

First, as numerous commentators have pointed out, Paul’s response to the controversy has been incoherent. He actually flip-flopped on the newsletters: first saying that he had never seen them, and later – once a 1995 video surfaced of him talking about the letters – saying that he was merely guilty of not paying enough attention to their contents. Most recently, he responded unapologetically and then stormed out of a CNN interview when the letters were brought up. The spin from his campaign seems to be, ‘Paul isn’t a racist, there is no public record of him saying anything racist [letters published under his name don’t count], and he has no idea who wrote the letters.’ [this despite the fact that libertarian insiders have widely asserted that the letters were penned by Lew Rockwell, the former Paul chief of staff and founder of the Mises Institute, who remains a close confidant of Paul’s today.]

Their assertion – which seems to hold weight with many even outside the Kool-Aid-pounding Paul lobby – is that because we have no record of Paul saying the N-word (or making some other egregiously racist slip-up), he is somehow absolved of all blame for the letters. The question that I’m left with is: how does Paul get away with such actions, while other Republican contenders would be forcefully called out by the Left for anything even remotely resembling the racism or homophobia expressed in the Reports?

The answer, to put it simply, is that he’s a better politician than the other Republicans. Through a combination of “strict constructionism” (the idea that his views simply emanate from the Constitution), libertarian nationalism (the use of an economistic language sprinkled with emotional references to “the Founding Fathers,” “freedom” and “liberty”), and personal characteristics (his soft-spoken demeanor and consistent logic), he has successfully pushed forward the myth that he is not driven by political considerations, but by some universal quest for Truth, Reason and the American Way. Popular sentiment holds that Paul is more Plato than politician. According to the narrative that has emerged, he is a genuine, straight-shooter. So much so, that if he had racist beliefs, he would surely announce them to the American public. In short, Paul – as a political figure – has been thoroughly depoliticized.

I want to push back against this depoliticization in two ways: first, by noting that the racism in the letters was a strategic attempt to expand libertarian ideals into mainstream conservatism; and second, by reflecting on the inability of libertarian dogmatists (including Paul) to satisfactorily grapple with the historical legacy of American racism.

To begin, racism comes in many forms today, hardly any of which fit the mold of the Nazis, KKK, or George Wallace-like segregationism (though some of the Paul letters come frighteningly close to this). Because such positions are socially unacceptable in today’s political climate, race is more likely to be filtered through a proxy. Instead of calling those of Mexican ancestry “Wetbacks,” they are rhetorically constructed as criminals; instead of African-Americans being likened to animals, they are deemed “welfare queens” and “gangstas” who are suckling off the tax-payer teat (on the construction of Latinos, see Chavez 2008; on the construction of African-Americans, see Giroux 2006).

In fact, this racism-by-proxy (or neo-racism) was an explicit strategy for those seeking to dismantle the welfare state in the 1980s (the success that George H.W. Bush had in deploying Willy Horton in his 1988 campaign is particularly relevant here).[i] The Paul letters came out at a time where this was the political terrain. Paul and his allies were attempting to broaden support for their libertarian projects by appealing to the emotional resonance of this racialized conservative discourse. According to Reason (itself a libertarian shill):

“During the period when the most incendiary items appeared—roughly 1989 to 1994—Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist “paleoconservatives,” producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic.”

To an extent, this strategy worked. It is no surprise that Paul is a favorite among white nationalists. And while distancing himself from their positions, he has so far refused to repudiate their support. Some have speculated the letters may actually be a selling point for Paul in the primaries, which tells you something about the current state of the Republican Party.

Of course, the issue of race has long been a sticking-point for modern-day libertarians. To understand why, one has to delve into the roots of the ideology.  Though infused with heterogeneous traditions, Libertarianism claims to be the intellectual inheritor of the classical liberal, enlightenment tradition.[ii] And in the American libertarian psyche, classical liberal thought launches off of the ideals of John Locke, who theorized a state of nature in which individuals were relatively free and equal. The purpose of “the state,” for Locke, was merely to alleviate the inconveniences that arise from occasional disagreements, largely through the provision of a neutral judiciary to adjudicate disputes over property (which, he theorized, would be accumulated through the tortuous task of putting Nature to use).[iii]

Yet, American life has historically been anything but free and equal, and the judiciary has been far from a neutral arbiter. As a result, the accumulation of property today is not simply a factor of how hard or with how much skill one labors. Because of a long history of racism (not to mention gendered and sexual discrimination) – in both the public and private sectors – certain populations have necessitated special protections from the state; protections that Paul and contemporary libertarians uniformly deem illegitimate. In fact, historically, the expansion of the national government has had much to do with the inability or outright refusal of states and private entities to protect the rights of racial minorities.

Thus, the prescriptions of libertarians have racialized implications.[iv] The freedom from “coercive force” (coercive force, in this narrative, meaning virtually any action the state undertakes) that they envision gives powerful private actors license to run roughshod over historically marginalized citizens, in particular. Paul is okay with this. As I’ve previously noted, his 1987 book, Freedom Under Siege, voices his opposition to civil rights laws, measures protecting employees from sexual harassment, and government-funded AIDs research. [v] While serious politicians seek to grapple with the continued impacts of a state that had basically institutionalized apartheid up until the mid-1960s (and in some cases much later), Paul lives in a Lockean fantasy-land where all are free and equal, and if the state would simply get out of the way, we would all have an equal potential to succeed on the basis of merit. Kumbaya.

I have lot of other problems with Paul that I’ve detailed here and here. But his position on race might take the cake. Paul may not be a racist (in the way that white supremacists are racist), but he’s certainly guilty of playing politics with race, at the same time as he touts his prescriptions to be color-blind. It’s time to stop giving him an easy go-of-it just because he “seems genuine.” Or because he isn’t as bad as Santorum or Gingrich. Or because he actually gets a couple issues right (like opposing the Patriot Act, not invading Iran, and ending the War on Drugs).

The resonance of Paul’s candidacy with the younger generation (i.e. my generation of 18-30 year olds) is profoundly discouraging to me. And not only because it suggests that young people are too easily swayed by emotionally-tinged alarmist rhetoric, the hopes of legalized weed, and the idea that we have somehow reached a post-racial era. It also reflects the utter collapse of the Democratic Party – its complete transition into a corporatized-military-industrial pawn. There is truly no candidate in 2012 who will represent the interests of ordinary people, let alone racial minorities.


[i] As Henri Giroux observes: “Building on the reactionary rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 with a trickle-down theory that would transform corporate America and a corresponding visual economy. The twin images of the young black male “gangsta” and his counterpart, the “welfare queen,” became the primary vehicles for selling the American public on the need to dismantle the welfare state, ushering in an era of unprecedented deregulation, downsizing, privatization, and regressive taxation” (2006: 172).

[ii] Forget that couching one’s logic in the emotionally-charged symbol that is “the Founding Fathers” runs counter to the ideals of the liberal enlightenment. Sapere audere, my ass – these secular gods have the Truth.

[iii] Locke, for all his prescience, apparently didn’t foresee the emergence of naked short selling, the commodification of genetic materials, etc.

[iv] Paul not only ignores this but actively supports pseudo-historians who provide revisionist views of racial discrimination.

[v] In fairness, it should be noted that a few libertarian prescriptions might actually help racial minorities (ending the war on drugs, for example). These potential positives should be considered in weighing the relative merits of libertarian positions. Like any other rationale, libertarianism is fundamentally political. And in the contemporary American context, virtually any political matter has racialized impacts.

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~ by iamtomjoad on December 30, 2011.

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