Progressives Should Love Ron Paul: Point-Counterpoint

Glenn Greenwald sent shockwaves through the blogosphere earlier this month, calling on progressives to undertake a rigorous moral inventory regarding President Obama, the upcoming election and his GOP challengers. Essentially, Greenwald questions why so many progressives blithely disregard Ron Paul given that he is a greater advocate than Obama for issues “liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial.”

According to Greenwald, Ron Paul creates a sort of mass cognitive dissonance in the minds of progressives. By holding up a mirror to the shortcomings of the current Commander-in-Chief, Paul forces the Left to confront that which it has willingly ignored.

“Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency and economic equality…”

If President Obama has repeatedly committed acts fundamentally at odds with progressive values, don’t progressives compromise their moral foundation in supporting his re-election?

An excerpt of Greenwald’s list of progressive grievances reads like Big Brother’s to-do list:

“[Obama]  has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with dronescluster bombs and other forms of attack.  He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that…even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

 

He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law…He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs, including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish…He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities…His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.

 

Most of all, America’s National Security State, its Surveillance State, and its posture of endless war is more robust than ever before…He has created what The Washington Post just dubbed “a vast drone/killing operation,” all behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy and without a shred of oversight.”

These inconvenient realities would fail to sound the mental alarms if progressives could rest assured that Obama’s opponents are bigger warmongers and surveillance statists. But the presence of Ron Paul represents an intractable aporia, forcing progressives to accept that it is the Republican candidate — not the Democrat — who would be the anti-war, pro-due-process, pro-transparency, anti-Drug-War advocate.

Given this torrid mental terrain, Greenwald presents only one logical avenue of escape. If progressives don’t want to support Ron Paul, yet wish to maintain a modicum of ideological integrity, they’d have to be comfortable with the following statement:

“Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.”

A tough pill to swallow, no doubt.

But perhaps the prescription has been doled out too hastily. If our line of critique does not sufficiently take into account the demons of Ron Paul’s nature, then, well, you’ll see…

“Attention to all self-proclaimed liberals and progressives.

I would like to properly introduce you to a man about whom you’ve heard much…but at whom you might wish to take a second look.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an immediate end to our current and ongoing wars abroad.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an end to predator drone attacks by the United States military, which kill innocent civilians and foment growing hatred of America. He believes that the so-called “war on terror” as we’ve engaged it has undermined American freedoms at home and contributed to greater tensions and anti-American sentiment abroad.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports an entirely revamped Middle East policy, in which the U.S. will no longer subsidize the oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel.

Unlike Barack Obama, he supports either abolishing or fundamentally reforming the Federal Reserve system, and he opposed bailing out the banks with public funds.

Unlike Barack Obama, this individual opposes government spying and believes in absolute freedom of speech and the press, and as he puts it, “reduced government intrusion into our lives.”

Ladies and Gentlemen of the left, I give you your perfect candidate for 2012:

David Duke.

Oh I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about someone else?”

Of course, Ron Paul isn’t nearly as bad as David Duke, but author Tim Wise still presents a valid criticism of Greenwald’s argument. Wise asks, what about the “90 percent of his political platform [that] is right-wing boilerplate about slashing taxes on the rich, slashing programs for the poor and working class, breaking unions, drilling for oil anywhere and everywhere, and privatizing everything from retirement programs to health care”— is that just chopped liver?

To equate Progressivism and Ron Paul’s Civil libertarianism is an act of false equivalence—the two originate from vastly different ideological sources. To be a progressive means to seek through policy to rectify problems of disenfranchisement, poverty, lack of opportunity and structural oppression stemming from a profound belief in the interconnectedness of humanity and the understanding that the Good must be measured socially. But to support Ron Paul based on this supposed compatibility  empowers an ideology that holds that “only the self matters…the reactionary, white supremacist, Social Darwinists of this culture, who believe — as does Ron Paul — that  that the police who dragged sit-in protesters off soda fountain stools for trespassing on a white man’s property were justified in doing so, and that the freedom of department store owners to refuse to let black people try on clothes in their dressing rooms was more sacrosanct than the right of black people to be treated like human beings.”

So Ron Paul rails against the torture and indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. Does that mean progressives can allow themselves to forget that he equates anti-discrimination laws, which seek to extend equal opportunity to all persons, with equal tyranny? These and corollary views are all part of a movement, the philosophical underpinnings of which of do not resemble Progressivism in the slightest.

“I’ve talked with [Ron Paul devotees] on numerous occasions, with their “Who is John Galt?” signs… They never talk about the institutional racism at the heart of the drug war. They never talk about how we need to rethink the war on terror (except insofar as it inconveniences them to be body scanned at the airport, when everyone knows, we should just be checking brown-skinned men in turbans). These guys are largely attracted to Paul because he’ll get government off their backs, by lowering their taxes, cutting spending that helps poor people whom they regard as lazy, ending the “suffocating” regulations that they believe stifle innovation, and vouchsafing their God-given right to own any and all manner of assault rifle they desire, the latter of which they simply “know” President Obama is going to forcibly confiscate, along with their handguns, rifles, and maybe even Super-Soakers any day now.

They want the government to stop taking their tax dollars and “giving them” to Mexicans and blacks, or anyone of any race or ethnicity who in their mind isn’t smart enough or hard working enough to have their own private health care. They don’t want the government to help homeowners who got roped into predatory loans by banks and independent mortgage brokers: instead they blame the homeowners for not being savvy enough borrowers, or they blame government regulation for ostensibly “forcing” lenders to finance housing for minorities and poor people who didn’t deserve it.”

Ron Paul is for some progressives the Obama they intended to elect in 2008. But just as Greenwald cautions us to avoid glossing over Obama’s shortcomings, so too must we soberly consider the entire package deal that Paul places before us.

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A thought on Capitalism and consistency

 

Liberalism—a term that has taken quite a winding path in its usage and definition. I would define classical liberalism as closely aligned with modern day libertarianism. Classical liberalism, in its advocacy of individual rights, the free market, and a more egalitarian political order puts itself at odds with classic conservatism, an ideology wary of radical social change and distrustful of an unchecked economic order, and suspect systems of government that devalue political arête. Classic conservatism is at best a reticent bedfellow of democracy; government is best left in the hands of excellent individuals—those who have devoted their energies towards studying the art of politics(the liberal arts, funnily enough). On the other hand, the average person, has had neither the relevant education, nor any exposure to the classics, nor the guiding experience of august, elder statesmen. Hoi Polloi are simply not fit to steer the ship of state; best leave that to those who can do the finest job. 

Let’s face it, whether you’re a democrat or a republican, a liberal or a conservative; if you’re American, you’re for government for the people, by the people. Both political parties are engaged in an endless tussle to assert their democraticness—that they are for the people; real, everyday Americans, not the good ol’ boy, business as usual, inside the beltway, and all other overused and asinine euphemisms for the powers that be. Modern day liberals show their populism by advocating for social programs, such as healthcare reform, poverty initiatives, etc. as well as human rights, exemplified by left-leaning organizations like the ACLU. Modern day conservatives do so in both similar and different ways; for those in the libertarian camp, individual civil liberties are also a high priority, but libertarians are certainly not the dominant sector of influential conservatives today. Mostly, conservative populism is found in its rhetoric—politicians like George W. Bush assert their “everyman” status by continually reminding us that they were C students. Sarah Palin is highly adept at painting conservative ideology as the heart of “real” America—hard working, small town people, guided by religious values and wary of big city intellectuals and big government bureaucrats. Both political camps today have this similar thread in common; whether or not they practice what they preach in smoky backroom dealings, both profess that government is ultimately the provenance of the people. Both thus reject the classical idea of political arête—that those who should lead are only those elite ones who can, by virtue of their excellence do the best job. 

Given this context, I find the modern conservative position on laissez-faire capitalism somewhat contradictory, for what does the advocate of unfettered capitalism profess but that the financial system should be left to those with the talent, the experience, the excellence—the arête; that the economy should be left to those who can do the best job. How does this shed a contradictory light on conservatism specifically? In some ways, modern day liberals adhere to this ideology and in some ways they renounce it. Liberals are advocates of the free market, but to a much larger extent than conservatives, government regulation. Why is it, they ask, that every other arena in society should have laws and regulations governing its power and scope except for the economy? What if powerful economic forces come into conflict with the environment? What if globalizing forces outsource American jobs and dodge American taxes? What if corporate forces lower the living standards of their workers? What if gargantuan financial institutions play no-holds-barred Texas hold ‘em with our 401ks? To some extent, liberals embody the democratic ideal by demanding that government by the people have ultimate authority over powerful social actors—that the body politic reign in the economy if it grows too unwieldy. Thus, our elected officials and their appointees have the mandate to regulate the economy in the public interest. Hopefully they do so. This model of governance seems to embody an understanding that unfettered capitalism in its modern day form is not naturally democratic, for how can the people exercise power over the multi-national corporation with all its financial power and political influence? In the absence of government regulation—an institution which is, though convolutedly, ultimately accountable to the populace—powerful economic forces with no national ties or accountability to the communities of its clientele operate with impunity. If we the populace doesn’t have control of these economic forces, these economic forces will determine the direction of important parts of our lives, without our consent, ability to protest, and even awareness. Thus the modern day liberal value of government regulation of corporations and the financial system represents a democratization of the economy, for if the government is ultimately accountable to the people, and not just some of the people, namely the elite, excellent individuals, but all the people, and if our government exercises control over the economy, then we will have a social order that is true to its egalitarian principles. 

In some ways, modern day conservatives embody this ideal as well. When the Sarah Palins and George W. Bushes of the world shout their rallying cry to take government hands off the economy and instead leave it in the hands of those that are best fit to lead it, they are talking about the people—the entrepreneur, the small businessperson, the individual innovator. In this sense, the ideal of leaving the economy to only those excellent individuals rings true to democratic principle, for this arête which is not a fancy education or access to elite outlets of power, but rather nothing else than individual self interest—and who is a better judge of one’s self interest than every man himself? 

But this in nothing new. Then how is it that modern day conservative ideology is inconsistent regarding the economy and its actors? When conservatives oppose regulations such as those Obama recently proposed mandating that Banks cannot invest in anything not expressly in the interest of their clients, or demanding stricter rules on risky investments, they are essentially wresting control of powerful social forces out of the hands of the people, and into the hands of a few privileged individuals vested with an obscene amount of power. Funny, a conservative would probably see in my last sentence “the people” as the CEO and the “individuals vested with obscene amounts of power” as the Fed and Obama’s economic team. But in response I ask these questions—to whom are the CEOs accountable? Are they elected? Can we choose not to elect them if we disagree with their politics/ideologies/motivations/actions, etc? Can we impeach them? What if they cause harm to our communities? What authority can chastise them for such actions except the government? Given that the powers of a corporation represent such a monumental externality—that is, their decisions affect many not directly involved in their decisions/transactions (think of what would happen to the country if Nokia left Finland)—and given that conservatives continually oppose reforms that grant the government (a.k.a. the people) power over these forces, is it not safe to ask whether conservatives of this ilk have forgotten their egalitarian beginnings? Have they crowned a new class of elite, excellent individuals above the common fray?