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.


Thoughts on why a progressive presidency is impossible…for now

If you have the inclination and lots of free time, I highly recommend reading Eric Alterman’s latest manifesto, railing against the Right, Big Business, the Mainstream Media and all the powers-that-be that make it impossible for real progressive reform to take hold.

In Alterman’s own words, the piece examines the failure of the Obama Administration to deliver on many of his campaign promises, not from lack of will, or conniving deceit, but rather:

“From a series of structural bottlenecks in our system that encourage conservative transformative change but stand in the way of its progressive counterpart.”

These include:

“– The legacy of the Bush administration
— The structure of our political system and the antiquated rules of the Senate
— The political power of money
— The ideological antipathy of many Americans to strong government
— The power of right-wing media
— The varying weaknesses of mainstream media
— And the disciplined and yet entirely-divorced-from-reality character of contemporary conservatism coupled with the disparate ideological composition of the Democratic Party, among others.”

While I would argue that at times Alterman sacrifices the better argument for the sake of political expedience (for instance, if one of the roadblocks to progressive change, according to Alterman is ‘the ideological antipathy of many Americans to strong government,’ shouldn’t we be questioning the progressive agenda, or developing more convincing arguments in favor of centralized reform rather than push this agenda despite the general will of the public?), I think he is right on about one thing in particular: it doesn’t matter who has a better argument, it’s who has a better narrative—and in this department, the Right has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American public.

Whether it be during the debate about TARP, Healthcare reform, financial reform, etc., it never mattered how necessary these reforms were and how easy it should have been to argue in their favor, because the Right always took and still manages to take the pot with it’s two word trump card—“Government Takeover”.

The debate over the healthcare bill was a perfect example of a unique occasion in our nation’s history to debate honestly and intelligently the role of the State in the welfare of its citizenry. How can we as a society justly and equitable distribute access to healthcare? Should we adopt a single payer system? What about a public option? Absent both of these, how can we make sure all Americans have access to affordable healthcare, while being protected from the more egregious practices of the Insurance Industry? But just as all creatures will fight dirty for their survival, when the powers that be saw their fortunes threatened, the debate turned away from the rational and the intelligent to the inflammatory and the utterly nonsensical. “Death Panels!”, “Hitler!”, “Socialism!”; it didn’t matter how little resemblance these cries bore to the actual policies being proposed, because the Right’s trump card made any policy proposition, no matter how reasonable and necessary, un-American and tyrannical.

Perhaps the best instance of the victory of the Right-Wing narrative is with the recent debate over financial reform. Considering the recent financial crisis, which hurled America and much of the world into international chaos unparalleled in this generation, financial reform should have been as easy to pass. At no other time since perhaps 9-11 has the American public been so unified in its anger toward a certain group, and in its demand that something be done to stop such a disaster from ever happening again. Yet, monolithic opposition from the right managed to clip much of the bills fangs. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how necessary a certain measure may be; any attempt by the government to control some aspect of private industry and the free-market represents a “government takeover”— an intolerable affront to all that America stands for.

Alterman is right that a progressive presidency is impossible for now, for as long as the Right has the power to instill an existential fear into the heart of the American public with these two words, and as long as the Right’s narrative manages to convince people that government takeover is not only possible, but imminent, no other argument and no other narrative stands a chance.