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The Irrelevance of Ron Paul

January 8, 2012

Awhile back, Obama appeared on the Daily Show to defend his record against various criticisms from disgruntled liberals. At one point, Jon Stewart pointed out that many liberals felt Obama had not delivered on his campaign promise of changing Washington, in response to which Obama highlighted several legislative accomplishments and insisted that change doesn’t come overnight.

Although I remain a committed Obama supporter, I think it is plain that Obama’s critics, as channeled by Stewart, are correct on this point. With considerable help from the media, Obama portrayed himself as a transformative figure during the 2008 campaign — which turns out to have been highly misleading. An Obama presidency was going to transcend partisan divisions; instead polarization has intensified since Obama took the oath of office, as illustrated by the debt ceiling crisis and subsequent failure of the supercommittee to agree on a deficit reduction plan. Meanwhile, Obama has embraced many aspects of Bush’s foreign policy and has been far too timid on the economy, passing an insufficiently large stimulus package and extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy without much of a fight.

I revisit these grievances not so as to criticize Obama, but so as to introduce a point I would like to make about Ron Paul. Paul, it seems to me, is offering Republican voters what Obama seemed to offer Democratic voters in 2008: the promise of remaking the political system. The political visions of Obama and Paul differ enormously, of course. And undoubtedly there are Paul supporters now who back Paul because they agree with Paul — just as there were Obama supporters then who backed Obama because they agreed with Obama. But what I have noticed is that most Paul supporters tend to support him simply as an antidote to the status quo, while fully acknowledging his quakery on the gold standard, the Federal Reserve, and other issues.

Fine. But, even conceding Glenn Greenwald’s point (and I do) that, from a left-wing perspective, Paul is raising important but otherwise neglected points on foreign policy, and, from a right-wing perspective, Mark Shea’s point that Paul is “a sort of counterweight to the Party of Crazy,” where does that leave us? If we’ve learned nothing else from the Obama presidency, it is that elections cannot fundamentally alter our political system. If Paul were serious about winning the presidency, he would need to rapidly move toward the center – which, of course, won’t happen. Even supposing an electoral miracle in which Paul continued to espouse libertarianism but somehow won the presidency, Paul would out of political necessity end up embracing centrist policies once in office. As Warren points out, the hypothetical president Paul’s political dilemma would be this:

So, we’d either have a president who has to compromise all the far-fetched goals of his candidacy to get things done and would thus be portrayed as weak or, if he’s successful in implementing his radical positions, he’d make huge changes to our government that would be unpopular with the majority of Americans and/or cause our economy to tailspin after 2 years of a hard fought, slow recovery.

As his supporters freely acknowledge, Paul is unelectable. Beyond that, there isn’t much to discuss – let alone get upset about – regarding Paul beyond the general merits of libertarianism and the value of having Paul’s views represented on the national stage.

This leaves aside the question of voting one’s conscience. Even knowing that Paul can’t win, should I nevertheless vote for him? If I am a committed libertarian or constitutionalist, then yes, I should. But most of us aren’t committed libertarians or constitutionalists. Moreover, if I am voting purely on the basis of conscience, then the “lesser of two evils” argument — including the argument that Paul is preferable to Obama on foreign policy — falls by the wayside. Paul is either electable or he is not electable. If he is not electable, it doesn’t really matter how he stacks up ideologically next to Romney or Obama. What matters, if I am to vote my conscience, is the extent to which he conforms to my own personal vision of the Good. But if this is the case, then for a liberal concerned about foreign policy and civil liberties, Dennis Kucinch would be preferable to Paul. And since neither has a chance of winning the election, it doesn’t much matter whether or not Kucinch is running. For a conservative, Paul Ryan might be a better choice. Personally, I would write in John Medaille.

As you can see, there is a reductio ad absurdum to voting one’s conscience. This is because the notion of a conscience divorced from practical and political realities is fundamentally incoherent. Trying to use the ballot box to overturn the status quo is like trying to use a minivan to overthrow traffic laws. This isn’t to dismiss revolutionary impulses as impractical, but to suggest that they work best outside of the political system altogether. Case-in-point: Occupy Wall Street.

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