Arguments vs Associations

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 2 2012 @ 12:43pm


The Ron Paul candidacy has proven a very fertile event on both right and left. It has shown that there is some real disquiet among conservatives about retaining the 20th Century vision of American military global hegemony. And it has shown that the left is ultimately more concerned with the hunt for damning ideological associations, than with the ideas that Paul has promoted – even when those ideas are closer to some of candidate Obama’s than president Obama’s.

In a deliberately provocative must-read, Glenn Greenwald spells out the left’s priorities in demonizing Ron Paul:

Whatever else one wants to say, it is indisputably true that Ron Paul is the only political figure with any sort of a national platform — certainly the only major presidential candidate in either party — who advocates policy views on issues that liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial. The converse is equally true: the candidate supported by liberals and progressives and for whom most will vote — Barack Obama — advocates views on these issues (indeed, has taken action on these issues) that liberals and progressives have long claimed to find repellent, even evil.

As Matt Stoller argued in a genuinely brilliant essay on the history of progressivism and the Democratic Party which I cannot recommend highly enough: “the anger [Paul] inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.” Ron Paul’s candidacy is a mirror held up in front of the face of America’s Democratic Party and its progressive wing, and the image that is reflected is an ugly one; more to the point, it’s one they do not want to see because it so violently conflicts with their desired self-perception.

And so they spend enormous energy persuading themselves that Paul is actually a paranoid, anti-Semitic, racist bigot, and so need not be engaged seriously. And the neocons are only thrilled to help out (since Paul remains the one candidate in either party who will not launch their longed-for war on Iran). I find in this much that was ascendant on the left in the 1990s: an identity politics purism in which the entirety of moral discourse is distilled to exposing variously illicit prejudices or associations toward various groups of people. Sometimes, this verges on total parody. Check out PowerLine’s attempts to discredit Keynes because he was an anti-Semite at the age of 17! Too funny, if it weren’t half-serious. And then this surprising piece of pure McCarthyism from David Frum:

A politician isn’t answerable for the antics of every one of his supporters. But there’s surely a reason, isn’t there, that racists, anti-Semites, 9/11 Truthers, and Holocaust deniers are so strongly attracted to the Paul campaign. They hear something. They continue to hear it too, no matter how firmly Ron Paul’s more mainstream supporters clamp their hands over their own ears.

Notice how pure the smear is, enabled and not diminished by the first sentence. Notice the key concept of Beltway ideological policemen: there is a mainstream and a non-mainstream. Dabble with the latter at your peril. Since David has perished by the cult of the “mainstream”, it’s odd he should deploy it against others. But to throw in “Holocaust denial” and 9/11 Truthers for good measure! Really.

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And notice how particularly cheap and easy it is to use such tactics against a libertarian. The traditional left is often based on collective associations, building a movement out of oppressed groups and their grievances, whether it be class or race or even sexual orientation. Libertarianism is the opposite. It’s about disassociating. When you listen to Paul saying he will not turn anyone away from supporting his platform regardless of their motives or beliefs, you are hearing a reflection of his libertarianism, not his bigotry. He will accept support from any quarter and compared with the corporate money flowing into the other candidates’ coffers, he is about as independent as a presidential candidate can be. Because he is a radical individualist, he doesn’t even understand why he should somehow explain the belief of others, or justify their support. You should ask them, not him.

This kind of gotcha-association game is particularly easy because libertarians favor liberty above all, and that will necessarily mean liberty for bigots as well as others. A principled belief in states’ rights will doubtless lead to more racist and homophobic policies in many states – but also, of course, more enlightened and successful inclusive states like Oregon or New York or Massachusetts or California. A rejection of statism might lead to more discrimination in the private sector. But it doesn’t mandate it. And it need not encourage it. A non-interventionist foreign policy will allow evil to triumph elsewhere in the world, because it believes it’s none of our business or too riddled with unintended consequences to try extirpating. That may be right or wrong, but it is not an approval of the evil of Assad or Ahmedinejad or the North Korean junta. And again, it is actually much deeper an American tradition than permanent warfare. But if you can trot out David Duke or Ayatollah Khamenei as potential Paul supporters, you have a very easy, cheap and essentially McCarthyite target. It saddens me that this kind of tactic works.

I still believe that the newsletters, because they were in Paul’s name, require a clearer explanation from Paul than the muddled ones he has given. He should not be left off the hook. And his proposals deserve a thorough vetting and discussion.

But there is something awry when a candidate is assessed not on his arguments and proposals but on the shadiness and ugliness of some of his fringe supporters. And his arguments are serious, even vital, ones for this moment: that the construct of American global hegemony is too costly, too dated and too counter-productive to work in this country’s interests abroad any longer; that the welfare state cannot be sustained at its present level with our looming demographics and massive debt; that problems are often best solved closest to the ground where they occur; that dividing Americans into identity groups and pandering to each is inimical to a free individualist society, and so on. These are fresher ideas on the right than the exhausted re-microwaved Reaganism of the others.

Which is why, whatever happens to his candidacy, Paul has already achieved something important: the broadening of debate, the scrambling of right and left, and the appearance on our toxic public stage of a man who seems to say what he thinks without much calculation or guile.