Perspective — April 4, 2013, 1:11 pm

On Rand Paul and the Libertarian–Statist Divide

Why establishment Democrats and Republicans fear Rand Paul

Independent presidential candidate Ron Paul holds a rally at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, the day before the Republican National Convention begins. Photograph © Christopher Morris/VII

Independent presidential candidate Ron Paul holds a rally at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, the day before the 2012 Republican National Convention begins. Photograph © Christopher Morris/VII

When Rand Paul commandeered the senate floor last month to protest the government’s remote-controlled-death-machine program, he proved that distant political factions have more in common than we’re often led to believe. The antiwar left saw the filibuster as a challenge to the violence and the innocent dead left in the drone program’s wake. The antigovernment right rallied around Paul’s pointed question about whether a hypothetical Hellfire missile might just leave a crater where your neighborhood Starbucks once stood. Rush Limbaugh called him the future. Code Pink activists brought him boxes of chocolates. #StandWithRand was, for a moment, the most popular Twitter topic on the planet.

In this one act of political theater, Paul also accomplished what his father had been unable to do during thirty-seven years in politics: he brought an American Civil Liberties Union position into the Republican Party mainstream. But the stirring tale of Rand Paul, tousle-haired libertarian prince, didn’t last long. Even as Twitter carried on about his #PaulNighter, the adults in Washington came to the bipartisan consensus that the junior senator from Kentucky was out of his depth.

Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham took the greatest umbrage and said, respectively, that Paul was a “wacko bird” and had the party “spun up” about nothing. Graham congratulated Obama on escalating the quasi-covert program that has now killed upward of 900 civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, including scores of children, while also noting that the process of putting people on the kill list is “sometimes too rigorous.” The Wall Street Journal cautioned Paul against pulling any more “stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms.”

The only faction more indignant than the establishment right was the establishment left. On The McLaughlin Group, Eleanor Clift described Paul’s filibuster as “a paranoiac rant.” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called him “a crazy man,” “vile,” and, medically speaking, “a psychopath.” Lest the point be lost in nuance, O’Donnell summarized: “Rand Paul is not a flawed messenger on this subject; he is a ridiculous, sick, paranoid messenger.” Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times that Paul is “loopy,” an “albatross,” a “curse,” and a “skunk” who is serving the American people “a crazy salad.”

What sort of strange creature is this? How did a psychopathic skunk-bird and his crazy salad make so many powerful people feel threatened? The answer is plain: Rand Paul is his father’s son, and regardless of the massive recent shift in public opinion about drones, Washington has not warmed to the Paul family’s fight against federal power. Rand may be the smoother messenger and the more willing to compromise of the two, but as Ron Paul’s biographer Brian Doherty told me, Rand “is living up to his father’s legacy in ways that are so significant . . . it’s surprising how much the Republican Party is rallying behind him.”

Rand is now the unquestioned leader of the nascent political movement that his father is still building, even after his January retirement from Congress. The self-described “Liberty Movement,” whose quasi-religious fervor I wrote about in the April issue of Harper’s, is powered by the same young apostles who have been carrying Ron Paul’s antigovernment, anticorporate, antiwar message since 2008. Paul may not have won a single state primary in his two recent presidential campaigns, but he did something that no Perry or Santorum could achieve: he laid an organizational groundwork with the potential to change the G.O.P. from the inside. He held a steady 10 percent of the vote during the 2012 primaries, and he raised more money than any candidate other than Mitt Romney. (He also took in more than seven times Romney’s total from members of the active military.)

Libertarian conservatives remain an insurgent minority in the party, but their momentum can no longer be questioned: Paulite Republicans control the state party chairmanships in the early-voting states of Iowa and Nevada. They are dominant in Maine, and are threatening establishment conservatives in Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia, and beyond. These gains have not been without considerable turmoil (and in some state conventions last summer, outright chaos), and they will test the party’s core beliefs. But at a time of conservative reassessment, the “Ron Paul people” are equally an opportunity to widen the party’s appeal — and Rand, Doherty says, “is explicitly and implicitly trying to reach out beyond the Republican Party base.”

Following the success of the drone filibuster, Rand gave an interview on Fox News Sunday that would have been unthinkable just a month prior. A “more libertarian Republican approach to things,” he said, could attract young voters and make the party competitive on the West Coast and New England. “Our party could grow if we accepted something a little different than the cookie-cutter conservative that we’ve put out in the past.” It’s an open play for fiscal conservatives who don’t mind gay marriage, but have soured on endless military adventurism.

The Obama Administration, too, has left a few doors open for Paul. For every drone-supporting Democrat who rests her conscience on Obama’s wise judgment, there are others who ask how President Palin would wield the same authority. Years of stagnant economic growth are applying additional pressure on today’s progressive coalition. “Reality,” says Doherty, “is making the libertarian case for the libertarians.” The successive crises of the past twelve years — 9/11 and its attendant wars, the surveillance state,  a failed drug war, and the financial crisis — are eroding the structural narratives of American politics. The left-versus-right paradigm won’t fade overnight, but it is being joined by a new struggle that, on a variety of issues, pits populists who have grown skeptical of government’s ability to solve big problems against confident corporate and state planners. If Rand Paul and the Liberty Movement continue to challenge the Republican establishment on drones, drugs, and defense spending, and if the Democrats blithely carry on as champions of the status quo, this reshuffling can only gather speed. It may be starting on the local and state level, and it may not yet be finding expression in these terms, but the fight between the libertarians and the statists has begun, and it’s coming to an election near you.

Share
Single Page
lives in Brooklyn. “The Awakening: Ron Paul’s generational movement” was his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

More from Michael Ames:

Context October 2, 2015, 11:04 am

Captive Markets

Why we won’t get prison reform

From the February 2015 issue

Captive Market

Why we won’t get prison reform

Postcard July 30, 2014, 6:38 pm

My Un-Private Idaho

Bowe Bergdahl, the political-entertainment complex, and the personal costs of scandal

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2019

Where Our New World Begins

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Truce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lost at Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Unexpected

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Where Our New World Begins·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The river “flows up the map,” they used to say, first south, then west, and then north, and through some of the most verdant and beautiful country in America. It is called the Tennessee, but it drains some forty thousand square miles of land in seven states, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Alabama, and from Mississippi to the Ohio River, an area nearly the size of En­gland.

Before the 1930s, it ran wild, threatening each spring to flood and wash away the humble farms and homes along its banks. Most of it was not navigable for any distance, thanks to “an obstructive fist thrust up by God or Devil”—as the writer George Fort Milton characterized it—that created a long, untamed run of rapids known as Muscle Shoals. The fist dropped the river 140 feet over the course of 30 miles, and therein lay the untapped potential of the Tennessee, the chance to make power—a lot of it—out of water.

Article
Slash Fictions·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

1. As closing time at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery approached on May 25, 2018, Igor Podporin, a balding thirty-seven-year-old with sunken eyes, circled the Russian history room. The elderly museum attendees shooed him toward the exit, but Podporin paused by a staircase, turned, and rushed back toward the Russian painter Ilya Repin’s 1885 work Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581. He picked up a large metal pole—part of a barrier meant to keep viewers at a distance—and smashed the painting’s protective glass, landing three more strikes across Ivan’s son’s torso before guards managed to subdue him. Initially, police presented Podporin’s attack as an alcohol-fueled outburst and released a video confession in which he admitted to having knocked back two shots of vodka in the museum cafeteria beforehand. But when Podporin entered court four days later, dressed in the same black Columbia fleece, turquoise T-shirt, and navy-blue cargo pants he had been arrested in, he offered a different explanation for the attack. The painting, Podporin declared, was a “lie.” With that accusation, he thrust himself into a centuries-old debate about the legacy of Russia’s first tsar, a debate that has reignited during Vladimir Putin’s reign. The dispute boils down to one deceptively simple question: Was Ivan really so terrible?

Article
The Truce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I met Raúl Mijango, in a courtroom in San Salvador, he was in shackles, awaiting trial. He was paunchier than in the photos I’d seen of him, bloated from diabetes, and his previously salt-and-pepper goatee had turned fully white. The masked guard who was escorting him stood nearby, and national news cameras filmed us from afar. Despite facing the possibility of a long prison sentence, Mijango seemed relaxed, smiling easily as we spoke. “Bolívar, Fidel, Gandhi, and Mandela have also passed through this school,” he told me, “and I hope that some of what they learned during their years in prison we should learn as well.”

Post
Civic Virtues·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Green-Wood Cemetery, where objectionable statues are laid to rest

Article
Lost at Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A few miles north of San Francisco, off the coast of Sausalito, is Richardson Bay, a saltwater estuary where roughly one hundred people live out of sight from the world. Known as anchor-outs, they make their homes a quarter mile from the shore, on abandoned and unseaworthy vessels, doing their best, with little or no money, to survive. Life is not easy. There is always a storm on the way, one that might capsize their boats and consign their belongings to the bottom of the bay. But when the water is calm and the harbormaster is away, the anchor-­outs call their world Shangri-lito. They row from one boat to the next, repairing their homes with salvaged scrap wood and trading the herbs and vegetables they’ve grown in ten-gallon buckets on their decks. If a breeze is blowing, the air fills with the clamoring of jib hanks. Otherwise, save for a passing motorboat or a moment of distant chatter, there is only the sound of the birds: the sparrows that hop along the wreckage of catamarans, the egrets that hunt herring in the eelgrass, and the terns that circle in the sky above.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Cairo, New York, police department advised drivers to “overcome the fear” after a woman crashed her car when she saw a spider.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today