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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2020

Click Here to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vicious Cycles

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Oceans Apart

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Forty-Year Rehearsal

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Whale Mother

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Click Here to Kill·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

Article
Oceans Apart·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

Article
Vicious Cycles·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

Article
The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

Article
Election Bias·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

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 Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today