Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul has been raising money and winning straw polls in Washington state. Western Washington is one of his best source of funds outside of Texas, along with Chicago, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay area. His campaign signs – many of them handmade – are all over Blue Seattle. Paul has mobilized online forces that make even the Daily Kos netroots left green with envy (and no, the donations aren't all in Ron Paul dollars).
But an interesting debate over Paul has broken out among liberals, with Seattle blogger and Crosscut contributor Dave Neiwert on one side and Salon's Glenn Greenwald on the other. The gist of the debate is this: Is Paul a principled libertarian or a far-right nut case whose supporters include racists like David Duke? Is Neiwert's pointing out the unsavory and fringe views of some of Paul's supporters a "smear" or an exercise in providing important context? Can Ron Paul's own words and actions be decoded to reveal a man with a more sinister agenda? And why are so many liberals enthralled with the guy?
Neiwert has been trying to provide background on Paul's politics on his Orcinius blog. He is an expert on tracking far-, far-right politics in this country and de-constructing extremist literature. It baffles him that Paul's views on fiscal and international policy (his dislike of the United Nations and the Federal Reserve, his support of the gold standard) aren't giving more people cause for pause. Writes Neiwert:... Ron Paul has made a career out of transmitting extremist beliefs, particularly far-right conspiracy theories about a looming "New World Order," into the mainstream of public discourse by reframing and repackaging them for wider consumption, mostly by studiously avoiding the more noxious and often racist elements of those beliefs. Along the way, he has built a long record of appearing before and lending the credibility of his office to a whole array of truly noxious organizations, and has a loyal following built in no small part on members of those groups.
In short, Neiwert believes that Paul has whitewashed some of his ideas and stripped them of their historical (and often racist and anti-Semitic) language. He thinks that many Paul-enthralled progressives are suffering from a kind of "amnesia" about what these politics really mean and who traditionally espouses them (John Birchers, militiamen, neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis, etc.).
Greenwald, on the other hand, thinks that there's an attempt to distort Paul's views and convict him by association. Though not a Paul supporter himself, he also questions whether Paul's non-mainstream views should be marginalized:This whole concept of singling out and labelling as "weirdos" and "fruitcakes" political figures because they espouse views that are held only by a small number of people is nothing more than an attempt to discredit someone without having to do the work to engage their arguments. It's actually a tactic right out of the seventh grade cafeteria. It's just a slothful mechanism for enforcing norms.
Despite Neiwert's reporting and analysis, many liberals are more than a little intrigued by Paul. Drawn by his anti-war, pro-civil-liberties positions, some hope for a grand alliance in the 2008 election – think of a unity government led by Ayn Rand and George McGovern.
Last week, far-left Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich's wife said that her husband might consider running on a ticket with Paul, and Kucinich himself has indicated that he "likes" Paul in the evasive language politicians use to indicate they're not ruling out an option. Kucinich has also said that a Kucinich-Paul ticket could "balance the energies in this country." I know that would have some supporters. At the Lou Dobbs appearance at Town Hall earlier this month, one questioner identified himself as a potential Kucinich-Paul supporter. Lee at Horsesass.org has a thoughtful post on the Paul (or, rather, the Neiwert-Greenwald) dilemma.
It's long been true that the far-far-right and far-far-left experience meetings of the minds on many issues (anti-WTO activism is one example, another is demonstrated by the support the American Civil Liberties Union gives to both communists and Nazis). I'll name another example in my personal experience: home schooling. When I became involved in the home schooling movement, those involved were mostly liberal baby boomers and Christian conservatives. The fact that '60s lefties and religious righties worked together to liberalize the state's home schooling rules was hardly an extremist conspiracy, merely a case of people out of the mainstream finding common cause. The whole point is that everyone gets to let their own indvidual freak flag fly no matter what they believe. And libertarians in particular are likely to find themselves in front of some pretty strange parades.
But does Paul's ideology represent something more sinister – or crazy? I think Neiwert is right to raise these issues and parse Paul's speeches and legislative record. And it's not the first time issues like this have been raised over an affable, principled, fringe conservative. The late Washington Rep. Jack Metcalf of Whidbey Island shared many of Paul's beliefs regarding the Federal Reserve, the UN, etc. Metcalf once demanded that his state legislative salary be paid in coin because paper money wasn't mentioned in the Constitution. Metcalf was also widely criticized for speaking to groups with racist and extremist agendas, and he had to answer for his father's onetime membership in the pro-fascist Silver Shirts, a group run by a fan of Adolph Hitler.
Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote a 1999 profile of Metcalf that covered this ground. But Westneat also captured the kind of colorful, independent character that Metcalf embodied for many people. Some of his politics were on the fringe, some of his supporters were a little scary, but what was refreshing was how much Metcalf was the antithesis of politics as usual. That is a major part of Paul's appeal, too – especially to people in the Western U.S., where we often like politicians who defy categorization. Metcalf was a flannel-wearing whale-lover, too.
Paul is also helped by ideology. After the George W. Bush years, many progressives and independents would agree that while Paul isn't prefect, the anti-war, libertarian nature of his beliefs – even in their extreme – pose less of a threat than more of the same. Big government has swelled under Bush. It's hard to see many candidates in the 2008 presidential race as being eager to surrender that power. Are Hillary Clinton or Rudolph Giuliani really going to opt for a weaker presidency? Don't hold your breath.
Some would also argue that, like Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, especially in the age of Gitmo. In that light, Ron Paul's unsavory supporters, already a tiny minority, may seem less of a threat than the status quo.