No, Stoller and Sullivan: there is no liberal conflict over Ron Paul
by David Atkins
A few days ago, Matt Stoller wrote a post declaring liberals to be hypocrites over what he presumes to be their ad hominem mistreatment of Ron Paul. Says Stoller, progressives are forced to attack Paul's character, because Ron Paul
is the true progressive who puts the lie to the ideals of those benighted so-called progressives who support the evil, awful Democratic Party and its war machine--a machine somehow managed and supported via the Federal Reserve, another of Paul's and fellow conspiracy mongers' betes noires. Stoller states these things matter-of-factly, as if Paul's anti-choice racist Objectivism were a mere sidelight to the real issues facing the country, whatever those might be, and as if America had somehow less of a bellicose history prior to the Woodrow Wilson Administration, or even the Lincoln Administration than it does today.
Stoller's post is an incoherent mess, but has earned the praise of civil-liberties-above-all-else bloggers like Glenn Greenwald, and holier-than-thou anti-partisan types like Andrew Sullivan. Here's Greenwald:
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.
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.
As usual, this is all so much hogwash.
Liberalism is and has always been about intervention. It is the opposite of libertarianism, and always has been. Liberals understand that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Left to their own devices, people with weapons and money will always try to exploit and dominate people without weapons and money unless they are stopped from doing so. It is not because we are taught to do so. It's just innate human nature. If this were not the case, libertarianism would work as an ideology. It does not, and never has at any point in history.
When the government steps in to stop a corporation from dumping noxious chemicals into a stream, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. When the government steps in to enforce desegretation in schools, that is intervention at the point of a gun, by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless.
When Abraham Lincoln and the North decided not to allow the nation of the Confederacy--and make no mistake, it was a separate nation with separate laws and an entirely separate culture--to secede from the Union, in large part because the North had an interest in ending slavery in the South and in striking down a competing agrarian economic system, that too was intervention by a superior force against a lesser force attempting to exploit the weak and powerless. To this day, many Southerners feel that their land is being occupied by an illegitimate and invading power, and theirs a Lost Cause that will rise again.
This is what liberalism is. It is unavoidably, inescapably paternalistic in nature. It is so because it understands the inevitable tendency of human beings to be truly awful to one another unless social and legal rules are put in place--yes, by force--to prevent them from doing otherwise.
Conservatives use force of government as well, of course, but not in defense of the weak and oppressed, but rather to maintain the power of money, of patriarchy and of the established social pecking order. Where the oppressive hand of government helps them achieve that, they utilize it. Where libertarian ideology helps them keep power in the hands of the local good old boys, they use that instead.
But a liberal--a progressive, if you will--is always an interventionist, because a liberal understands that society is constantly on a path of self-perfection, in an effort to use reason and good moral judgment to prevent insofar as possible the exploitation of one person by another.
The division between liberals lies in how far to intervene, especially in foreign wars. Almost all would agree that intervention in World War II against the Nazis and Imperial Japanese was the right thing to do. Most would agree that intervention in Kosovo was the right thing to do to stop the ongoing genocide there. Certainly, conservatives at the time opposed involvement in either conflict. Some liberals believe that America should use its power of intervention to help the oppressed around the world by use of force if necessary. Most others understand that such moves, even if well-intentioned, cause more problems and harm than they solve. But there will always be disagreements between liberals about whether, how much and where to intervene in the world in order to stop bad people from doing bad things that either threaten America, or simply threaten to oppress the poor and the weak. Not, of course, that America's war machine is always or even usually used with such good intentions; quite the contrary. It is usually used for the conservative purpose of exploiting and destroying people and resources for the benefit of the wealthy. But here we speak only of liberal ideology and its relationship to the use of military force.
Similarly, liberals have a conflict when it comes to economic intervention. A few on the left choose to pursue a very hard line of intervention toward economic egalitarianism, leading to a vision in line with Communism. More of us tend to see the need for substantial economic intervention on a capitalist substrate, and lean more toward Democratic Socialism. Others see the need for some intervention, but are wary to stepping too far into the middle of the "free market," which makes them more Neoliberal. But in all these cases, the question is only a matter of degree.
It is no accident that the most fervent economic interventionists on the left have also turned out to be the most imperial and bellicose (e.g., the Soviets and the Chinese.) They believe most in the necessity of force to prevent exploitation by the holders of capital, and see no reason why that necessity should stop at their own borders.
Contra Stoller, there is indeed a conflict within liberalism, but it is precisely this: a matter of how much intervention is necessary. It is not a fundamental conflict of ideals.
Which leads us to Ron Paul, a man whose detestable ideals are directly in opposition to those of liberalism--even if he happens, like a stopped clock, to end up in the right place a couple of times for entirely the wrong reasons.
Ron Paul is against the drug war, yes, but for the same reasons he is against preventing factories from dumping mercury in our rivers: he opposes any sort of intervention at all by the government to assist those in need, or to stop those who would do harm to others, except in the most simplistic cases of the use of force.
Ron Paul is against foreign interventions, yes, but for the same reason he opposes providing healthcare to sick people: he believes that the U.S. government should not be in the business of interfering against almost anyone, on behalf of anyone else.
Unless that person is a fetus, in which case state intervention is apparently just fine. Or unless that interference is taking place by, say, the State of Alabama, in which it's just fine, as opposed to the evil jackboots in Washington, D.C. trying to tell those good Alabamans just what they can and can't do with gays, undocumented immigrants, and women seeking abortions.
Ron Paul is a detestable creature who presents no challenge at all to liberal orthodoxy properly understood. I have never found him challenging, nor has DougJ at Balloon Juice:
So you’ll have to excuse me for not wanting to participate in all the navel-gazing about what liberals “should” think about Ron Paul. The guy has flirted with strapping young buck racism (as well as anti-Semitism) since forever, not just via his (ghostwritten) newsletter but also in his (presumably not entirely ghostwritten) book. His economic ideas would—in my opinion—probably devastate the American middle class.
For a liberal like me, who is primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class and in providing opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc., I just don’t see why I should be “challenged” by Ron Paul. I understand that if you’re a liberal who is primarily interested in civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy, then you might be conflicted about Paul. But to me, he’s just another racist asshole who wants to fuck the American middle-class.
It's true that some liberals are so legitimately incensed by President Obama's transgressions on civil liberties that they are inclined to support Paul in the same way that a person obsessed with illegal immigration might support a hardline anti-immigration Democrat over a Republican like George W. Bush or John McCain. But both of those cases are standard single-issue monomanias. Neither case speaks to any sort of real ideological hypocrisy.
The only people truly in need of introspection are the self-described progressives who seem to be conflicted about Ron Paul. They might want to re-examine what liberalism is, why it is, what its origins are, and how it has manifested itself throughout history. It has very little to do with libertarianism of any kind.
Update: Stoller writes, correctly, to point out that he never said that Paul was a progressive. He's right, and I apologize for that. But the point here is that he maintains that 1) Paul holds more "progressive" positions than many supposed progressives, 2) that progressives are forced to use specious attacks on Paul to avoid confronting their own demons; and 3) that the federal reserve is somehow responsible for America's belligerence on the world stage. None of those three things are true.