Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies  

Posted by Big Gav in

Glenn Greenwald has a post on why Ron Paul's contention for the Republican presidential nomination is a good thing - Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies.

As I’ve written about before, America’s election season degrades mainstream political discourse even beyond its usual lowly state. The worst attributes of our political culture — obsession with trivialities, the dominance of horserace “reporting,” and mindless partisan loyalties — become more pronounced than ever. Meanwhile, the actually consequential acts of the U.S. Government and the permanent power factions that control it — covert endless wars, consolidation of unchecked power, the rapid growth of the Surveillance State and the secrecy regime, massive inequalities in the legal system, continuous transfers of wealth from the disappearing middle class to large corporate conglomerates — drone on with even less attention paid than usual.

Because most of those policies are fully bipartisan in nature, the election season — in which only issues that bestow partisan advantage receive attention — places them even further outside the realm of mainstream debate and scrutiny. For that reason, America’s elections ironically serve to obsfuscate political reality even more than it usually is.

This would all be bad enough if “election season” were confined to a few months the way it is in most civilized countries. But in America, the fixation on presidential elections takes hold at least eighteen months before the actual election occurs, which means that more than 1/3 of a President’s term is conducted in the midst of (and is obscured by) the petty circus distractions of The Campaign. Thus, an unauthorized, potentially devastating covert war — both hot and cold — against Iran can be waged with virtually no debate, just as government control over the Internet can be inexorably advanced, because TV political shows are busy chattering away about Michele Bachmann’s latest gaffe and minute changes in Rick Perry’s polling numbers.

Then there’s the full-scale sacrifice of intellectual honesty and political independence at the altar of tongue-wagging partisan loyalty. The very same people who in 2004 wildly cheered John Kerry — husband of the billionaire heiress-widow Teresa Heinz Kerry — spent all of 2008 mocking John McCain’s wealthy life courtesy of his millionaire heiress wife and will spend 2012 depicting Mitt Romney’s wealth as proof of his insularity; conversely, the same people who relentlessly mocked Kerry in 2004 as a kept girly-man and gigolo for living off his wife’s wealth spent 2008 venerating McCain as the Paragon of Manly Honor.

That combat experience is an important presidential trait was insisted upon in 2004 by the very same people who vehemently denied it in 2008, and vice-versa. Long-time associations with controversial figures and inflammatory statements from decades ago either matter or they don’t depending on whom it hurts, etc. etc. During election season, even the pretense of consistency is proudly dispensed with; listening to these empty electioneering screeching matches for any period of time can generate the desire to jump off the nearest bridge to escape it.

Then there’s the inability and/or refusal to recognize that a political discussion might exist independent of the Red v. Blue Cage Match. Thus, any critique of the President’s exercise of vast power (an adversarial check on which our political system depends) immediately prompts bafflement (I don’t understand the point: would Rick Perry be any better?) or grievance (you’re helping Mitt Romney by talking about this!!). The premise takes hold for a full 18 months — increasing each day in intensity until Election Day — that every discussion of the President’s actions must be driven solely by one’s preference for election outcomes (if you support the President’s re-election, then why criticize him?).

Worse still is the embrace of George W. Bush’s with-us-or-against-us mentality as the prism through which all political discussions are filtered. It’s literally impossible to discuss any of the candidates’ positions without having the simple-minded — who see all political issues exclusively as a Manichean struggle between the Big Bad Democrats and Good Kind Republicans or vice-versa — misapprehend “I agree with Candidate X’s position on Y” as “I support Candidate X for President” or “I disagree with Candidate X’s position on Y” as “I oppose Candidate X for President.” Even worse are the lying partisan enforcers who, like the Inquisitor Generals searching for any inkling of heresy, purposely distort any discrete praise for the Enemy as a general endorsement.

So potent is this poison that no inoculation against it exists. No matter how expressly you repudiate the distortions in advance, they will freely flow. Hence: I’m about to discuss the candidacies of Barack Obama and Ron Paul, and no matter how many times I say that I am not “endorsing” or expressing support for anyone’s candidacy, the simple-minded Manicheans and the lying partisan enforcers will claim the opposite. But since it’s always inadvisable to refrain from expressing ideas in deference to the confusion and deceit of the lowest elements, I’m going to proceed to make a couple of important points about both candidacies even knowing in advance how wildly they will be distorted.

* * * * *

The Ron Paul candidacy, for so many reasons, spawns pervasive political confusion — both unintended and deliberate. Yesterday, The Nation‘s long-time liberal publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wrote this on Twitter: ...


That’s fairly remarkable: here’s the Publisher of The Nation praising Ron Paul not on ancillary political topics but central ones (“ending preemptive wars & challenging bipartisan elite consensus” on foreign policy), and going even further and expressing general happiness that he’s in the presidential race. Despite this observation, Katrina vanden Heuvel — needless to say — does not support and will never vote for Ron Paul (indeed, in subsequent tweets, she condemned his newsletters as “despicable”). But the point that she’s making is important, if not too subtle for the with-us-or-against-us ethos that dominates the protracted presidential campaign: even though I don’t support him for President, Ron Paul is the only major candidate from either party advocating crucial views on vital issues that need to be heard, and so his candidacy generates important benefits.

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.

The thing I loathe most about election season is reflected in the central fallacy that drives progressive discussion the minute “Ron Paul” is mentioned. As soon as his candidacy is discussed, progressives will reflexively point to a slew of positions he holds that are anathema to liberalism and odious in their own right and then say: how can you support someone who holds this awful, destructive position? The premise here — the game that’s being played — is that if you can identify some heinous views that a certain candidate holds, then it means they are beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising any part of their candidacy.

The fallacy in this reasoning is glaring. The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with drones, cluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient. ...

The simple fact is that progressives are supporting a candidate for President who has done all of that — things liberalism has long held to be pernicious. I know it’s annoying and miserable to hear. Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency and economic equality. All of these facts — like the history laid out by Stoller in that essay — negate that desired self-perception. These facts demonstrate that the leader progressives have empowered and will empower again has worked in direct opposition to those values and engaged in conduct that is nothing short of horrific. So there is an eagerness to avoid hearing about them, to pretend they don’t exist. And there’s a corresponding hostility toward those who point them out, who insist that they not be ignored. ...

I wish there were someone who did not have Ron Paul’s substantial baggage to achieve this. Before Paul announced his candidacy, I expressed hope in an Out Magazine profile that Gary Johnson would run for President and be the standard-bearer for these views, in the process scrambling bipartisan stasis on these questions. I did that not because I was endorsing his candidacy (as some low-level Democratic Party operative dishonestly tried to claim), but because, as a popular two-term Governor of New Mexico free of Paul’s disturbing history and associations, he seemed to me well-suited to force these debates to be had. But alas, Paul decided to run again, and Johnson — for reasons still very unclear — was forcibly excluded from media debates and rendered a non-person. Since then, Paul’s handling of the very legitimate questions surrounding those rancid newsletters has been disappointing in the extreme, and that has only served to obscure these vital debates and severely dilute the discourse-enhancing benefits of his candidacy.

* * * * *

Still, for better or worse, Paul — alone among the national figures in both parties — is able and willing to advocate views that Americans urgently need to hear. That he is doing so within the Republican Party makes it all the more significant. This is why Paul has been the chosen ally of key liberal House members such as Alan Grayson (on Fed transparency and corruption), Barney Frank (to arrest the excesses of the Drug War) and Dennis Kucinich (on a wide array of foreign policy and civil liberties issues). Just judge for yourself: consider some of what Ron Paul is advocating on vital issues — not secondary issues, but ones progressives have long insisted are paramount — and ask how else these debates will be had and who else will advocate these views ...

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