By Corey Robin
Ron Paul has two problems. One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part. The other is ours—by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.
Ron Paul’s problem is not merely the racist newsletters, the close ties with Lew Rockwell, his views on abortion, or even his stance on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—though these automatically disqualify him from my support. His real problem is his fundamentalist commitment to federalism, which would make any notion of human progress in this country impossible.
Federalism has a long and problematic history in this country—it lies at the core of the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy; it was consistently invoked as the basis for opposition to the welfare state; it has been, contrary to many of its defenders, one of the cornerstones of some of the most repressive moments in our nation’s history[pdf]—and though liberals used to be clear about its regressive tendencies, they’ve grown soft on it in recent years. As the liberal Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar put it not so long ago:
Once again, populism and federalism—liberty and localism—work together; We the People conquer government power by dividing it between the two rival governments, state and federal.
As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state. There is simply no other way, at least not that I am aware of, to break the back of the private autocracies that oppress us all.
Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.
Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination (or thinks that realm is entirely dependent upon or a function of the existence of the state or thinks that it can be remedied by the persuasive and individual actions of a few good souls)—but a states-rights-based libertarianism is a social disaster.
So that’s his problem.
Our problem—and again by “our” I mean a left that’s social democratic (or welfare state liberal or economically progressive or whatever the hell you want to call it) and anti-imperial—is that we don’t really have a vigorous national spokesperson for the issues of war and peace, an end to empire, a challenge to Israel, and so forth, that Paul has in fact been articulating. The source of Paul’s positions on these issues are not the same as ours (again more reason not to give him our support). But he is talking about these issues, often in surprisingly blunt and challenging terms. Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way.
This, it’s clear, is why people like Glenn Greenwald say that Paul’s voice needs to be heard. Not, Greenwald makes clear, because he supports Paul, but because it is a terrible comment—a shanda for the left—that we don’t have anyone on our side of comparable visibility launching an attack on American imperialism and warfare. (Recalling what I said in the context of the death of Christopher Hitchens, I suspect this has something to do with our normalization and acceptance of war as a way of life.) In other words, we need to listen to Paul, not because he’s worthy of our support, and certainly not because the reasons that underlie his positions on foreign policy are ours, but because he reveals what’s not being said, or not being said enough, on our side.
There is a long history in this country of the left not paying too much attention to the ways in which our leaders do things that set the stage for worse things to come. J. Edgar Hoover got a tremendous amount of traction under FDR and the New Deal because he was perceived to be a spit-and-polish, professional crime fighter. So trusted and hailed was he by liberals and progressives—when he worked for their leaders—that it was none other than Arthur Schlesinger, in The Vital Center (1949), who urged Americans to put their trust in Hoover rather than in the Red hunters of the far right:
All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.
In 1950, William Keller reports in his essential The Liberals and J. Edgar Hoover, while Truman was still president, Hubert Humphrey took to the floor of the Senate to declare:
If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.
Yet, as Ellen Schrecker rightly argued in Many Are the Crimes, her definitive account of McCarthyism:
Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau’s files, “McCarthyism” would probably be called “Hooverism.” For the FBI was the bureaucratic heart of the McCarthy era.
In the last week, liberals and progressives have been arguing about these issues; Digby has been especially cogent and worth listening to. The only thing I have to add to that debate is this: both sides are right. Not in a the-truth-lies-somewhere-in-between sort of way. Nor in a can’t-we-all-get-along sort of way. No, both sides are right in the sense that I laid out above: Ron Paul is unacceptable, and it’s unacceptable that we don’t have someone on the left who is raising the issues of imperialism, war and peace, and civil liberties in as visible and forceful a way.
Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. He blogs at coreyrobin.com, where this post originally appeared.