19 June 2013
Rand Paul’s route to victory and the transformation of the Republican Party
Part 1 of 2 | Part 2
This is disturbing:
President Rand Paul: Watch out, he’s becoming a better politician every day
If Rand Paul were able to assemble an unlikely coalition of reactionaries and discontented youth, he would be in a position to win the presidency in 2016, fundamentally transform electoral politics in the United States, and bring down the corporate-state elite. There’s a lot of assumptions in that scenario, but it’s hard to imagine a bigger disaster for the country or the world if those assumptions prove well-founded.
The 2012 election confirmed that the United States has a progressive majority, and that both parties are to the right of it. Obama did very little to bring these people to the polls—he would have won a much larger victory and would have had a much friendlier House if he had run a real progressive-populist campaign.
Polling shows a large progressive majority on economic issues. Support for gay rights is slightly lower than the two-thirds to three-fourth that shows up on many economic questions, but what’s significant is the trajectory: it’s just mopping up operations of the antigay forces now. Marijuana looks to be following a similar course. Large majorities believe in global warming and think something should be done about it. &c.
Until I read the New Republic article above, I was certain that the Republicans had rendered themselves unelectable in national politics for at least a decade (except in the House of Representatives, where they have rigged the vote), precisely because they could never convincingly flank the Democrats from the left. Yet politics is not a game of reason. Voters don’t make their decisions based on a rational calculus of how closely a given candidate reflects their preferred policy positions. Far more important is whether the candidate is in line with the voters in terms of a broad system of values, if the candidate can spell out a compelling vision for the future, and—especially in moments of crisis—whether the candidate is demonizing the people who voters blame for their problems. This is why it’s crucial to understand that the silent majority is not simply progressive but—more important—it’s populist.
Poll after poll has shown that most Americans are deeply disturbed by the skyrocketing inequality of the neoliberal period. Moreover, when they are exposed to the facts around rising inequality (facts rarely introduced into political debate or media coverage), their opposition to it redoubles. But this important research indicates one key reason why it has proven so difficult to translate that consensus into political action: the more people know about inequality, the more they distrust the only agency capable of doing something about it—the state.
During neoliberalism’s heroic period, confidence in the state was shattered by the belief that interference in the “natural” operations of the market was both inefficient and tantamount to theft. The attack on the government was driven by a revolutionary zeal to purify the new society of the decomposing remnants of Fordist life. But over the last decade, the sources of anti-government feeling have shifted. Neoliberalism fell far short of the precapitalist market utopia of libertarian imagination or the paradise of personal freedom championed by the left and right alike. Instead, it has revealed itself as merely another form of capitalism, in which the alienated force of capital is expressed through the power of big corporations and their servants in the state, while personal “freedom” is manufactured in line with the needs of marketing departments. Today people have no faith in the state not because it obstructs the advance of neoliberalism, but because it is identified as an integral part of neoliberalism.
Increasingly both sides of the political spectrum have traced their woes to the corporate-state elite, as seen clearly in both the popular elements of the Tea Party and in Occupy. Yet the establishment within both parties, as an intrinsic part of that corporate-state elite, has shrunk from rallying this volatile public feeling. The Tea Party phenomenon was an only partial, but very instructive, exception. Although the Tea Party’s policy program was roundly unpopular (registering support only among one-fifth to one-fourth of the population), it managed to make an outsized impact on national politics. In part, as the polemics from the left always emphasize, this is because moneyed interests in the Republican Party found it convenient to exploit the grassroots movement. But this is hardly the whole story. The Tea Party was the first organized expression of the universal popular animus against the corporate-state elite, and it was this as much as the increasingly ineffectual money in politics that vaulted it to national prominence.
To mobilize this omnipresent latent populist anger, a presidential candidate would have to either be a progressive (in line with the popular majority), or a reactionary who can plausibly present his or her campaign as transcending the parochial social conservatism of the main Tea Party constituency. The first candidate who achieves that will become the most powerful leader in the United States in decades, capable of fundamentally reshaping the political landscape and unleashing the massive pressure for change in whatever direction he or she chooses.
This potential, opened up by the crisis of neoliberalism, is what makes Rand Paul different from other Republican presidential candidates. Some of them, like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, are superficially similar to Paul in their attempts to cultivate electoral constituencies outside the dying evangelical white base of the party. But these appeals are fundamentally hollow because they offer nothing but trite gestures toward inclusion. When the social system can no longer sustain itself, social relations must be revolutionized. The other Republicans offer pandering in form with no new content; only Rand Paul offers the possibility of a fundamentally new politics in both form and content.
Consider this scenario: Paul establishes himself as a legitimate candidate in the primary race by emphasizing his populist bona fides and by winning large donations from libertarian-minded billionaires like the Koch brothers. The social conservatives that populate the base of the Republican Party are nervous about some of Paul’s positions (decriminalizing drugs and tolerance of immigrants come to mind), but his opposition to abortion rights and his church-going background soothe them, while the prospect of retaking the White House encourages them to tolerate his heterodoxy. The other side of the Republican base, the anti-tax, anti-deficit zealots (and there is considerable overlap here with the social conservatives) throw themselves into the Paul campaign. Meanwhile, his genuinely novel positions, like decriminalizing drugs and a robust critique of militarism, start to generate enthusiasm among the disaffected youth who have stayed away from politics for decades—enthusiasm that rises in direct proportion to the mounting attacks from the conventional politicians of both parties. As Paul’s momentum builds, the establishment politicians and corporate funders of the Republican Party convince themselves that he is their ticket back to power, and that once he holds the presidency they’ll be able to manipulate him into pursuing their agenda. The Paul campaign encourages this conclusion with discreet missions to the major funders.
With money, conservative activists, and energized independents behind him, Paul rides this strange coalition to victory in the primaries. Now imagine that the Democrats have been fighting their own battle with populism in the primaries. A progressive insurgent like Elizabeth Warren has made a spirited run against the neoliberal establishment led by, say, Hillary Rodham Clinton. For whatever combination of reasons, Clinton vanquishes Warren and the progressive base goes into the election deeply demoralized.
In the general election Paul (with ample justification) savages Clinton as the candidate of the internationalist corporate-state elite and presents himself as the champion of small business, individual rights, and American values. Paul—calling attention to the appalling series of banking scandals that the Obama administration refused to prosecute—demands that the big banks be broken up; Clinton equivocates. Paul, pushing to end the American role as policeman of the world, points to some foreign crisis or other, say the killing of a dozen American soldiers stationed in Syria; Clinton finds it difficult to distance herself from her own support for intervention. Paul vilifies China’s “stealing” of “American” jobs and global capital’s pronounced lack of loyalty to America; Clinton sputters something about free trade being a win-win policy, which no one believes after eight years of stagnation in the global economy.
Of course, any number of trivial missteps or strategic errors could prevent Paul from making it to this point. Certainly if the Democrats chose a populist of their own they would have the clear advantage. And given how fragile the global economy already is, it’s by no means a safe bet to assume that things will basically continue for the next three years as they have the last three. But if Paul did make it to this point, he would win the election. And that’s when the real danger would present itself.
Part 2: Rand Paul could redefine American politics, straight into disaster