19 June 2013

Rand Paul’s route to victory and the transformation of the Republican Party

A path to the triumph of American reaction
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


  1. Thanks for this analysis and somewhat gloomy prognostication. Just one question for the moment:

    "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."

    Whence this "increasingly ineffectual money in politics?" I agree that the Tea Party wasn't purely an astroturfed phenomenon, but it seems pretty extravagant to say that in a post-"Citizens United" era money is an increasingly ineffectual political force.

  2. Citizens United increased the volume of political spending, but that doesn't make the enormous sums of money spent any more effective. 2012 saw the highest spending on a presidential campaign ever (equivalent to the previous 8 elections combined), and some of the biggest corporate lobby groups, like
    Wall Street (http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanvardi/2012/11/07/with-obama-win-wall-street-is-a-big-election-loser/) and the fossil fuel industry (www.nytimes.com/2012/09/14/us/politics/fossil-fuel-industry-opens-wallet-to-defeat-obama.html), poured money into the Romney campaign. Obama showed that you can go up against the most powerful corporate lobby groups and win with populism. Of course his populism was all a sham, but it worked.

    Someday a presidential candidate will look at this and decide to do something to actually earn the animosity of the corporate lobbies. I would like it to be someone like Warren. But it could also be someone like Paul.

  3. Exactly what I had in mind. Up to a certain point, more money was more effective at manipulating voters. But now there's just so much of it, and as the campaign season is extended ever further, people see campaign ads non-stop and just tune them out.

    That's one side of it, the other side is that, in line with the analysis here, people are increasingly resistant to the finely crafted, fundamentally empty political rhetoric that money pays for. Not because they have a sophisticated understanding of policy or campaigns, but precisely because it's this sort of thing that's identified with establishment politicians.

    The fact is, candidates like Paul or Warren would have lost the money primary in 2000 or 2004 and would never have made it to the general election. Today it's not hard to imagine one or both competing in 2016 November.

  4. I take the point about the ads and whatnot, but of course it's not just about the ads. I'm more concerned about what happens after the election, which is why I haven't yet jumped on the Warren Wagon. Just to remind folks, we also heard all kinds of impressive posturing and high-minded progressive stuff from Barack in 2007-08, and a little of it in 2012, but what a candidate says will always be radically different from what the elected individual actually does unless there is sufficient mass pressure from below to prevent it and push him or her leftward, at least in the U.S. political system. I would argue that working towards the conditions for such pressure is just as important as making sure an acceptable millionaire or billionaire gets into presidential office.

  5. Campaign spending also does not determine what happens after an election. Why is Obama not governing as a progressive? It has everything to do with his commitment to neoliberalism, and very little to do with who funds his campaigns (as his behavior after the 2012 election shows).

    And his commitment to neoliberalism is long-standing. Obama was never going to be a progressive. Many people optimistically hoped otherwise (I was one of them), but there were people who knew better already in 2007, and it is clear in retrospect to anyone who looks back on his record and writings.

    So the question about Warren would be, does she (unlike Obama, now or then) actually think outside the neoliberal box? I think yes, though this is obviously something we could argue about.

  6. That being said, I agree with that it's "just as important" to build an independent grassroots movement. And I don't see an either/or dilemma here. Whatever we think of electoral politics, our task is to build a big progressive movement, and to pull it leftward by building the left wing of the movement. If we do that right, someone like Warren will be more likely to run whether she's in our plans or not; and if Warren runs, then that will energize progressives, and there will be a big progressive electoral bandwagon, whether we like it or not.

  7. I take it as axiomatic that establishing the conditions for a mass movement is far more important than electoral efforts, if we phrase the choice as either/or. But what if engaging in electoral politics is a precondition for creating a progressive mass movement? Or (something I will treat in Part 2 of this post) an urgent requirement to prevent the mass movement that comes to define the crisis of neoliberalism from being fundamentally reactionary in nature?

    Secondarily, I think there's a sharp difference between the way Obama ran for the presidency and the way that Warren is doing so (if that's what she's doing). I don't really think it's true that we "heard all kinds of impressive posturing and high-minded progressive stuff from Barack in 2007-08". In fact Obama quite self-consciously avoided taking any real progressive positions (this was my take in 2007 May and by election night I was even more certain).

    Where Obama's entire campaign in 2007-2008 was an exercise in image manipulation with almost no policy substance, Warren has already staked out a wide variety of very concrete progressive policies. Again, in contrast to Obama's bland optimism of hope, Warren speaks in a populist register that identifies enemies and demands fundamental change.

    None of this means that we should blindly throw our support behind Warren like so many progressives did with Obama. Politicians are not our friends; no matter how good they sound, they should always be treated instrumentally. That means we have to have a movement to get anything done in DC. What I'm arguing is that I don't see a path to that movement that doesn't in part run through a reconstituted Democratic Party that can think beyond neoliberalism.

  8. Great post. A Rand Paul presidency is a truly horrifying thought, and unless the left can give expression the progressive impulses of the silent majority in a coherent platform backed up by a well-organized, grass-roots coalition, it's a real possibility. I agree that it's necessary to reject the either/or between mass movements and electoral politics. I think one way to overcome this false dichotomy is to focus on developing a straightforward platform that a mass movement can be built around and a rhetoric through which it can be convincingly articulated. A mass movement can very effectively engage in electoral politics if it insists resolutely and articulately on policies and legislation rather than putting its faith in individual politicians. Everyone on the American left - from the most 'radical' tendencies to mainstream Democratic Party progressives - should be working together to develop such a platform right now.

  9. Yeah, I didn't mean to give the impression that I'm thinking in either/or terms about this. I just think we should watch out for and anticipate the tendency - especially strong in U.S. politics - for the great mass of the progressive electoral base to project all of its hopes upon the single elected official, which happened in 2008 and led to the ultimate disintegration of the true grassroots part of the movement. Notably, and however disingenuous it might have been, Obama himself told people in Grant Park during his acceptance speech that they had to stay mobilized and stay organized in order to actually accomplish stuff, and it still disintegrated promptly. I suppose this is part of the perils of populist politics. Anyway, I take the project of building a movement that anticipates that tendency and counters it effectively to be a part of what we're trying to do here.

  10. This is a great debate. Here's my ideas:

    Populism appears in mass democracies when the ruling consensus breaks down. What's broken is the governing logic underpinning the two-party system. If you disagree with it, then the "danger of populism" is a synonym of political opportunity. The question is who will motivate the people, how, and to what ends?

    We should recall that libertarianism emerged in the Sixties as a trading zone between Right and Left. Long before neoliberalism took form, Sixties radicals critiqued both parties for their complicity in the military abuses, big-business bias and social engineering of the American state. Leftist historians like Kolko, Weinstein and Applebaum worked out an analysis of "corporate liberalism," which they traced back to the monopoly capitalism of the WWI era. Murray Rothbard, a temporary fellow-traveler of the New Left, coined the term "welfare-warfare state." Pot-smoking longhairs read Ayn Rand. Karl Hess went from speechwriter for Barry Goldwater, to SDS, to tax resistance and local control. At that time libertarianism was an open-ended cultural mood, at odds with all establishment norms. Neoliberalism emerged from this pre-political cauldron in which populist elements - anti-militarism, anti-corporatism, anti-statism, tax resistance, feminism, sexual liberation, frontier-style individualism and anti-moralist hedonism - became both objects of philosophical investigation and building blocks for experimental communities and enterprises.

    Reagan became the prototypical neoliberal, turning rhetorically against big government not because of any anti-statist convictions but because he recognized the popularity of a California tax-cutting bill, Proposition 13. Reagan adopted monetarism and put Alan Greenspan, a Friedmanite and Randian, in control of the Fed, while practicing a military neoliberalism that justified foreign intervention in the name of democracy. Clinton abandoned Democratic politics after his first midterm elections. He embodied the culturally left-leaning libertarianism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and made the neoliberal consensus bipartisan - before extending it to the world in the form of the Washington Consensus. G.W. Bush finally broke the system down, first at the global level, then domestically with the financial crisis. Obama still attempts to toe the Clintonian line, but many of us can accept neither his military policy nor his financial bailouts. Obama is doing for the Democrats what Bush did for the Republicans - as you can see by his plunge in the polls after the NSA revelations.

    The point of this is that the form and content of Rand Paul's politics is not new. It comes from the radical populism of the Sixties that both the Republicans and the Democrats had to absorb and discipline in order to govern. The Pauls never accepted the straightjacket, so they can now appeal to all those who are abandoning the consensus. Of course they do not have real answers to the current US and global predicament. But they do have a head start on their oppositional stance, and if they remain unopposed, they could do a lot of damage. That's the danger, for sure.

    The opportunity is to invent a politics that is genuinely new in both form and content. It must address the falling middle classes as well as the historically oppressed, impoverished and disenfranchised sectors, as the reformers of the Thirties did. Yet it can't simply be a "New New Deal" - because the really existing New Deal/Cold War institutions are what libertarianism so successfully critiqued.

    In this perspective, the choice between "movement or politics" is too simple. It leaves out a crucial third term. What's needed - and what intellectuals are uniquely capable of providing - is a set of ethical, economic, aesthetic and philosophical discourses that can give progressive shape to the anxieties and desires of the people. The challenge of populism is creating the building blocks of a new governing consensus.

  11. The challenge is that this new variant of populism works to constitute subjects, presumptively, against government. Where previously we saw an American people that could be constituted against corporations with the government as a seat for potential capture in a resource war, now the idea of "the people" is articulated (and perhaps articulated more or less intrinsically) against the government itself. This idea of "the people" as existing unencumbered of regulation from above tends (especially since the late 50s/early 60s conservative redefinition of "the people" as besieged by amorphous "power" flowing more from government than business) to build presumption in for the idea of "the people" rather than the particular policies advocated or defended. Hence the ease with which the bailouts were conflated with say, the stimulus, in the public economy of anger and disfavor, and the resulting incapacity of public discourse to delineate between private sector and government elites.

  12. Well, there's a book you might be interested in, called It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. It measures the current ideological gulf separating the two parties, and explores what they call the "hostage-taking politics" of Tea Party-style Republicans, with particular focus on the debt-ceiling standoffs and the kind of fillibustering practiced by Rand Paul. The authors trace these dramatically acccusatory tactics back to the media-courting profile of Newt Gingrich. The result, in their view, is a "throw the bums out" mentality among voters at large, which has made Washington almost completely dysfunctional. It's a Beltway book, and it studiously avoids any idea that the popular embrace of libertarian extremism might signal an ideological deficit in the (mostly Democratic) mainstream. What I find most interesting is the last chapter, which suggest the ways that public figures, intellectuals and citizens could act to change this situation. They want a return to a kind of reasonable and functional public debate. I think Left intellectuals need to contribute to that, energetically, by identifying the real problems with the neoliberal status quo and by spreading our critiques and alternative proposals among both universities and social movements. Today, what you hear from a lot of left-leaning voters is that "Ron and Rand are the only ones who say what I think." We need to bring a very different radicalism into the public sphere.

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