Ron Paul: Not a Civil LibertarianLast week Glenn Greenwald won the Dumbest Tweet of the Week award with this beauty, about Ron Paul:
Of course, this is laughable to anyone familiar with Paul's positions on, say, abortion, or the Civil Rights Act (Dave Neiwert has a great piece on this). It's also ridiculous in the light of the vicious racism in Ron Paul's newsletters. Greenwald's response on the former was to point to his terribly-clever1 use of the weasel word "many"; the latter, he dismissed with an airy "they all have serious flaws".
Greenwald has since doubled down on his tweet, describing Paul as "the only candidate in either party now touting" the "foreign policy and civil liberties values Democrats spent the Bush years claiming to defend". All of which says much more about Greenwald's extremly narrow (Libertarian-friendly) conception of "civil liberties" than about either the President or Ron Paul.
But even on its own terms--even excluding niggling little concerns like women's autonomy or enforcing the equal protection clause or separation of church and state--Greenwald's comment is fatally wrongheaded. Paul's positions on issues like military intervention, surveillance, and the drug war may converge with the positions of civil libertarians, but they aren't really based on civil liberties as we liberals understand the term.
A lot of prog love for Ron Paul is based on his national defense policies: "Avoid long and expensive land wars that bankrupt our country....eliminat[e] waste in a trillion-dollar military budget." An anti-war stance, naturally enough, sounds pretty good to anti-war liberals. Paul opposed the Iraq War from the beginning (as, of course, did Obama); that buys him a lot of goodwill.
But the nature of his anti-war stance is fundamentally different from that of liberal opposition to any given war. The tipoff is in his opposition to foreign aid, and his anti-United Nations position: he's anti-war because the rest of the world just isn't worth it. His is not the pacifism of the anti-war movement but the nativist isolationism of the America-Firsters; Paul is "to the left of Obama" the way Lindbergh was to the left of Roosevelt. (That may be true in a fairly literal sense, although I wouldn't trust anything from Big Government without further corroboration.)
Similarly, Paul's positions on civil liberties issues aren't actually about civil liberties as we understand them; they're about his opposition to Federal authority. (An opposition that is somewhat conditional, it should be noted.) For example, in talking about the death penalty, he makes clear that he opposes it only at the Federal level. His opposition to the PATRIOT Act, the War on Drugs, and domestic surveillance come from the same root as his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. He has no real objection to states violating the rights of their citizens; it's only a problem if the Feds do it.
The assumption underlying this is that people are freer when states (as opposed to the Federal government) have more power. Now, it may seem obvious to some of us that the distinction between one arbitrary administrative unit and another isn't exactly a human rights issue, but let's just consider for a moment: does state or local control actually translate to more liberty?
Good question. Let's ask the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission; I bet they have the answer somewhere in their files.
As Corey Robin pointed out (in his response to Naomi Wolf's idiotic conspiracy theory), repression often occurs at the local level:
From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam....What history demonstrates is that police officers often use their powers, with or without federal prompting, as instruments of larger political purpose....During the McCarthy era, for example, southern politicians and law-enforcement officers used the language of anti-communism to outlaw the NAACP and to arrest and indict civil-rights leaders for sedition....[I]f all politics is local in the United States, as Tip O’Neill reminded us, it stands to reason that a good deal of the political repression is as well.In other words, as any veteran of the Civil Rights era2 could tell us, championing states' "rights" over Federal authority is emphatically not a pro-civil liberties position.
But (you might say) if the result is the same--if, whatever the twisted origins of his position, Ron Paul takes is on the side of the angels on certain narrowly framed issues--does it really matter how he gets there?
Short answer: yes. Slightly less short answer: hell yes. Longer answer: of course, because his opposition to (Federal) government overreach is inseparable from his opposition to Roe v. Wade and equal protection enforcement and environmental regulation and...well, every single goddamn thing that matters to liberals except the tiny set of narrow issues on which, in stopped-clock fashion, Paul has arrived at the right position through the wrong process.
1By which I mean "not particularly clever".
2Full disclosure: my parents worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi from 1965-67.