Weaponized Libertarianism: Pragmatists, Dogmatists and the Inevitable Fracture within the Ron Paul Movement
The American libertarian movement, “the liberty movement,” has fractured. After Sen. Rand Paul’s endorsement of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, a new fault line was drawn.
What was once considered one movement has, in a sense, become two. One movement is pragmatic, seeking political effectiveness. The other is dogmatic, seeking ideological purity. The pragmatic part sees no point in having an ideology if you can’t advance it in real world terms. For the pragmatists, success is defined by how much American politics becomes more libertarian. For dogmatists, success is defined by how pure one’s libertarianism is.
The pragmatists have embraced, some immediately, some more uncomfortably, the political tactics of Ron Paul’s son, maybe even taking a few notes from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals: They will operate in the world as it is, not the world as they wish it was.
Pragmatists aren’t the type to parade through the front door of a GOP meeting wearing top hats, fishnet clothing or “9/11 Was An Inside Job” tee shirts (most of them aren’t conspiracy theorists anyway). They aren’t going to scream at little old ladies who voted for John McCain in 2008. They realize that condemning other Republicans wholesale as ‘neocons!’ and ‘statists!’ won’t do any good. They realize that yelling won’t win them any new supporters.
The pragmatists are mostly young, energetic, and dedicated. They are willing to work within the GOP and hold open discourse with inner-party opposition. During the Republican Primaries, they would spend their days and nights making voter ID phone calls, conducting research, and canvassing door-to-door.
These volunteers provided organizational muscle that the Paul campaign lacked in 2008. They learned each state’s confusing and varied delegate procedures, and with varying degrees of success, took over a dozen or so Republican state conventions this year. While they won’t have enough delegates to catalyze an upset in Tampa, they’ll still be there, working to reshape the party platform, engaging party members, networking, educating— presenting the case for libertarian ideals.
When it comes to the GOP, the ‘Ron Paul people’ will be there for a long time to come.
While few pragmatists jumped with glee when Rand Paul endorsed Mitt Romney on ‘Hannity,’ some understood it immediately. Others did not, but would later come to understand it.
Rand is working within the GOP, rather than to the side of it, as his father has sometimes done. This makes Rand harder to snipe at, and surely Rick Santorum and company would love the opportunity. Santorum and the Republicans he represents are threatened by the momentum of the Pauls’ libertarian ideas in the party, juxtaposed against the current standard of foreign intervention and theocratic jargon.
Rand will operate on a default basis that is closer to the party line on most issues, except where the party line contradicts his beliefs, as it does on many issues. Sen. Paul’s method is a change in tact for the liberty movement, but it is not a change in how he votes.
Rand’s method will certainly gain more mainstream GOP support for those unconventionally Republican votes (good examples are Sen. Mike Lee joining Rand on trying to bring the troops home from Afghanistan, or Sen. DeMint voting with Rand to defund the Iraq War). Rand explained his methods on ‘The Peter Schiff Show’ earlier this month:
“If we take our cookies and go home, we lose all the hard fought influence that we have within the party. The Romney campaign and everyone else realizes we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Rand’s endorsement predictably and understandably caused controversy within the liberty movement. It also gave the movement better footing and far more advantages heading to Tampa than we would have had otherwise.
But many made the mistake, again, not unreasonably, that Rand’s endorsement meant he was also endorsing Romney’s policies. Far from it. As Sen. Paul wrote a week after the endorsement at National Review Online:
“I do not yet know if I will find a Romney presidency more acceptable [than Obama] on foreign policy. But I do know that I must oppose the most recent statements made by Mitt Romney in which he says he, as president, could take us to war unilaterally with Iran, without any approval from Congress.”
Regardless of this clear bold stance against Romney’s comments, this will never be good enough for the dogmatists. Blanket condemnations and vitriol flooded Sen. Paul’s Facebook page: “Traitor!” “Judas!” “You are not your father!” For many in the movement—no matter the advantages, results, or potential successes for libertarianism that might come with the endorsement—Rand was no longer pure.
In the two weeks since the endorsement alone, Sen. Paul introduced or supported legislation legalizing hemp, eliminating farm subsidies, getting rid of foreign aid, and protecting citizens from TSA abuse. These examples are but the latest in two-year long voting record that many have rightly said is the most libertarian scorecard in the history of the U.S. Senate.
But for the dogmatists, this doesn’t matter. Rand Paul could become president, abolish the Federal Reserve, eliminate the PATRIOT Act, and bring every last troop home—but it wouldn’t matter: Rand Paul endorsed Mitt Romney.
For dogmatists, making libertarian ideas practical policy does not matter. Being 100% pure in one’s philosophy is what matters.
The dogmatists are a varied bunch. Some are self-professed anarchists. Some dedicate themselves to the kind of ‘let’s get arrested’ activism that always ends up the same way—arrest. Hopefully they aren’t wearing Ron Paul shirts when the cuffs come out. Unfortunately, they often are.
Some are Alex Jones acolytes, conspiracy theorists who think ‘Rand has gone to the darkside’. Whenever someone says ‘Ron Paul Supporters are crazy,’ it’s likely they had a run in with one of these more vocal dogmatists.
Dogmatists are not only impeding the progress of the pragmatists, but even their own progress. Their actions hardly ever inspire, but almost always alienate. The neoconservatives believe if we would only fight one more war, we could install democracy abroad. The dogmatists within the liberty movement believe if we just have one more parking lot protest, a libertarian society will become a reality.
There has always been a cognitive dissonance amongst some ‘liberty activists’— many dogmatists want to embrace Ron Paul, and yet cringe at the slightest mention of politics. The more anarchistic of them won’t vote at all, even for Paul, because “voting is aggression.” And yet frequently, many still seek to associate their brand of activism with the Paul name; not conducive to political victory, and not conducive to whatever kind of gains they are seeking. These dogmatists seem to miss the fact that, the elder Paul, while appearing to be the Sir Galahad of politics, is still himself a politician.
And Ron Paul—principled to the core—has always done the political things necessary to remain a member in good standing of the Republican Party, with only one exception.
After massively failing to secure the Presidency in 1988 as a Libertarian Party candidate, Ron returned to the two-party system. He’s been a Republican congressman since 1997. When it is all said and done he will have been a congressman for over 20 years. In the past, he’s endorsed Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who many would crown as ‘enemy of the internet’ for his introduction of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). The elder Paul has done plenty of politicking and maneuvering himself, without compromising his voting record.
This is where both father and son have remained solid, and for those seeking effective, measurable change in the real world—their political example is what matters most. While Rand markets himself as the more conservative of the duo, he continues to take the same stands as his father:
As Sen. Paul explained in his NRO piece:
“I have always done what I believe and I have never been blinded by party. In my time in the United States Senate, I have opposed the USA Patriot Act, voted against the NDAA over indefinite detention, fought to end mandatory minimum drug sentences, and voted against my party’s official budget because it didn’t cut enough spending.”
But this isn’t enough for the dogmatists. For many of them, it will never be enough. The loudest dogmatists continue to broadcast that message.
Adam Kokesh might be one of the most prominent voices in the libertarian dogmatist movement— increasingly, he clashes with the pragmatists. His behavior is a case study in where the dogmatists go wrong. I have some authority to speak on Adam Kokesh; I worked for him as a television writer during his stint at Russia Today in 2011. While that experience warrants another piece entirely (I certainly did not know what I was getting into at the time), what I can say from my experience is simple: Adam Kokesh is an anarchist at heart. He is not a political libertarian, nor is he a conservative of any stripe. He isn’t interested in working within the system anymore, as evidenced by his continual attacks on Paul campaign operatives.
Like other dogmatists, he’s quick to dole out the “statist!” venom, alienating those who could advance political libertarianism. Kokesh has more recently declared that ‘The liberty movement can’t be co-opted!’ as if to insinuate political operatives who hold libertarian ideals have suddenly ceased holding those ideals. Most recently, he took a shot at Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger, Jack Hunter, declaring that he was officially ‘kicking [Jack] out of my movement’. Sorry Adam, it’s not your movement.
The Kokesh of 2012 is not the Kokesh of 2010 though. In 2010, Kokesh put on a suit, worked to attract Tea Party Support, and tried to garner conservative Republican support for a congressional bid—in other words, Kokesh tried to be pragmatic. He even got the blessing of Paul’s campaign manager Jesse Benton, who he now attacks frequently. Kokesh has pulled a complete 180, throwing condemnations at political operatives for the same kind of pragmatism. At base, it’s the same kind of pragmatism Ron has used throughout his political career.
It wasn’t Benton, or Ron or Rand who’ve given up on pragmatism or “working within the Republican Party” as Dr. Paul puts it. It was Kokesh.
If Kokesh had won his congressional district, does anyone think he wouldn’t be joining Justin Amash on key votes, campaigning for Thomas Massie and trying to garner as much Republican support for libertarian ideas as possible? Or do you think, as a U.S. Congresman, he would be trying to attack Amash, Rand and any other liberty figure for not seeing things his way 100%?
If you think he would be behaving like he is today, he wouldn’t be a congressman for very long, and thus, once again, proving the dogmatists’ futility in accomplishing anything substantive in American politics. A blunt-force approach won’t bring much change when it’s finesse that’s needed.
Activists of all stripes are entitled to do or say whatever they like. But when actions and rhetoric become counterproductive, it’s a problem. Many in the liberty movement see this clearly. Many, unfortunately, do not, and are completely content with doing more harm than good. Still, they’re “pure.”
Where is that supposed purity advancing libertarianism?
Rand Paul’s endorsement of Mitt Romney isn’t going to inspire many to do back flips of joy. But it has helped his standing with the party. The aging evangelical arm of the GOP, with Rick Santorum carrying their banner, would surely love to vilify Rand Paul as a party divider—as they have tried to do with dad. Rand is making it more difficult for neoconservative or establishment opponents to marginalize the liberty movement. Dogmatists only the see the battle happening in their own minds. Rand is taking the battle to his enemies, on their own turf.
The machinations of Capitol Hill are a chess game. Left unchecked, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama clones will occupy every seat. Advocates of small government and libertarianism will need solid men who know how to play chess well. The legislative chess game is not Star Wars and Rand Paul is not at risk of ‘Falling to the Darkside’ for being an effective Republican.
Instead, Rand Paul appears to be doing what this movement needs most: Weaponizing Libertarianism. Libertarian ideas have been around for a long time. Thanks to Ron Paul, they have more support amongst the public than ever before. But who is going to lead? Who is going to take these ideas into the mainstream?
Theory alone cannot do this. A weaponized libertarianism can do this. It is doing this.
Dogmatists who would throw practical strategy under the bus are shortsighted, politically inept, and demonstrate their poor grasp of the battlefield before them. They are doomed to repeat the same mistakes as they have in decades before due to their inability to cope with real world political realities. Having some of them—with their abrasive and counterproductive behavior—gone from the liberty equation will only lend to a more politically viable movement moving forward.
Advocates of effective libertarianism already understand that other than Ron Paul, Rand Paul is the important voice in the liberty movement’s arsenal. Those who don’t understand, or can’t understand, probably never will. And as the Chinese proverb goes, “Those that say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it.”