How to make sense of the Ron Paul revolution? What's behind the improbably successful (so far) presidential campaign of a 72-year-old 10-term Republican congressman from Texas who pines for the gold standard while drawing praise from another relic from the hyperinflationary 1970s, punk-rocker Johnny Rotten?
Now with about 5 percent (and climbing) support in polls of likely Republican voters, Paul set a one-day GOP record by raising $4.3 million on the Internet from 38,000 donors on Nov. 5 -- Guy Fawkes Day, the commemoration of a British anarchist who plotted to blow up Parliament and kill King James I in 1605. Paul's campaign, which is three-quarters of the way to its goal of raising "$12 Million to Win" by Dec. 31, didn't even organize the fundraiser -- an independent-minded supporter did.
When a fierce Republican foe of the wars on drugs and terrorism is able, without really trying, to pull in a record haul of campaign cash on a day dedicated to an attempted regicide, it's clear that a new and potentially transformative force is growing in American politics.
That force is less about Paul than about the movement that has erupted around him -- and the much larger subset of Americans who are increasingly disillusioned with the two major political parties' soft consensus on making government ever more intrusive at all levels, whether it's listening to phone calls without a warrant, imposing fines of half a million dollars for broadcast "obscenities" or jailing grandmothers for buying prescribed marijuana from legal dispensaries.
Paul, who entered Congress in 1976, has been dubbed "Dr. No" by his colleagues because of his consistent nay votes on federal spending, military intervention in Iraq and elsewhere, and virtually all expansions of federal power (he cast one of three GOP votes against the original USA Patriot Act). But his philosophy of principled libertarianism is anything but negative: It's predicated on the fundamental notion that a smaller government allows individuals the freedom to pursue happiness as they see fit.
Given such a live-and-let-live ethos, it's no surprise that at a time when people run screaming from such labels as "liberal" and "conservative," you can hardly turn around in Washington, Hollywood or even Berkeley without running into another self-described libertarian.
The lefty Internet titan Markos "Daily Kos" Moulitsas penned a widely read manifesto last year pegging the future of his party to the "Libertarian Democrat." The conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg declared this year that he's "much more of a libertarian" lately. Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, Tucker Carlson, "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone -- self-described libertarians all. Surely it's a milestone when Drew Carey, the new host of that great national treasure "The Price Is Right," becomes an outspoken advocate of open borders, same-sex marriage, free speech and repealing drug prohibition. As Michael Kinsley, an arch purveyor of conventional wisdom, wrote recently in Time magazine, such people are going to be "an increasingly powerful force in politics."
Kinsley is hardly alone in recognizing this trend. In April 2006, the Pew Research Center published a study suggesting that 9 percent of Americans -- more than enough to swing every presidential election since 1988 -- espouse a "libertarian" ideology that opposes "government regulation in both the economic and the social spheres." That is, a good chunk of your fellow citizens are fiscally conservative and socially liberal; in bumper-stickerese, they love their countrymen but distrust their government. Anyone looking to win elections -- or to make sense of contemporary U.S. politics -- would do well to understand the deep and growing reservoir that Paul is tapping into.
Though relatively unknown at the national level, Paul is hardly an unknown legislative quantity. A former Libertarian Party presidential candidate, he has at various times called for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA and several Cabinet-level agencies. A staunch opponent of abortion, he nonetheless believes that federal bans violate the more basic principle of delegating powers to the states. A proponent of a border wall with Mexico (nativist CNN host Lou Dobbs fawned over Paul earlier this year), he is the only GOP candidate to come out against any form of national I.D. card.
Such positions may not be fully consistent or equally attractive, but Paul's insistence on a constitutionally limited government has won applause from surprising quarters. Singer Barry Manilow donated the maximum $2,300 to his campaign; the hipster singer-songwriter John Mayer was videotaped yelling "Ron Paul knows the Constitution!" and 67,000 people have signed up for Paul-related Meet Up pages on the Internet. On ABC's "This Week" recently, George Will half-jokingly cautioned his fellow pundits, "Don't forget my man Ron Paul" in the New Hampshire primary. Fellow panelist Jake Tapper seconded the emotion, saying, "He really is the one true straight talker in this race."
Yet Paul's success has mostly left the mainstream media and pundits flustered, if not openly hostile. The Associated Press recently treated the Paul phenomenon like an alien life form: "The Texas libertarian's rise in the polls and in fundraising proves that a small but passionate number of Americans can be drawn to an advocate of unorthodox proposals." Republican pollster Frank Luntz has denounced Paul's supporters as "the equivalent of crabgrass . . . not the grass you want, and it spreads faster than the real stuff." And conservative syndicated columnist Mona Charen said out loud what many campaign reporters have no doubt been thinking all along: "He might make a dandy new leader for the Branch Davidians."
When conservatives feel comfortable mocking the victims gunned down by Clinton-era attorney general Janet Reno's FBI in Waco, Tex., in 1993, it suggests that a complacent and increasingly authoritarian establishment feels threatened.