Thursday, February 23, 2012

Imagining Post-Ron Paul Coalition-(Re)Building (and bar events!)

Ah, the 23rd.  And that number reminds me of a few odd, prophetic minutes from long-ago early January.

GOP Divisions

For a short, bizarre time on the night of the Iowa caucus, you may recall that it was an even split – 23% each – for moderate Romney, Catholic cultural-conservative Santorum, and libertarian Ron Paul, which says a great deal about the composition of the Republican Party and the right in general.  Someone who was truly able to appeal to all three of those constituencies at the same time would have had the vote sewn up with Reaganesque coalition-building finesse.  Instead, each seems to alienate the other factions.

And so, perhaps, we will continue to economically stagnate under an immense, corrupt government.  And the electorate will continue to choose, reluctantly, between embracing welfare or warfare, probably based largely on their own least-rational psychological proclivities (unthinking compassion and unthinking belligerence).  We almost have a route out of the madness, in the form of Ron Paul – but then, he has no one but himself to blame for striking some people as even weirder than the status quo.  If he’d avoided the more insulting anti-imperialist rhetoric and had not tolerated even a bit of race rhetoric decades ago, well...things might look very different right now (not that I’m giving up, given the current campaign chaos).

But let’s assume for a moment that it’ll still end up being Romney and try looking for a silver lining.

Sympathy for Satan (by which I mean Romney)

It’s a bit unfortunate to have the headlines “Seinfeld Actor Fires Back at Romney” and “Seinfeld Actor Shoots Himself in the Head, Calls 911” in the news on the same day.  At least the headline wasn’t “Romney Shoots Self in the Head with Seinfeld Remark.” 

On the contrary, I think every time he does something slightly goofy, it’s a reminder he’s not as robotic as people say.  Would a truly calculating man – with an odd religion – have told the world that L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is one of his favorite novels?  (Unless, as one friend of mine said, he wanted to remind us that there are religions weirder than Mormonism.)

I would think even more highly of him if he picked Ron Paul as his v.p. (as Santorum fears) – though that might increase the risk of him getting shot, much as I hate to speak ill of my nutty and lovable fellow Ron Paul fans.  It might be a wiser move for him to pick the younger and somewhat less controversial Rand Paul.  I can promise that would please the libertarians immensely. 

Even if my vote in the NY primary two months from now proves to be a futile protest vote, not to be confused with the futile protest vote for Romney that I cast (against McCain) in the NY primary of ’08, and then I cast what may well be a futile protest vote for Gary Johnson in November (still living in NY, after all), I do think that Romney, for all his mushy-liberal tendencies, is a useful nudge in a more econ-focused direction for the party and away from the Southern-religious-social-conservative stuff, which we now know can happen in Pennsylvania, too.

A restoration of something resembling the northeastern Rockefeller Republican establishment that existed just before I was born could do wonders to raise the level of right-wing discourse, if I do say so my stuck-up New England Ivy League-educated self.  But you know what I mean.  Romney may be stiff, but he’s not dumb.

Romney Still Lame

Of course, he is sort of hollow – but then, so is Obama. 

In fact, Obama is the sort of hollow corporatist the Occupiers decry, and Romney is the sort of hollow statist the Tea Partiers decry, but each side will probably still fall into line and devote most of its energy to attacking the other side’s leader.  And Obama will attempt to (quietly) rally the Occupiers to his side, without alienating moderates.  And Romney will attempt to (quietly) rally the Tea Partiers to his side, without alienating moderates.

Both are the kinds of hollow men to whose banners no idealists should rally.  Intellectuals of both sides might want to start talking – more diplomatically – about how they let this happen.  I recall being part of some fairly highbrow, civil, wonkish conversations back around 2007 about how libertarians and progressives might work together to address the inefficiency of the welfare state – and then all that died in the subsequent polarizing passions regarding Obama, and now crazy rabble in the streets have a (much more hostile) version of that important conversation.  I guess we should have started it sooner. 

As a practical matter, the most productive thing that
could come of this moment in political history would be for Obama and Romney to be nudged into competing to do something about the problem of crony corporatism, which is the mush at the heart of a sclerotic system distrusted by both Occupiers and Tea Partiers. 

Neither Obama nor Romney is in a position to play the principled reformer of that system, but activists on both sides could – in theory – work together to force a dialogue about that.  If instead, they fall into the temptation to pretend Obama is socialist and Romney is laissez-faire capitalist, they’ll just be perpetuating the usual long-standing lie that the two parties are mirror opposites instead of being blandly similar in practice

It’s more exciting to frame an election as socialism-vs.-laissez-faire – and I know where I’ll stand if it becomes a referendum on that question – but that’s the usual Punch n’ Judy pantomime, not an honest description of how little the two sides differ.

If each candidate – for ideologically-opposite reasons – were, however, pressured to vow an end to bailouts and subsidies, 2013 might actually be a good year, and we could use one. 

And if Romney won and, miracle of miracles, drastically downsized the federal government the way he might an ailing company, he might yet deserve libertarians' praise.  But not unless and until that actually happens.

Back to Square One, Philosophically

In the meantime, as I will more formally announce soon, I will encourage getting back to fundamentals and asking tough basic questions – beginning at one last Lolita Bar (266 Broome St.) talk, with anarcho-capitalist author David Friedman (son of Milton, father of Patri), hosted by me, on Monday, March 5 (9pm).  After that, we move things to Williamsburg for a bold new beginning, really. 

There, I hope we can address very radical questions – perhaps even forge new coalitions in the process – while still keeping things civil.  Picking only one formula for a coalition, after all, can be almost as limiting as picking one subculture in which to dwell.  Not that I expect to stop pushing property rights as the key to any sustainable truce (and society). 

Property yields diverse and flexible outcomes leftists and rightists alike can applaud, they always used to say back circa 1989, when I was introduced to such ideas.  How about restoring a more nuanced version of that optimism by noting ways property also addresses the loftier philosophical concerns of multiple factions – from respect for tradition to diminished violence against women to artistic liberty to vigilance against terrorism?  We can do all these things, so why celebrate our disagreements instead?  Easier to fight than to cooperate, alas.

I think proudly embracing the label “libertarian” again would help, by the way, despite a recent proliferation of near-synonyms such as “liberaltarian,” “anarcho-capitalist,” “voluntaryist,” and so on.  Where’s the pride?  After the Paul and Johnson campaigns (if neither becomes president), there should certainly be a market in building broader coalitions. 

And, yes, we can even talk about the paleo cultural concerns without embracing race hatred.  We should also be able to have a reasonable conversation with neoconservatives about military policy without simply taking either a “the more militarism the better” or “the more isolation the better” attitude.

More broadly, it may be time to renew that dialogue that was beginning to happen pre-Obama about whether progressive aims are inevitably thwarted by corporatist government – and might be better served by less government.  (And laughable as it may be that it took David Brooks until last year to realize how left-leaning Obama is, perhaps even Brooks should be treated as educable instead of as an enemy.  We want to persuade 7 billion people eventually.) 

The world needs a more mainstream-palatable version of the Ron Paul movement – urgently – and we should work together to create it soon, if Paul himself and Gary Johnson don’t do the trick.

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