Sunday, January 1, 2012

Glenn Greenwald on Ron Paul: Why Worldview Matters

I recently sent a tweet to Glenn Greenwald expressing my hope he'd write something on Ron Paul. Coincidentally, he did. I don't think for a moment it had anything to do with me, but I mention it because the reason I specifically hoped Greenwald would write on the topic is because I think he ably - perhaps most ably - expresses a view of Paul popular among many members of the Left (and many supporters of OWS). I disagree with that view, but progressives' support for Ron Paul is clearly highlighting a significant rift on the Left.

It's important to note at the outset that Greenwald neither endorses Ron Paul nor excuses the infamous racist newsletters. Greenwald nonetheless presents Paul's candidacy as a net positive and he gets there by changing the terms of the debate: Instead of asking whether Paul should be President, Greenwald asks whether Paul's presence in the Presidential race is beneficial. By changing the question, Greenwald is able to spill a fair amount of ink praising Paul and lambasting Paul's critics, without actually endorsing or apologizing for Paul.

Thus, even though Greenwald doesn't answer the question of whether Paul should be President, he provides plenty of reasons one might support Paul's Presidential bid. And when one looks at this portion of the argument, I think Greenwald's approach is ultimately flawed. Specifically, Greenwald's argument assumes that all that matters is a candidate's positions on isolated issues - as if it's just a matter of creating a ranked pro and con list for each candidate and crunching the numbers. Thus, Greenwald sharply criticizes Obama supporters* who disqualify Paul based on Paul's strong anti-choice stance or the racist newsletters, reasoning that if Paul has taken deal-breaking positions, certainly Obama has as well:
The thing I loathe most about election season is reflected in the central fallacy that drives progressive discussion the minute "Ron Paul" is mentioned. As soon as his candidacy is discussed, progressives will reflexively point to a slew of positions he holds that are anathema to liberalism and odious in their own right and then say: how can you support someone who holds this awful, destructive position? The premise here - the game that's being played - is that if you can identify some heinous views that a certain candidate holds, then it means they are beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising any part of their candidacy.

The fallacy in this reasoning is glaring. The candidate supported by progressives - President Obama - himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested.
To drive home this point, Greenwald summarizes a hypothetical position that could be logically taken by someone who supports Obama over Paul:
It's perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else. An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:
Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.
This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about - Greenwald suggests choosing between the candidates is just a matter of prioritizing a limited list of isolated issues. However, it's not just a candidate's positions on individual issues that are important**; what's also important (in most instances more important) is the candidate's worldview. A President's worldview will determine the outcome of thousands of decisions the President will make, almost all of which will not be campaign issues and many of which are unforeseeable.

Thus, it matters to me that Ron Paul doesn't believe in evolution, not because I think teaching evolution in schools should be prioritized above the lives of Muslim children, but because it's proof that Paul rejects science, evidence and rationality, which tells us a good deal about how Paul could be expected to approach the thousands of decisions he would have to make as President. Similarly, it matters to me that Ron Paul is anti-choice and claims to be a libertarian, as it suggests to me his defense of freedom is disingenuous and that his positions are likely motivated by a defense of hierarchy and patriarchy. And as Mike Konczal has pointed out, the racist newsletters echo an ideology that consciously scapegoats the poor, immigrants and the young:
But I want to abstract away from both Ron Paul and the ugly tone and language in the newsletters. What was their political strategy? As Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez dug up, there was a very clear path. According to Rothbard in 1992, they could gather disaffected working and middle class people by exposing an "unholy alliance of 'corporate liberal' Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America."

Take white middle-class people and explain to them how the safety net is ok for them because they are part of the virtuous hardworking backbone of the country, but it's a dangerous creation because elite liberals will use it to create a mass, dangerous Other that don't deserve to be part of it.

20 years later, what forms the core of the Tea Party movement? According to the latest research on the Tea Party from Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, here's what is "identified as Tea Partiers' most fundamental concern: their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young."
This is a worldview that promotes letting people without health care die, that heartily cheers execution and that applauds a heartless, every-man-for-himself society. This is a worldview that suggests a host of tough-love policies, almost all of which won't be issues in the Presidential race and many of which are unforeseeable.

These examples could be multiplied, but I believe I've sufficiently illustrated the point, which is this: Choosing between two candidates is not just a matter of comparing isolated issues. At least as significant is a candidate's worldview because that worldview will determine how that candidate responds to every issue presented to him. And this is a significantly more complicated analysis than the pro-and-con-list approach suggested by Greenwald.

* I neither support Obama nor justify his actions as President.
** I do, however, think it is legitimate to disqualify candidates based on certain positions and, in my opinion, both Paul and Obama are disqualified; however, this is a separate issue that is beyond the scope of this essay. Update: Nathan Fuller replies to my essay here. I will respond to Nathan at some point, but am currently preparing for trial.


  1. Neatly and clearly reasoned. As you imply when you disqualify both Paul and Obama, you've pretty much shrugged off the electoral system itself as a useful vehicle for true democracy. Like having a choice between Pepsi and Coke when you long for just unpolluted water.

  2. its hard to read this blog because of the orange coloring that a quarter of the words are covered by.

  3. You acknowledge in the beginning of your article that "Instead of asking whether Paul should be President, Greenwald asks whether Paul's presence in the Presidential race is beneficial." This is a correct analysis. Why then do you spend the rest of your article talking about why Paul would not make a good president? I'm confused as to how you were able to correctly identify the premise of Greenwald's argument and yet not once address it in your rebuttle. Do you not think it is beneficial to have Ron Paul run against Obama, given that he is the ONLY candidate who would challenge Obama on issues of war and imperialism? Would you rather see one of the other talking-head GOP nominees up there, who bring nothing of value to the table? I understand why you do not want Ron Paul to be president, and so does Greenwald. I agree that if we are talking about endorsing Ron Paul in the GENERAL ELECTION, then all of your points are valid and it is a whole different ball game. But in terms of wanting to see Ron Paul win the GOP NOMINATION, it's about how he would shape the debate leading up to the general election. Now, of course, if he wins the GOP nomination, we have to consider the scary possibility of him actually winning the general election, so from that perspective, I could see not wanting to let him get that far in the first place. But I guess, myself, I am confident enough that he would have no chance at winning the general election that I do believe it is safe to support him in the GOP primary for the benefit he would bring to the overall political discourse. I'm open to hear your argument as far as that is concerned, but don't confuse support for Paul to win the GOP with support for Paul as president. It's bizarre, I know, but we are living in bizarre times.

  4. Well, I had to make the framework of Greenwald's arguments clear, but within that framework, Greenwald made a number of points that can be used in support of RP's Presidential bid. I wanted to address those points and specifically wanted to address why I think overall ideology matters.

    As for whether RP's presence is a good thing b/c it will force Ds to confront their shameful positions on things like indefinite detention, it's a different analysis. He is here so, whether that's good or bad just isn't that interesting. There's no decision to be made on that. But I acknowledge that many can support Paul to win GOP and not want Paul to be Pres. and I think I was careful not to confuse that and to acknowledge it.

  5. fort lauderdale1/05/2012 05:47:00 PM

    What I wonder is what does worldview matter if your policies achieve poor results?

    Perhaps Obama does not promote letting people without health care die, or cheering executions or applauding a heartless, every-man-for-himself society. But his policies help sustain a culture in which it is very easy to do those things.

    Obama kills Osama bin Laden and claims the right to kill Americans anywhere they may be at his discretion. That may not be cheering executions -- but he certainly approves of them.

    Obama bails out Wall Street and addresses deficit reduction before job creation while failing to prosecute bankers for fraudulent practices. That may not be applauding the law of the jungle, but shows he's not overly troubled about gross levels of inequality that benefit the economically strong over the weak.

    And Obama champions a diluted, grossly ineffective health care bill that was a giveaway to special interests and was willing to support large cuts in entitlement programs without insisting on anything in return, such as tax hikes on the wealthy. So maybe he doesn't want people who don't have health care to die, but he isn't working that hard to get them the health care they need, either.

    In fact, given his actions, it's fair to ask: what IS Obama's worldview? Because the evidence points to someone who is not all that much concerned with privacy, the poor or personal and economic freedom for anyone who isn't a substantial campaign donor, but who is very concerned with government secrecy, projecting force abroad and expanding both the imperialist presidency and two-tiered justice system at home.

    I agree that the worldview you attribute to Ron Paul is abhorrent and inhumane. I'm just not convinced Obama's -- and the Democratic establishment overall -- is so much better.

  6. I find this retort to Greenwald a bit mystifying. You indicate that both the sitting president and Ron Paul take positions which in your view disqualify them from being President.

    I also find several of their respective views/actions to be odious. Yet neither of their worldviews, in my opinion, are more odious than the views of every other GOP candidate.

    The fact is that Americans who are engaged enough to vote have a decision to make. If their choices are to have any efficacy, they must choose from amongst the candidates running for President.

    My analysis (from a Chomskyite position) is that Paul winning the GOP nomination would be the best possible hope for liberal policy goals. Any other candidate would force Obama to the center, but since he's already in the center (at best) it would really entail moving right of center. Romney or Huntsman, faced off against Obama, might actually win. The rest of the GOP field is completely nonthreatening.

    As a liberal, despite how much fault I find with Obama's policies, I can't dispute that the sitting President is less objectionable than any of the GOP candidates. However, his candidacy pushes me towards despair because of all the wrongs I think he's done (partially listed in the "honest line of reasoning" you quote from Greenwald). His political strategy is to take the votes of the left for granted because they have no other option, trusting the disastrous spectre of Bush/Gore/Nader in 2000 to stem any third-party impulses. This frees him to govern like Lincoln Chaffee or some New England Republican.

    But if Ron Paul wound up facing off against Obama, it could result in a different dynamic than a race to the middle. Paul, who seems quite stubborn, would likely hammer Obama on just the issues (nonsensical drug war; invading/bombing everywhere like we own the world; being too buddy-buddy with Wall Street; the expanding national security state and concomitant loss of civil liberties) that I myself take issue with. Paul would still lose, but his candidacy might force the discussion of issues that actually matter to me and pressure Obama to not be such a jerk about them.

    Realistically, I can't envision a better scenario, given the current field of candidates. Can you? Or is Nathan Fuller correct that you're just not going to vote? (and if so, then I just wasted my time with this post because people who don't vote are by definition useless).

  7. Josef, while I agree with your comments, your conclusion is, to me, off the mark.

    First, people who vote, especially for an R or a D, are not necessarily providing a service to the electorate. Two, reading and responding to views with which you disagree is often useful to you (honing one's arguments) and to others (expanding or clarifying their views).

  8. Uhh, Ron Paul does believe in evolution:

    And Ron Paul also has said, you don't let someone die, you treat them and then deal with payment later.

  9. I am pro-choice, but I don't believe that the federal gov't should be responsible, financially or by law, to promote or oppose abortion. People in cities and states should make laws that govern that city or state. And if the voters are misinformed or unhappy about that state's policy then it is the fault of the voter. I am no expert on the Roe v. Wade details, but it would make sense to me to have a federal law that can make this service available, but not endorse it with taxpayer money. The bottom line in my opinion is that we are living unsustainably and federal spending on all levels needs to be reevaluated. Abortion or religion or whether or not somebody is going to be left on the corner to die without healthcare are not the most important topics right not. The devaluing of our currency is. Nothing will be available for anybody if our currency can't pay for it. We are so lost in our emotions and that is exactly where the financial and political elite want us to be...because every minute of every argument we are still supporting them and their agenda. And at the same time breeding hate and anger and frustration amongst ourselves.

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