Brave Thinkers November 2010

The Tea Party’s Brain

One way to measure the surprising rightward political lurch of the past two years and rise of the Tea Party is to chart the relative position of Ron Paul, who has never flinched from his beliefs. He’s not alone anymore.
Sarah Wilson

Ron Paul led the annual Fourth of July parade through Friendswood, Texas, from the back of a gleaming pickup truck that inched along behind a replica of the Liberty Bell and just ahead of Lady Liberty herself, who was sitting in a Corvette and seemed to have wilted under the oppressive noonday sun. Or perhaps the oppressive policies of Barack Obama—it was hard to tell which. Along the parade route, the Stars and Stripes vied for prominence with STOP OBAMA signs.

Friendswood lies just south of Houston, in a district that voted 2-to-1 for John McCain, and for George W. Bush before him. But the distinctive flavor of the local conservatism is most vividly conveyed by Paul, the 75-year-old arch-libertarian congressman and sometime presidential candidate whose disdain for federal power is so severe that he once voted to deny Mother Teresa the Congressional Gold Medal because the Constitution does not expressly authorize such an expenditure. Paul thinks the government ought to be doing a whole lot less, and his constituents seem to agree. They’ve been returning him to Congress since the 1970s by growing margins.

Lately a lot of people, not just in Texas, are coming around to this view. “I’m so confident in my philosophy that I think I could run a pretty good race in San Francisco,” he told me in his Washington office recently. “What I’d talk about there wouldn’t be so much about deficit spending as about personal liberties, military engagement overseas, and the financial crisis. That used to help more in conservative districts. But everybody’s worried about it now.”

Paul is a wisp of a man, with hardscrabble features like a Dust Bowl farmer’s. He has the kindly manner of a small-town doctor, which he was, and an old-fashioned sense of propriety to go with it—he doesn’t travel alone with women who aren’t his wife. But when he gets caught up explaining his philosophy, especially his unorthodox ideas about economics, his eyes widen and his insistent, high-pitched voice makes him seem—there’s no way of putting this gently—slightly unhinged.

At the parade, the proximate cause of anger was Obama’s decision to end the manned-spaceflight program at the nearby Johnson Space Center, a major employer, and to retire the space shuttle. But the sentiment had been building. Recently, the White House had ordered a freeze on offshore oil drilling after the BP blowout, which further disrupted the local economy. Things were looking bleak. A community that Money magazine had only recently named one of America’s “best places to live” suddenly felt robbed of its economic vitality—and by a government that had not hesitated to rescue Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers. To an aggrieved citizen of Friendswood and the many places like it, the accusation that the federal government has broken faith in some fundamental way with the Founding Fathers sounds not just right but righteous. And therefore so does Paul, since this is the message he has preached for 40 years.

In Congress, Paul usually stands alone. This is a natural consequence of voting against Mother Teresa and the countless other bills on seemingly unobjectionable matters to which only he has objected. For much of his career, his own party routinely blocked him. His notoriety peaked three years ago during a presidential-primary debate in South Carolina when, alone among the 10 candidates, Paul, an isolationist, questioned the U.S. presence in the Middle East and seemed to suggest that it had prompted the September 11 attacks. Rudy Giuliani immediately demanded he withdraw the statement (he refused), and afterward Paul tussled with Sean Hannity of Fox News, which derided him mercilessly for the rest of the campaign. When Republicans convened in Minneapolis to nominate John McCain, Paul was so far out of favor that he and his supporters held their own convention across town.

Paul is also a loner because his ambitions lie mostly beyond Washington. He wants to inspire a national movement, but from the outside. Demonstrating purity of conviction is more conducive to that goal than acceding to ordinary political compromises. Paul’s presidential campaign drew a large grassroots following, even while he was being dismissed as a kook, and it made better use of the Internet than any campaign besides Obama’s. Like Obama, Paul inspires people of widely varying beliefs to see him as the vessel of their desires. His opposition to the Iraq War, strident criticism of the Federal Reserve, and early warnings of financial collapse, which he derived from the theories of semi-obscure Austrian economists, brought all sorts of people into the fold.

But it’s what has happened since the election that has carried Paul from the fringe of American politics toward the center—or, really, carried the center toward him. Two years of economic trauma have fed a nationwide resentment. The clearest sign of this is the loose affiliation of angry conservatives, disaffected independents, Glenn Beck disciples, strict constitutionalists, and assorted malcontents who gather under the Tea Party banner. This heterodox mass distrusts the political establishment and believes the federal government has grown dangerously large. Some believe that it has usurped powers rightfully reserved for the states, rendering many of its actions illegitimate (the Constitution is the sacred Tea Party text). Above all, Tea Party followers share a profound objection to unchecked spending and expanding credit, as successive administrations and the Federal Reserve have done to the tune of trillions of dollars. This effort to stimulate the economy, they believe, has not only failed to end the recession but made it worse.

Video: Joshua Green and Marc Ambinder discuss the two main themes of the current election cycle: the economy and “loony candidates.”

To address these grievances, Paul was ready and waiting. He is not the Tea Party’s founder (there isn’t one), or its culturally resonant figure (that’s Sarah Palin), but something more like its brain, its Marx or Madison. He has become its intellectual godfather—and its actual father, in the case of its brightest rising star, his son Rand Paul, Kentucky’s GOP Senate nominee. The Tea Party has overrun the Republican Party everywhere from Alaska to Kentucky to Maine, and a version of Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve just passed the Senate unanimously en route to becoming law. Today, on matters of economic politics, Paul is at least as significant as any of the Republicans he shared the stage with in the 2007 South Carolina debate. And has anyone noticed that he’s a fixture on Fox News?

To Paul’s delight, he is in such constant demand that he installed video equipment in his district office to spare himself the drive to Houston studios. “Before, they’d totally ignore me,” he says. “But after the housing bubble burst, people like [MSNBC host] Joe Scarborough and others started reading my speeches, and when I go on the air now”—Paul is beaming—“he’ll introduce me by reading some of my predictions from 2002, 2004, about how there’s a bubble coming and we ought to remove the line of credit to the Treasury for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

In February, Paul startled the Republican establishment by handily winning the presidential straw poll at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a big event for party insiders. As the Republican Party swings into line behind him, it has upended the consensus that has prevailed around fiscal and monetary policy since the Great Depression, pressuring the Fed and blocking any additional stimulus. With the Tea Party gathering force, Paul is at last where he has always wanted to be: in the vanguard of a national movement.

Paul grew up on a dairy farm outside Pittsburgh and attended Gettysburg College and Duke University’s medical school. Although his libertarian conservatism is characteristic of Texas, he did not settle there until after he had spent five years as an Air Force flight surgeon, part of it stationed in San Antonio. In 1968, he moved to sprawling, rural Brazoria County, and established a successful obstetrics practice.

Paul’s passion, however, was not medicine but economics. During medical school, he had happened upon a copy of The Road to Serfdom, the ringing defense of laissez-faire capitalism by the Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Written in 1944 against the backdrop of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, it argues that state control of the economy leads inexorably to tyranny. (After Glenn Beck endorsed it, Hayek’s book unexpectedly hit the best-seller list last summer.)

To Paul, this was an epiphany, and it launched him on a quest to read anything he could find about the Austrian school of economics. The work of Hayek’s mentor, Ludwig von Mises, came to command his singular esteem.

Mises’s faith in free-market capitalism was nearly absolute. He thought any market interference dangerously distorted the value of money. This led him to reject central banking, by which governments adjust the supply of money to influence the economy. Mises thought that “printing money” was unsound and inevitably touched off a cycle of foolish investments that ended in disaster. What economists call the business cycle—the ebb and flow of boom and recession that most of them believe to be inevitable and outside government’s full control—Mises thought was the result of government interference, of the unfettered expansion of central-bank credit. To prevent governments from debasing the currency, he favored a gold standard.

Mises set Paul on a new course. Many years later, Paul, a prolific writer of books, columns, and newsletters, published a monograph, “Mises and Austrian Economics: A Personal View,” in which he describes his enlightenment in the language of a religious testimonial:

Although the works were magnificent, and clarified many issues for me, it was more of a revelation to find intellectuals who could confirm what I “already knew”—that the free market is superior to a centrally planned economy … It is only with full assurance gained from Austrian economics, and the example of Mises’s character, that I am able to tolerate the daily circus of Congress.

One day in 1971, Paul left his busy medical office and made a pilgrimage to Houston to hear Mises, then 90, speak on the topic of socialism, in what would turn out to be one of his final lectures. When, that same year, Richard Nixon closed “the gold window” and imposed wage and price controls in an effort to tame inflation, Paul felt he could not stand by. “I decided,” he wrote, “that someone in politics had to condemn the controls, and offer the alternative that could explain the past and give hope for the future: the Austrian economists’ defense of the free market.”

He made up his mind to run for Congress. In 1974, under the slogan “Freedom, Honesty, and Sound Money,” he challenged the Democratic incumbent, Bob Casey, and lost. But a year later, Casey joined the Ford administration, and Paul won a special election to replace him.

Mises viewed politicians with asperity, believing that they inevitably fell prey to “pressure groups.” Paul determined to prove otherwise, and earned the nickname “Dr. No” by opposing anything not explicitly authorized in the Constitution. By one measure, he is the most conservative lawmaker to have served in Congress since 1937. Paul is a prolific introducer of bills, usually ones that don’t go anywhere. But a few have been prescient. Before the positions were widely popular, he advocated setting term limits and abolishing the income tax. Less popular ideas have included eliminating most federal agencies, ending government funding of education, repealing federal laws against drugs and prostitution (he favors state laws), and cutting military spending.

Strident libertarianism tends to get in the way of easy relations with one’s constituents. Opposition to government spending can conflict with the legislator’s need to direct enough of it back home to get reelected. Paul takes flak from both sides. Challengers complain that he doesn’t deliver the goods, while purists criticize his occasional earmarks. Paul says that if he can’t end pork in Washington, then his constituents deserve their share—they do pay taxes. But the pressure to bend is greater than even he seems to realize. “His staff would always call mine, begging for funding,” Tom DeLay, the former Republican majority leader, told me.

In the mid-1970s, Paul was one of just four Republican congressmen in a Democratic state, and certainly the only Misesian. His unusual beliefs didn’t immediately stand out, though, because he represented such a conservative district and also because Mises’s passion for free-market capitalism was barely distinguishable from that of a man who had been captivating conservative audiences across the country: Ronald Reagan.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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