Okay Progressives, What's Your Alternative to Ron Paul?

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Many on the left think civil libertarians err when they elevate him. But they haven't offered any better way to address his issues.

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In the debate about what the left's antagonism toward Ron Paul says about the Democratic Party and progressive movement, Glenn Greenwald explains that it is possible to value Paul's voice on issues like war, indefinite detention, and executive power, but to decide he isn't worth backing in an election due to his personal flaws and right-leaning positions on other issues. He adds that, unfortunately, this isn't what the left is doing. "Despite vocally feigning grave concern about these issues during the Bush years," he writes "they are not a priority for many progressives precisely because they no longer provide any means of obtaining partisan advantage."

That's a tough charge. Is it accurate? Those who disagree with Greenwald argue that neither enthusiastically supporting President Obama's reelection bid (for the sake of health care or taxes or the economy or abortion rights) nor dismissing Paul's candidacy (due to his right-leaning domestic priorities or racist newsletters or desire to return to the gold standard) says anything about how much the left values civil liberties, or opposes unnecessary wars, or is bothered by executive power.

In theory, it's a plausible argument.

Less so in practice.

What I'd ask of those who disagree that the left assigns less importance to these issues because a Democrat now occupies the White House is where anti-war and civil libertarian concerns are being expressed, if not in opposition to President Obama's reelection bid or support for Ron Paul. After all, the race for the White House isn't everything. So is there a prominent progressive effort to mount primary challenges against Democrats who helped pass indefinite detention?

Would fundraisers at the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights say that it is just as easy or noticeably harder to raise money and awareness now that President Obama is in office?

(Hint: it's harder.)

Aside from organizations exclusively devoted to these issues (for which the left deserves far more credit than the right), how many left-leaning groups count reining in Obama's ability to assassinate Americans without due process among their legislative priorities?

Or if any of the aforementioned metrics is flawed or misleading when taken alone, what is the affirmative case progressives would make that, beyond the few civil-liberties organizations that are unquestionably and admirably dedicated to these issues, the Democratic Party and/or progressive movement as a whole still treats them as among the most important matters in America? If we're looking beyond those vying for the presidency, how many Senate Democrats take these issues as seriously as Rand Paul? How many Democratic governors, sitting or retired, take these issues as seriously as Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico?

The point isn't to compare the left unfavorably to the right. Lord knows that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are generally as bad or worse on civil liberties and executive power. But if progress is ever to be made on these issues, I'd argue that the minority on the left and right who purport to care about them have got to behave as if they mean it. For me, that meant supporting Obama when he was a voice for reclaiming the rule of law, reining in executive power, increasing transparency, ending indefinite detention, and getting Congressional declarations before taking the country to war -- and it means opposing him, and supporting Paul and Gary Johnson (for whom I'll likely end up voting) and Rand Paul, and hoping that Russ Feingold ends up back in the Senate, and many other things besides.

Obviously, there are other approaches to advancing these same issues, if you regard them to be among the most important our nation faces, as many on the left are on record believing during the aughts.

Kevin Drum disagrees with my approach (quoting from two posts):

If you truly support civil liberties at home and noninterventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul... If you want to advance the cause of a less interventionist foreign policy, you need to find a way to persuade the American public to agree with you. Ron Paul doesn't do that. He's never done that. He's such a stone libertarian that he literally doesn't know the language to do it. Because of this, giving him a bigger spotlight does little for the cause of a saner foreign policy. At the same time, it does plenty for less sanity everywhere else because you don't get to control where the spotlight falls. Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but there are limits. There are some allies that aren't worth having.

Over the years, including the Obama years, I've known Drum to consistently speak out against needless war-making and to be alarmed by excessive claims of executive power, so I don't doubt his earnestness, and I respect what he has to say on basically every topic. But here's my problem: though Drum disagrees with those of us who acknowledge Paul's flaws but value his ability to inject important issues into the national conversation, he offers no alternative. As far as I can tell, most on the left who dismiss Paul are similarly without a plan of their own. It isn't as if they're saying, "Your strategy for drawing attention to these issues and trying to effect change is flawed -- but how about this other viable civil libertarian strategy."

It's just, "Your strategy is flawed." Left unsaid is the fact that if it's abandoned, these issues will be aired even less, and the prospect of effecting change will be delayed or killed off.

One day soon, Ron Paul will pass from the scene. At that point, his son, Rand Paul, the civil libertarian and Republican senator from Kentucky, will be one heir apparent. Libertarian Gary Johnson will be another. And inevitably, progressives will find plenty not to like about them too.

So why not do something about it?

If progressives are frustrated that relatively doctrinaire libertarians are attracting the attention and support of people who care deeply about civil liberties, why don't they work to offer some alternative? Guys like me will probably still prefer Johnson. But is it really the case that the Democratic Party can't produce a prominent civil-libertarian politician who Glenn Greenwald would prefer to Ron Paul?

That is itself a devastating truth about the post-2009 left.

As Election 2008 proved, however, it isn't impossible to change. Democrats can in fact unapologetically run against indefinite detention, excessive executive power, and needless wars, and get elected doing it. What's additionally required is a civil-libertarian constituency big and motivated enough to hold them to their promises. That is what progressivism apparently lacks. Until progressives have a plan to change that, they should think twice about marginalizing and dismissing a civil-libertarian voice that, however flawed, is better than any they've got to offer.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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