Why Ron Paul’s left-wing champions are wrong

January 11, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte challenges those on the left who speak out for Republican Ron Paul on the basis of his opposition to the war.

MAYBE YOU'VE seen them at antiwar protests--supporters of the "Love Revolution" of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. In Chicago, Paul backers hired a plane with a banner fly over the demonstration in October.

The libertarian Texas congressman has won over a group of antiwar writers and others on the left who say he is the only candidate in either party's presidential primaries worth supporting.

Paul gained these left endorsements because he has taken a stand against the occupation of Iraq and the U.S. "war on terror" that few Democrats dare to. He voted against last year's war funding bill, supports repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act and opposes an attack on Iran.

But that's not all Ron Paul stands for--far from it.

He also, for example, regularly claims that the "American way of life" is under assault, and fighting back means "strengthening the borders"--i.e., cracking down on Mexican immigrants. Paul is opposed to abortion rights--apparently, his libertarian defense of individual freedom doesn't apply to women.

He says he's proud to stand in the tradition of Ronald Reagan--who Paul was almost alone among Republican officeholders in supporting when Reagan first ran for president in 1976. In between the Reagan quotes on his Web site, Paul makes it clear that he believes in "small government"--by which, he means eliminating the federal government's already shredded social safety net, not to mention the Department of Education.

These positions have certainly been as important as his antiwar views in attracting a following on the right--encompassing conservatives fed up with the neoconservatives' grip on U.S. foreign policy, as well as rabid anti-immigrant forces, open white supremacists, admirers of Pat Buchanan's anti-free trade economic nationalism and assorted 9/11 conspiracy theorists.

GIVEN THIS, why is Paul even getting the time of day from antiwar activists? This phenomenon can only be understood in the context of the disarray in the antiwar movement and the lack of a viable left-wing independent alternative in the elections.

The Democrats--both in Congress, and the main contenders for the party's presidential nomination--have done nothing to meet people's hopes that they would stand up to the Bush administration on the war. Yet most liberal organizations, including within the antiwar movement, will fall in line behind the Democrats, tailoring their activities to the need to "get an ally in the White House."

For those who resist the pro-Democratic tide, all this can lead to some cynical conclusions--including the idea that the future lies not with organizing among progressives who will likely vote Democratic, but with reaching out to conservatives who support Paul.

"Many, if not most, of [Paul's] supporters are new to the electoral game," wrote Joshua Frank, co-editor of the Dissident Voice Web site. "Sure, some may indeed be rednecks, but what the hell is so wrong with hard-working folks who oppose Empire? Disregarding or pooh-poohing Paul's movement because he's not a progressive and some of his followers have odd world views makes us look like elitist snobs."

Since when is it "elitist" to speak up for immigrant rights or a woman's right to choose? Or the dangerously radical proposition that there should be a right to free public education?

By Frank's logic, these issues should be set aside because Paul opposes the war. But does that mean, for example, that the left should have supported the far-right presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan in 1992--since Buchanan opposed the Gulf War the previous year.

Antiwar activist Stan Goff makes this myopic proposition--that none of Paul's reactionary positions matter as long as he's for withdrawal from Iraq--explicit in a recent article on the Counterpunch Web site.

"I already know what I am going to hear from all over the program-intoxicated, 'I won't endorse this-n-that position' liberal-left," Goff wrote. "Ron Paul is backward on abortion, passively racist, anti-immigrant, and on and on. Sorry, but I said I'd vote a dead cat that was antiwar before I'd vote a resurrected Eugene Debs if he showed up and supported the war. I meant that from my heart."

Setting aside the sneering tone, does Goff understand what he's saying? That issues like abortion and immigrant rights must be judged as "less important"? Would he like to say so to the millions of people who marched for immigrant rights on the last two May Days?

The bizarre image of a resurrected pro-imperialist Eugene Debs--a man who, after all, went to federal prison for opposing war--is a pretty pathetic excuse for climbing on Paul's bandwagon.

The formula of supporting a candidate with antiwar views, no matter how right wing they are on other issues, is disastrous for anyone who wants to rebuild the left.

Consider this quote from another one-time presidential candidate: "We stand with Cindy Sheehan and the memory of her son which should spur all truly patriotic Americans to demand an end to this war for Israel, this war against America, the Iraq War."

The author of those lines is neo-Nazi David Duke.

Goff may believe that Paul's antiwar platform is the primary point of his campaign, but Paul and his supporters are pushing the complete package.

In Iowa, for example, as the caucuses approached, Paul used his Internet-raised millions to fill the TV airwaves with a xenophobic ad about "protecting" U.S. borders. It begins with images of people swimming across the Rio Grande and warns in a menacing voiceover, "Today, illegal immigrants violate our borders and overwhelm our hospitals, schools and social services."

Paul's promise: "Physically secure the border. No amnesty. No welfare to illegal aliens. End birthright citizenship. No more student visas from terrorist nations."

FOR HIS supporters on the left, this bigotry is excused by claiming that Paul has found a way to win the support of "hard-working folks" who the leftist "elite" have ignored.

But the unstated assumption here is that the "hard-working folks" are white, and the only antiwar candidate they'd support has to be anti-immigrant, anti-abortion and "passively racist."

For one thing, this is a condescending--not to mention, completely wrong--stereotype of working-class white people.

But more importantly, "hard-working folks" are also immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, Arabs and Muslims. They are gays and lesbians (Paul voted to bar gays from adopting children). They are women who depend on their right to legal abortion under Roe v. Wade, which Paul has called "the worst of all rulings" and said should be overturned.

If the point of supporting Paul is to make the antiwar voice in the U.S. stronger, then you have to ask how diverse groups of people will be drawn to any movement against the war associated with a candidate who heaps abuse on some of them.

Building a stronger antiwar movement isn't simply about reaching "beer-drinking rednecks from Tennessee or pot smokin' hippies from Oregon," as Joshua Frank puts it, but building solidarity with others in their struggles and furthering the kind of politics that makes our side stronger.

That can't be accomplished by sidestepping ideas used to divide people, like racism, sexism and homophobia. Any progressive movement that hopes to grow, whatever the issue, needs to take on such arguments directly whenever they arise.

Unfortunately, when Sherry Wolf of the International Socialist Review argued for confronting Paul's bigotry in a recent piece on CounterPunch, she was painted as a "sectarian"--a word that's typically reserved for vilifying the socialist left.

Opposing right-wing ideas that make any movement weaker isn't "sectarian." It's basic solidarity. The proudest moments in the history of the U.S. left are bound up with struggles to defend the principles of solidarity, by any means necessary. It's a sign of the disorientation of the left today that such ideas can be looked upon so cynically.

This isn't, as Goff and Frank suggest, an argument for having a checklist of political requirements for someone to be involved in the antiwar movement. If Paul wants to bring a blimp to the next antiwar protest, I don't really care.

But it is an argument for rejecting a candidate who doesn't believe in what you believe in. We say it about the Democrats--and we should it all the more loudly about a reactionary like Ron Paul, even if he does oppose the war.

Further Reading

From the archives