Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What's Next for Libertarians and Ron Paul?

This piece by Jamie Kirchick about Ron Paul's racially incendiary newsletters is receiving plenty of attention today in the blogosphere and on Drudge and other news sites. The details of the article make extremely clear that Paul's history has much closer ties to extreme racism than anyone except perhaps Dave Neiwert ever thought. When stories like this first started to break nationally over the summer, it seemed like it may have just been one or two articles that slipped through the cracks under Paul's name. Kirchick's article makes quite clear, however, that it was far, far more than just one or two newsletters, but was rather a repeated and frequent occurence.

While Paul is disowning authorship of the newsletters that went out under his name, it does not excuse the fact that he allowed so many newsletter with such incendiary content to go out under his name. Moreover, his initial in-person response left more than a little to be desired.

At a bare minimum, the whole sequence shows horrible leadership; more likely, however, it shows actual sympathy for the views expressed therein. While Kirchick has a record of being less than fair with Paul, it is tough to see how he could have left any details out that would morally excuse Paul's relationship to the pieces. It's possible, I suppose, that the whole story is a fabrication- but given Paul's penchant for affiliating with elements like this, that's close to impossible to believe.

So- what is the fallout from this, both for the Paul campaign and libertarians (even those who were not supportive of the Paul campaign)?

Many Paul-ites are questioning the timing of this article on the day of Paul's most important primary. But that timing may be Paul's one saving grace; with New Hampshire likely to result in the annihilation of the once-inevitable Clinton campaign and the almost guaranteed coronation of perhaps the most noteworthy Presidential candidate since at least Kennedy, the Paul news should play a tiny role compared to what it would have had the article come out two weeks from now. Moreover, the story probably came out too late to have much effect on today's voting.

Still, it's tough to see how he remains a viable candidate - even as a protest vote - after this. Paul was already deeply unpopular amongst most Republican voters; this will make him even more deeply unpopular amongst voters across the political spectrum. On the other hand, he still has about $20 million to spend, so I'm guessing he'll remain in the race; but I'd be shocked to see him pull over 5% in any competitive state after tonight. I don't think he'll save the money for a possible third party bid; this article effectively removes any potential he had to be a viable third-party candidate, even in the hopes of getting 10% of the vote. Moreover, much of his strength has been driven by his legions of volunteers; while the 9/11 Truthers and JBS-types will remain, I suspect that the cosmopolitan libertarians are largely done with him, barring an unforeseen event that makes his relationship to the newsletters forgivable.

The bigger question for me is what will happen to the libertarian movement in the public eye. I raised concerns awhile back that Paul would garner just enough support that his relationship with extremists would become a major issue and taint libertarianism in the public eye. That was before I had any idea his relationship with extremists was this tight. Hopefully, as I said, the timing of this will strongly mitigate any effects, particularly on libertarianism as a movement. We are still likely to be a significant swing vote in the general election; the question is whether the fallout from this article will grow to a point where the contenders view the libertarian vote as worth seeking. I hope not.

One hope lies in the fact that there have been a good number of libertarians who have been critical of the Paul campaign on a substantive level. But I do not think that they have been heard loudly enough to dissociate libertarianism from the Paul campaign's rather un-libertarian flaws. Still, the timing of the announcement probably limits the effects on libertarianism more than it does on the Paul campaign.

Unfortunately, I fear that the gains that the Paul campaign might have made will be erased. This is a shame, because large elements of the Paul grassroots organization were beginning to prove how beautifully the concept of Hayekian spontaneous order could work.

I do, initially at least, have a pipe dream for how libertarianism can turn this negative into a positive. And believe me, this is a pipe dream. We libertarians of the more, uhh, cosmopolitan mindset ought to prove that libertarianism is fundamentally about optimism, choice, and being pro-freedom more than it is about being anti-government. Perhaps we could find a high-profile libertarian celeb to run a campaign along the lines of the infamous NC State Pirate Captain as something of a protest candidate. Or perhaps we could find a serious, but high profile, libertarian to pick up the mantle and talk about a truly libertarian philosophy. Maybe we try to maintain our organization and do a better job at organizing behind whichever major party candidate is more palatable to us, making ourselves an influential portion of their campaign in the process, and essentially making the unofficial libertarian seal of approval an endorsement worth pandering to.

Or maybe we'll find that the LP really does offer us something worth supporting; unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with the LP candidates. In the 3 minutes of research I've done, though, I've found leading candidate George Phillies to be a rather rational libertarian. While the LP has always failed to attract small "l" libertarians in large numbers, perhaps Paul's soon-to-be-alumni will be willing to switch gears.

I don't know, to be honest. But the cosmopolitan libertarians can and should do what they can, either individually or collectively, to reclaim the name of freedom from the racists, hatemongers, and die-hard conspiracy theorists.

Dozens more reactions at memeorandum.

***UPDATE***In a thorough post, Radley Balko raises many of the same concerns as me.