At the CPAC convention last week, Congressman Ron Paul won the straw poll in a presidential preference contest. Paul was a candidate for president last time round but he failed tow in a single primary, although the popularity of his views with some young people created a veneer of enthusiasm that earned him his 15 minutes of fame.
Congressman Paul actually got seventeen minutes of fame, and it is those extra two that may haunt him. In the movie "Bruno," Paul was one of the people Sasha Baron Cohen set up, arranging for the congressman to come to his hotel room for an interview, then making a pass at him. It is one of the funniest things ever filmed but it is hardly flattering to the congressman who appears bewildered. In the context of the movie, of course, that bewilderment makes perfect sense. In the context of a YouTube segment or a television clip, the picture of Paul sitting in Cohen’s bedroom while Cohen takes of his pants may be a little bit harder to live down.
But, there is a more serious difficulty for Congressman Paul. He is a libertarian. To be clear, there is a logic to libertarianism. Most people, when they read people like Ayn Rand or Friedrich von Hayek, find their ideas provocative and some find them compelling. What high school junior doesn’t read Rand’s celebration of selfishness and find personal validation for their teenage behavior? And, in America, part of our national psyche is a hostility to restraint. The wild West, the rugged individualism of the pioneers, the Marlboro man, all in their way enflesh the cultural iconography that libertarians seek to make into a political platform.
There are two problems with libertarianism in American politics. The first is that it tends to be a lie, or a congeries of conspiracy theories, or both. For example, Libertarians in the West like to denounce government intrusion, even while federal water projects made cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas possible. And, their concerns about the constitutionality of the Federal Reserve are a hop, skip and a jump away from Oliver Stone’s concerns about the JFK assassination. I once had to endure, through an entire dinner at which two serious constitutional scholars were also present and more worth listening to, a libertarian arguing that the constitutional power "to coin" did not include the power to make paper currency and how this explained all that was wrong with the world.
The second is more telling of the divisions within the ranks of those opposed to President Obama. There are varieties of conservatism within America. Libertarians like Congressman Paul have a few policy preferences in common with Christian conservatives like Pat Robertson, but their worldviews could scarcely be more different. The Religious Right has no use for the prioritization of choice above all other values as the libertarians do. They want the society to conform to the Bible. Libertarians make an idol of choice, but that idol covers conduct in the bedroom as well as the boardroom. At the end of the day, libertarians are not interested in building Winthrop’s shining City on a Hill at all, and Christian conservatives see many circumstances in which "choice" is not their primary objective.
In the Reagan years, when the Religious Right first came to prominence as a force within the GOP, Reagan’s advisors knew that pursuing the Religious Right’s agenda would cost them dear with swing voters in the suburbs. The administration gave lip service to the Religious Right’s agenda, but the only thing all sides of the GOP could agree on was lower taxes. Even the traditional concern of GOP conservatives for a balanced budget bit the dust. The Democrats were mired in their own libertarian nightmare, brought on by the need to justify their support for abortion rights. The party that had embraced the civil rights movement was now arguing that "you can’t legislate morality," to justify their stance on abortion, overlooking the rather large legislation of morality represented by the Civil Rights Act.
I am all for liberty, but the human heart wants more than choice and America’s national psyche is more than rugged individualism. "I am my brother’s keeper" sits in that psyche side-by-side with the impulse to liberty. There is a divide within conservatism that can’t be papered over for long, nor as effectively as Reagan did. The Tea Party movement, the anti-immigration crowd, the Religious Right, and now the youngsters who support Ron Paul are all fighting for the soul of their party. Maybe the Democrats should not be worried so much about November after all.