January 17, 2008

No Racism, Just Sleazy Politics

Reason is a libertarian magazine of long standing. They now have an article up speculating on the origin of the infamous Ron Paul newsletters. I think Reason's explanation makes a lot of sense of the situation. They note that many veterans of the libertarian movement suspect Lew Rockwell was involved. Though Rockwell denies writing the articles, Reason brings up some interesting points about the history of Rockwell and another individual by the name of Murray Rothbard. The name Jeff Tucker also came up in association with the newsletters.

This is the general picture: these people, Rockwell, Rothbard, and Tucker, apparently were quite explicit in advocating that the only way the libertarian movement would ever get anywhere was to form a broad coalition which had room for "paleo-conservatives," but which they apparently mean people like Strom Thurmond and David Duke. As Reason puts it:

Lamenting that mainstream intellectuals and opinion leaders were too invested in the status quo to be brought around to a libertarian view, Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an "Outreach to the Rednecks," which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. (Duke, a former Klansman, was discussed in strikingly similar terms in a 1990 Ron Paul Political Report.) These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an "unholy alliance of 'corporate liberal' Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America." (italics and link original)

It seems that other parts of the document in question made clear that the phrase "parasitic Underclass" was code for "blacks." Interestingly, the rhetoric, rather than appealing to white supremacists, seems to regularly play off racial tension between blacks and Asians. I'm not sure what the explanation for that is. In addition to playing into racial tensions in some cases and outright racism in others, Rothbard urged that libertarians compromise on issues such as "pornography, prostitution, or abortion" by leaving them to the states.

The fact that people who were explicitly advocating this sort of pragmatic strategy makes sense of a lot of what has gone on. For instance, Paul's response to the newsletter which came out in 1996 was consistent with someone who does not want to actually endorse any form of racism, but is more concerned about alienating or offending racists than about alienating or offending non-whites: he didn't deny having written the newsletters, nor did he say anything in them was false, he simply said that his comments were out of context and he was not a racist.

It appears that somewhere between 1996 and 2001 a shift occurred. 1999 was the year in which Paul claims he spoke of Rosa Parks from the House floor as someone "who stood steadfastly for the rights of individuals against unjust laws and oppressive governmental policies." By 2001, Paul granted an interview for a profile in Texas Monthly. Here is the relevant portion of the profile:

In one issue of the Ron Paul Survival Report, which he had published since 1985, he called former U.S. representative Barbara Jordan a "fraud" and a "half-educated victimologist." In another issue, he cited reports that 85 percent of all black men in Washington, D.C., are arrested at some point: "Given the inefficiencies of what D.C. laughingly calls the 'criminal justice system,' I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal." And under the headline "Terrorist Update," he wrote: "If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be."

In spite of calls from Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and other civil rights leaders for an apology for such obvious racial typecasting, Paul stood his ground. He said only that his remarks about Barbara Jordan related to her stands on affirmative action and that his written comments about blacks were in the context of "current events and statistical reports of the time." He denied any racist intent. What made the statements in the publication even more puzzling was that, in four terms as a U. S. congressman and one presidential race, Paul had never uttered anything remotely like this.

When I ask him why, he pauses for a moment, then says, "I could never say this in the campaign, but those words weren't really written by me. It wasn't my language at all. Other people help me with my newsletter as I travel around. I think the one on Barbara Jordan was the saddest thing, because Barbara and I served together and actually she was a delightful lady." Paul says that item ended up there because "we wanted to do something on affirmative action, and it ended up in the newsletter and became personalized. I never personalize anything."

His reasons for keeping this a secret are harder to understand: "They were never my words, but I had some moral responsibility for them . . . I actually really wanted to try to explain that it doesn't come from me directly, but they [campaign aides] said that's too confusing. 'It appeared in your letter and your name was on that letter and therefore you have to live with it.'" It is a measure of his stubbornness, determination, and ultimately his contrarian nature that, until this surprising volte-face in our interview, he had never shared this secret. It seems, in retrospect, that it would have been far, far easier to have told the truth at the time.

Murray Rothbard died in 1995. Today, Lew Rockwell and Jeff Tucker seem to have been partially ditched and partially reformed - they still appear with Paul more or less regularly and enthusiastically endorse him, but are not closely associated with the campaign; they also haven't said anything as bad as this in a long time (furthermore, neither of them is on record ever saying anything as bad as Rothbard, as far as I can tell). The picture painted is that Paul lost control (or was never in control) of the political mini-movement for which he was the figurehead, but allowed himself to continue to be used as a figurehead for it. Nevertheless, as Texas Monthly says, "Paul [has] never uttered anything remotely like this." At least not on the record. It also seems that Paul has managed to more or less shake off the elements of his political world that led to the problem, but he hasn't radically dissociated himself from them. In short, he became involved in sleazy politics at its worst: a pragmatic appeal to some of the most evil and destructive elements of American society in an attempt to advance his political program. It doesn't seem to have been his idea, and he seems to have been mostly passive in its implementation, but he must have known that some of his close associates supported this sort of strategy, and he nevertheless entrusted them with his good name. He did this in order to build a fundraising network, in order to get elected, in order to advance his libertarian political platform. He also personally made good money on the newsletter publishing venture, and it seems that more money came in the crazier and more vitriolic they got.

Texas monthly also notes other incidents of pragmatic nastiness in Paul's congressional campaigns, especially the 1996 campaign against one Loy Sneary:

In the years of defending himself against the assembled liberal multitudes, Paul has learned a slashing campaign style of his own. "Ron Paul specializes in attack, only he is much better at it than they are," says Dan Cobb, the editorial page editor of the Victoria Advocate, which endorsed Sneary. "He used Sneary's own record as a county judge to attack him in a misleading fashion, but it worked." Indeed, in a "Truth Test" report during the 2000 campaign, TV station KVUE in Austin found three out of four claims in Paul's ads to be false; a fourth was "true but misleading." Says Sneary, who is still upset about the campaign: "It's one thing when you criticize our position. It's another thing to take that information and use half-truths and no truths in a campaign."

In the near future I hope, on this blog, to develop a theory of political sleaze (I'm not joking) which will assist me in determining whether Paul is more or less sleazy than other politicians and, a question which is influence but not fully determined by this, whether I still ought to vote for him in Washington's primary. There are two reasons why these questions are still open in my mind: (1) "less sleazy than other politicians" sets the bar awfully low (but I don't want to understate how detestable I find this whole thing), and (2) Paul's voting record, the bills and amendments he's introduced, and even his speeches from the House floor are not only absolutely consistent (as far as I can determine), but demonstrate policy positions that agree very closely with my own. For now, having reconstructed, as best I can, the history of sleaze in Ron Paul's political career, I will draw this post to a close.

Posted by Kenny at January 17, 2008 5:39 PM
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You probably also need to develop a "sleaziness multiplier." This multiplier would determine how much a politician's policies would allow his personal sleaze to infiltrate his administration. For example, the Bush administration has focused (largely through the efforts of Cheney and Rove) on increasing the power of the executive, which opened the door wide open for sleaze to infiltrate the government. This would translate into a high sleaze multiplier. Ron Paul may have a significant level of sleaze, but his hands-off approach to government would result in low total sleaze. Somebody like John McCain may be the opposite; he believes in an active role for government (at least in foreign policy), but has very little sleaze, so although his sleaze multiplier might be high, the total sleaze would still be low.

Posted by: Paul Ferree at January 18, 2008 10:10 AM

Yeah, I've been thinking about this sort of thing, though the "multiplier" concept is probably an improvement over the way I've been thinking about it. Furthermore, there's a question of what he's being sleazy about. Most politicians are sleazy about what they have done or will do in office, whereas Paul (as far as I know) has only been sleazy about why he does the things he does, and why we should let him continue to do them (that is, he seems, at the very least, to intentionally allow different groups of people to believe that he does things for different reasons, and he exploits this for his political benefit, and he doesn't seem too bothered by the fact that some of the reasons attributed to do him are evil). I think the other type of sleaze is worse.

Of course, if we develop a scale and Paul and McCain come out approximately equal due to their multipliers, then I'll vote for Paul, because his policy positions are much better on the vast majority of issues (namely: every issue with which I'm familiar, except immigration).

Posted by: Kenny at January 18, 2008 10:29 AM

Do you favor Paul's federalism on abortion? I'm not sure I remember you ever writing about that. I'm in the camp that sees the 14th Amendment guaranteeing a right to life for the unborn, and Paul thinks we need a further amendment to secure that. I'd put McCain closer to me on this issue than Paul. I'd put McCain closer to me on a lot of issues compared to Paul, but this was the only one I could think of where it might be true of you too if you endorse the same view of the 14th Amendment.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at January 20, 2008 9:06 AM

I'm not sure off the top of my head of the details of Paul's position on abortion, except that he strongly opposes it and he thinks that the best thing that Congress can do about it in the short term is to strip federal courts of the right to interfere with state laws prohibiting it. I would not be very happy with this solution, but I don't have a better one. I tend to lean federalist on the issue in that, while I think that in the vast majority of cases - maybe even all cases - abortion should be completely illegal, I think it makes sense for the details of the laws against it to be left to the states. This exists today with murder statutes: what constitutes first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, etc., and what the punishments for each are vary somewhat from state to state, but murder is illegal everywhere. I would like, ideally, to see that kind of situation with abortion.

I would also favor an amendment defining just exactly who counts as a "person" for purposes of the Constitution, because people have not only argued that the unborn lack Constitutional rights, they have also argued that certain comatose patients and, in some extreme cases, even babies or non-citizens lack rights. The Bill of Rights claims to be an enumeration of moral rights that belong to all human beings regardless of whether governments recognize them, so the US government should recognize them for all human beings (unless we think the Bill of Rights is wrong, in which case it should be changed).

In short, I am not exactly sure what the best approach to abortion on the federal level is at this point, but I am not opposed to Paul's approach.

Posted by: Kenny at January 20, 2008 10:54 PM

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