Since he started leading in Iowa caucus polls, everyone has been writing about Ron Paul. Especially on libertarian and progressive blogs that I read, everyone is trying to figure out a way to square the parts they like about Ron Paul (anti-war, anti-US-imperialism, anti-Drug War) with the parts they don’t like. And they are specifically trying to figure out what to make over a series of newsletters with racist, homophobic, survivalist content that Ron Paul put out (but was likely ghost-written for him) in the early 1990s with some other prominent libertarians, including Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. See Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Sullivan, Coates, Jacob Levy and many others for summaries.
What I find interesting is how much the discussion is focused on the past-ness of these newsletters. The newsletters stopped with their racist, bigoted and survivalist themes by the mid-1990s, and people are now debating how much they should reflect on both Ron Paul and libertarianism. Whatever the results of that debate, they represent an era now over – Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez argued that “the best refutation of the old approach is not the absence of race-baiting rhetoric from its progenitors, but the success of the 2008 Ron Paul phenomenon.” But if you strip away the ugliness and just focus on the underlying political strategy and the coalition it hoped to bring into existence, the newsletters have not only survived but they form the core of the Tea Party movement.
What Ron Paul actually thinks of these newsletters is a bit of a mysterious, as he often dodges hard questions about them. It is clear that Ron Paul has, to use Dara Lind’s phrase, a “Libertarianism for White Dudes” problem. The ability to discriminate against a minority at one’s lunch counter is the core of freedom, but a woman’s ability to have some autonomy over what is going on in her uterus is incidental to liberty (Ron Paul has declared Right-to-Life is “the most important issue of our age”).
But I want to abstract away from both Ron Paul and the ugly tone and language in the newsletters. What was their political strategy? As Dave Weigel and Julian Sanchez dug up, there was a very clear path. According to Rothbard in 1992, they could gather disaffected working and middle class people 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.”
Take white middle-class people and explain to them how the safety net is ok for them because they are part of the virtuous hardworking backbone of the country, but it’s a dangerous creation because elite liberals will use it to create a mass, dangerous Other that don’t deserve to be part of it.
20 years later, what forms the core of the Tea Party movement? According to the latest research on the Tea Party from Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, here’s what is “identified as Tea Partiers’ most fundamental concern: their belief that hardworking American taxpayers are being forced to foot the bill for undeserving freeloaders, particularly immigrants, the poor and the young.”
It’s the same logic, amplified by the fact that the relevant white middle/working-class generation is starting to approach retirement. A demographic battle is being waged between an older, white middle-class generation versus everyone else, people who are especially young and more diverse. Flip open a copy of National Journal and see how political elites are currently trying to understand the polarization going on in the country as a battle between Brown Versus Gray and it gives you a sense. To the conservative movement that is doubling down on Gray, their strategy is that of the Ron Paul newsletter.
From summaries of the Skocpol research we learn that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients…The fundamental distinction for them is not state vs. individual, it is the division of the United States into ‘workers’ vs. ‘people who don’t work.’”
Right now the major political struggles are over whether or not to scrap major parts of the Great Society for those younger than 55 while older folks take no hit. There’s a big debate about what to think of the unemployed, whether they are peculiarly unadaptable and untrained, and whether the government should run a higher-deficit and expand monetary policy to reduce unemployment. Though no groups are doing particularly well in this recession, the young, the poor and those with major debts are doing significantly worse – who are those that the Tea Party views as the underclass looking to loot them. Just like in the Ron Paul newsletter.
Conspiracies still range over both – from the dollar bills of the Ron Paul newsletters to the FEMA camps of today. But the core has moved to the battle over immigration, which functions as the glue of this coalition in much the same way that concerns about African-Americans and gays were in the actual newsletters. The GOP primary has been a consistent battle to out-anti-immigration each of the other candidates, and the major issues have been how underserving undocumented workers are of any and all government services. One of the most damning political mistakes that have happened so far in this GOP primary campaign was that Texas Governor Rick Perry was ok with allowing undocumented high-school students to qualify for in-state college tuition. Beyond the primaries, when Congressman Joe Wilson yelled “you lie!” at President Obama during a join session of Congress, it was in response to President Obama’s statement “[t]here are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”
Where did the racism go? In 1992 Rothbard argued for “Cops must be unleashed…and allowed to administer instant punishment, subject of course to liability when they are in error…[they should]…clear the streets of bums and vagrants. Where will they go? Who cares?” The Ron Paul newsletter argued that:
If you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be…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…We don’t think a child of 13 should be held responsible as a man of 23. That’s true for most people, but black males age 13 who have been raised on the streets and who have joined criminal gangs are as big, strong, tough, scary and culpable as any adult and should be treated as such.
Stripping away the racist language, if the policy argument is that the criminal justice system needs to become more focused on the mass incarceration of young black men, with higher rates of arrests and longer sentencing, I think it’s safe to say that the Ron Paul newsletter completely won that policy issue. From Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility, the incarceration rate for Black Male high school dropouts 20-34 goes from one in five in 1992 to over one in three now, even though crime rates drop significantly over that time period:
There’s a lot of explanations for why the newsletters stopped having its racists, homophobic and survivalist content. The newsletters were probably alienating more people than they were bringing in. The Oklahoma City bombing immediately changed the debate on survivalist groups. Perhaps they thought that the tent could be bigger. But we currently live in the aftermath of this strategy – if the conservative movement learned anything from 2010, it’s that being the party of the older, white vote that feels like they are losing the country to the looters can be a winning strategy,and it’ll form the outline of the 2012 strategy.