Is Ron Paul the new face of populism?
Ron Paul’s presence in American presidential politics over the last eight years doesn’t follow the spectacle-oriented third party approach that Ross Perot inaugurated in the nineties, (this anticipation has instead been projected onto Donald Trump and Sarah Palin); instead, Paul’s candidacy has the dogged warhorse quality of Ralph Nader’s campaigns, albeit shifted to the extreme right. In the case of Nader, one might have seen the liberal concern for the poor to be a pretty clear indication of traditional populist values. As complex as the supposed tenets of populism can seem, I would consider its only consistent facet to be ballot-power which is derived from the corralling of financially deprived voters, regardless as to what the “official” or stated policies of the candidate may be. Though Paul will most likely be unable to cause the damage Perot did to Bush Sr. in 1992, or that Nader did to Gore in 2000, he is nonetheless, a visible remnant of the twentieth-century Populist movement.
Prior to the modern promulgation of Populism in the late nineteenth century, the movement existed in many forms beginning with the Populares in the Roman Republic; Julius Caesar being a prime example of a movement, aristocratic in origin, which sought senatorial power by way of public support. Since then, the term has entered the political forum under various guises. Looking beyond the alternately pejorative and exalted lights it has been viewed under, we can agree only on its regional and temporal origins. In the United States Populism originated and grew out of The U.S. People’s Party, founded in 1892, as an attempt to mobilize farmers throughout the South, West and Midwest.
Despite the voracious anti-elitist and anti-big business tone of The U.S. People’s Party’s rhetoric, there was a corresponding social conservatism, evinced by the party’s support for segregation (though not espoused by all members, it sat, paradoxically, next to their policy of granting membership to women) and fundamental respect for the tenets of Christianity (the aspect of populism which came to the fore in William Jennings Bryan’s representation of the State of Tennessee in the Scopes Trial of 1925).
The Scopes Trial appeared to be the Crucible upon which the liberal values of progress and science were pitted against the conservative values of traditionalism and religion. In his book Outgrowing Democracy, The Hungarian historian John Lukacs has referred to this conceived juxtaposition of values as being inherently false because neither of the two sides in conflict were representative of twentieth century values (Bryan was the heir of pre-Enlightenment aristocratic values and Clarence Darrow was representative of eighteenth century Enlightenment ideals), but contends that the Scopes trial “marked the final divorce of populism and progressivism”; after which populists would shift to the right and progressives toward the left.
Prior to the Scopes Trial, Frederick Jackson Turner had attempted to conjoin populism with the progressive spirit in the figure of the ‘pioneer farmer’:
The populist demand for government ownership of the railroad is of the same effort of the pioneer farmer, on his latest frontier. The proposals have taken increasing proportions in each region of western advance. Taken as a whole, populism is a manifestation of the old pioneer ideals of the native American, with the added element of increasing readiness to utilize the national government to effect its ends.
Two things catch our attention, one is the use of ‘native’ (not capitalized); Turner is speaking of the settlers and not actual Native Americans, secondly, the use of the word ‘latest’ as opposed to ‘final’; it is in this choice of words that the hidden progressive nature of populism is encoded. Turner innately grasped the idea that any ‘movement’ which is intentionally regressive would be exceptionally oxymoronic and fail.
The lynchpin in my analysis of populism as it relates to the popularity of Ron Paul lies in the fact that, Populism, in the 1890s, was able to transcend traditional political lines before finally being absorbed into The Democratic Party during the early part of the twentieth century, in much the same way that Paul himself, has been absorbed into The Republican Party. An interesting distinction lies between ‘ideals’ or ‘values’ being absorbed into a national political party one hundred years ago and the ‘personage’ or ‘icon’ of those same values being assimilated today. It almost seems as if The Republican Party would not have intellectual jurisdiction over Libertarian values unless there was an avatar of Libertarianism present to espouse them.
The paradoxical nature of Ron Paul’s candidacy doesn’t represent a short-circuit in populism i.e. a candidate whose policies actually contradict the interests of his followers as much as it represents an evolution of Populism itself and the growing fissure between medium and message -sign and signifier. Sam Tanehaus indirectly sums up the symbolism of Ron Paul’s placement in the Republican party, by way of describing the general crisis of the GOP’s self-perpetuating contradiction in his article, Will the Tea Party Get Cold? (The New York Review of Books, March 8, 2012):
It’s leading figures, in office and in the media, continue to espouse an antigovernment ideology that in reality attracts very few voters, even on the right. More accurately, today’s self-identified conservatives embrace movement rhetoric but not movement ideology -at least not when it is cast as policy.
Ron Paul’s candidacy is not a threat to The Democratic Party, it is however the representation of a total crisis of conscience for The Republican Party. For the last twenty years The Republican Party has conceded its ‘morally’ conservative social policies to a radically capitalist agenda (see The Rolling Stone article How the GOP became the party of the rich by Tim Dickinson). Ron Paul is the embodiment of this radical economic strategizing, completely detached from the usually attendant moral platitudes.
For the first time since Grover Norquist seized the reigns of The Republican Party, party members are now aware of the apodictic bifurcation of their two stated passions: unchecked, unregulated free market capitalism on one hand, moral and religious grandstanding on the other. Politically speaking, they are contingent upon each other, though no-one has brought their respectively autonimous natures into the light of day with the sheer precision Paul has.
It seems that the Republican Party is more comfortable with the incongruity presented by the Neo-Conservative movement, which seeped into it during the eighties; this particular incongruity being: the simultaneous promotion of both war and democracy. The viablity of Neo-Conservativism is in one sense the turning of the tables on early twentith-century Marxists (like Bernstein) who insisted that democracy was contingent upon socialist economic practice, and, more profoundly, a refutation of Plato’s advocacy of an anti-democratic Republic where war would be the exception and not the rule. Taken in this context one could plausibly argue that the Neo-Conservatives are keeping with the spirit of Heraclitus, who claimed:
“War is father of all, king of all. Some it makes gods, some it makes men, some it makes slaves, some free… We must realize that war is universal, and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.”
Perhaps it is Ron Paul’s stated opposition to military intervention, not his stance on social issues (gay marriage, legalization of drugs etc.) that has been his biggest obstacle to acceptance within the Republican mainstream. Elite groups working within the party to guide its ideology are nothing new and the extent of Paul’s success is not evidence as to how much elites will allow, but an indication of the limit of Populism’s power to short-circuit this Iron Rule of Oligarchy (a term for elite-based oranizationalism coined by Robert Michels in 1911).
We must keep in mind that when we talk about the stemming of Paul’s popularity, if it is in fact the work of top-level Republicans (the elite), and it is not accomplished by diminuation of Paul’s character, so much as it is an act of obfuscation in regards to the aforementioned crisis of conscience which Paul represents. The fact that The People’s Party would be resurrected by anti-war activists in 1971 as a radically liberal party is evidence that the rhetoric of Populism is not only detached from the inferred political message, but that Populism itself is pure medium, and in this sense Ron Paul speaks the language of Populism.