Daniel W. Drezner

Pariahs, prophets, hedgehogs, and foxes

Pariahs, prophets, hedgehogs, and foxes

Ross Douthat had a great column to start the new year, offering his own interpretation on the Ron Paul phenomenon.  His last few paragraphs:

There’s often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he’s still as far out there as ever.

The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America’s public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side’s elites — as though both liberals and conservatives hadn’t participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.

In this climate, it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics — the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals. He sometimes rants, but he rarely spins — and he’s one of the few figures on the national stage who says “a plague on both your houses!” and actually means it.

Obviously it would be better for the country if this message weren’t freighted with Paul’s noxious baggage, and entangled with his many implausible ideas. But would it be better off without his presence entirely? I’m not so sure.

Neither prophets nor madmen should be elected to the presidency. But neither can they safely be ignored (emphases added).

Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald take a similar position.  Greenwald in particular argues that Paul’s positions on foreign policy/national security/civil liberties are so much better than the bipartisan consensus view that Paul’s tacit approval of those odious newsletters should be heavily discounted.  As Greenwald puts it, progressives who don’t support Paul must apparently accept the following preference ordering:

Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.

I’m of two minds about this line of argument.  On the one hand, there is no denying that Paul’s worldview has helped him to launch a powerful critique on American foreign policy.  This can’t just be dismissed as "yes, he was right on Iraq, but…" either.  As Douthat, Friedersdorf and Greenwald observe, Paul really is the only candidate to bring up these issues not named Gary Johnson or Jon Hunstman.  His hypothesis that the United States has invited some blowback by overly militarizing its foreign policy cannot be easily dismissed.  

Think of it this way:  Paul is a hedgehog.  He knows One Big Thing and uses it to construct his worldview.  We know from Philip Tetlock that hedgehogs are less likely to be right when making predictions than foxes — those people who know a little about a lot of things. Hedgehogs outperform foxes is in getting big macro-consequential events correct, however.  We tend to ignore such predictions, however, because hedgehogs usually lack the emotional intelligence necessary to persuade nonbelievers.  I  want Paul banging on about the dangers of excessive government intrusion and overexpansion.  That’s not nothing.

Here’s the thing, though — precisely because Paul is a hedgehog, he brings other less-than-desirable qualities to the table.  I don’t think his intriguing take on foreign policy and civil liberties can be separated from, say, his batshit-insane views about the Federal Reserve.  In fact, let me just edit Greenwald’s proposed tradeoff so that it’s a bit more accurate:

Yes, I’m willing to continue to have some Muslim children inadvertently die by covert drones and cluster bombs, and a disproportionate percentage of America’s minorities imprisoned for no good reason, and the CIA taking action with minimal checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers and lots of rhetoric & covert action against Iran that makes Glenn Greenwald hyperventilate in exchange for avoiding a complete and total meltdown of the global economy due to the massive deflation that would naturally follow from a re-constituted gold standard. 

I don’t like this choice, but it’s an easy one to make.    

To paraphrase both Douthat and This is Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between prophetic and crazy.  I would posit that only someone who fanatically accepted this entire worldview would have been capable of inspiring the Ron Paul movement.  Only those leaders with sufficient levels of ideological zeal to never compromise, never bend on principle, until they eventually reach a position of power are able to foment revolution.  This kind of zeal requires a singular worldview that might contain some worthwhile elements but is likely also based on some axioms or articles of faith that seem a little nuts and makes the person wrong an awful lot of the time.  These kinds of leaders, precisely because they were in the political wilderness, will tend to be supremely convinced in their own rightness if they ever win power. 

Ron Paul is great at affecting the marketplace of ideas.  He would be worse than Newt Gingrich if he actually became  president, however.  The great presidents — Washington, Lincoln, FDR — knew the when to compromise and when to stand firm, when to lead public opinion and when to follow it.  They were, in other words, great politicians.   The presidents who simply knew they were right on everything and resisted compromise — Jackson, Wilson, Bush 43 — tended towards the disastrous.  Paul would be part of the latter group. 

So if Ron Paul wants to influence the debate, that’s good.  He raises important questions about important issues.  He’s also wrong about some really important issues and therefore should be kept away from the presidency. 

Fortunately, as James Hohmann’s Politico story suggests today, Paul and his supporters seem to care about the former more than the latter

As much as anything else, [Paul’s] pitch centers on sending a message.

“This is ideological,” he said here late Friday night at his last campaign stop of 2011. “So it isn’t a numbers game. It has to do with determination.”

He paraphrased a Samuel Adams quote, saying, “It doesn’t take a majority to prevail. It takes an irate, determined minority keen on starting the brushfires of liberty in the minds of men.”

“So in many ways, it’s a political revolution to change these ideas, but it’s an intellectual revolution,” Paul explained, wrapping up a nearly hourlong speech. “It’s a change in ideas about economic policy, understanding our traditions about foreign policy, understanding monetary policy. This is where we’re making progress. This is where we have advanced so much over the last couple decades and even in the last four years.”…

Many of his die-hard supporters see him more as an alarm-sounding Paul Revere than a Founding Father.

“I would say its 10 percent campaign, 90 percent a movement,” said Quaitemes Williams, a 26-year-old nursing student who drove from Dallas to volunteer for the full week before the caucuses. “Once you’ve seen the light, you can never go back to the dark. Once you learn about the Federal Reserve and foreign policy, you can’t go back to thinking in the right-left dichotomy.” (emphasis added)

That last quotation, by the way, is part of what I find problematic about the Paul movement.  The revolutionary leader worries me — but the Jacobin followers scare the ever-living crap out of me.