A wise old sage once revealed to me a profound truth. He had fought and won many battles throughout his illustrious career, lancing the dragon of nuclear energy in his early years before moving on to further victories over the corporate titans of ecocide. Now closer to the end than to the beginning, he devoted what remained of his time on our dimming Eden to the transfer of knowledge to the young, that they might salvage something of a future. When the aging champion spoke, I listened.
“Do you know the fundamental difference between left- and right-wing?” he asked one evening, with a certain slyness to his tone.
I thought for a second or two, knowing his riddle would demand an unconventional answer. We had broken bread a few days earlier in a now-defunct café east of downtown, just past the shuttered den of a motorcycle gang the feds had recently raided, near the sidewalk on which the sickly woman with track marks flaunted her high heals. The sage and I had thoroughly gone over the basics that afternoon, drinking coffee while discussing science, culture, history, and the imperfect world outside. Having gone that far already, such a simple political question now seemed behind us.
“The left believes established power should be challenged while the right thinks established power should be reinforced,” I said. The two painfully amorphous terms were coined during the French Revolution, when the radicals and reformers sat physically to the left of the General Assembly president, while the monarchists sat to the right. So, I thought, the original ideological divide should be as sufficient an explanation as any.
“Deeper than that,” he said.
“Patriarchical symbolism,” I responded, trying yet again. “Faith in the supposedly ‘feminine’ value of nurturing as opposed to the supposedly ‘masculine’ value of force.”
“Getting closer,” he said. “But not exactly.” He leaned in to whisper his mystic insight.
“‘Left’ and ‘right’ really boil down to one basic question: whether you suspect people are inherently good or evil. The rightist froths at the idea of a political system helping the less fortunate because natural-born sinners can only be tamed by punishment. Meanwhile the powerful are virtuous for pushing around the majority who deserve to be controlled. But to the leftist, the opposite is true: evil is artificial, good natural. Coercive institutions suppress the purity of the human spirit and should therefore be dismantled. Remember this axiom: all political debate flows from these two conflicting perceptions of reality.”
I’m constantly reminded of the sage’s heavy words while watching the 2012 Republican presidential primaries. For over a year would-be nominees have been climbing over each other to make their case for Order and Discipline, albeit usually phrased in the more palatable language of Freedom and Opportunity. On the surface it often seems staggeringly bizarre and illogical, as when candidates bemoan the moral decline of the general population while accusing others of “hating America.” But the emotional emphasis of the growling rhetoric is perfectly consistent. As warned the great sage, at its core is a fierce defense of the authoritarian impulse. Hence the frequent macho posturing and the growing resemblance of the primary season to a demented pro-wrestling competition.
It all began in earnest when latter-day carnival barker Donald Trump climbed atop a soapbox and pointed to his own muscles. He worked the Grand Old Party faithful into a frenzy challenging the President to release his long-form birth certificate, if only he had the guts. When the President did just that, the muscles fell off of poor Mr. Trump, who was promptly booed, pelted with scorn, and abandoned.
The frustrated crowd, still hungering for a strong leader to guide them, next gravitated toward a reputable governor with a decent approval rating named Tim Pawlenty. But nice guys tend not to fare well with the Party of Blood and Fire, which in a fit of boredom then lurched to one Michele Bachmann. She thrilled many with dark visions of writing bigotry into the Constitution and her magical health clinic that cured homosexuality.
Tempting, mused observers, until Rick Perry of Texas unveiled his awe-inspiring record of human sacrifice. “Over two hundred, and it even includes the mentally disabled,” he boasted, much to the delight of the Christian rank-and-file. When he soon proved to be a bit slow himself, pizza mogul Herman Cain seized the spotlight, promising to brutalize the poor with a new federal sales tax and deep cuts to social programs, but he was, alas, quickly undone by a sex scandal.
Today four contenders remain on the stormy field, none quite able to finish off the rest. Mitt Romney just can’t find his inner demon but wins the occasional grunt of respect for his status as unrepentant tycoon. The Flat Earth contingent salutes Rick Santorum’s outspoken defense of dogma over country, but his prissy man-boy schtick has failed to catch fire. And of course, Newt Gingrich won wild, guttural applause calling Obama the “food stamp president,” but now he’s strapped for cash, and worse still, has no friends, since his former colleagues have total contempt for his character.
Ron Paul, however, is of a different breed than the others, which is why he’ll never be president. The grandfatherly country doctor of Brünofame is the rare kind of man who actually lives by his principles. Yet in a quirk proving definitively that fate operates according to its own sense of humor, this one-in-a-million honest politico keeps his principles firmly planted in the Eighteenth Century.
Congressman Ronald Ernest Paul I, Air Force Captain, Doctor of Medicine, and undisputed leader of the modern “libertarian” movement, insists that the public sector is the primary evil plaguing society. That the “L” word meant “anarcho-communist” until recently doesn’t seem to phase him. Nor should it, for the traditional definition was junked in North America with the advent of Ayn Rand and a slew of crackpot economists who preached the good news that selfishness is the highest ideal. Thenceforth, “libertarianism” would mean anything-goes-capitalism under a government so weak that all power to abuse the individual would exclusively lie in the private sector.
This argument for a business-run dystopia rationalizes itself further with a fundamentalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. As if a vast frontier were still open to settlement and water-powered cotton mills were the height of modern technology, the “strict constructionist” legal theory insists that the role of government today should be the same as it was in 1788.
And herein lies the Ron Paul Paradox. It is easy to chant the mantra of “small government” as a stock campaign slogan, but quite another to actually believe it. Into the septic tank of history, should the Paulites ever storm the halls of power, would go everything from warrantless government surveillance, to the Drug War, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” hundreds of overseas American military bases checkering the globe, economic blockades, threats of violence against other countries, undeclared war, bailouts of financial institutions, and billions spent annually on corporate welfare. The leftist heartily drools at the prospect.
But Dr. Paul’s anti-government bone saw cuts in two directions. In keeping with his philosophy of imposing a late-Eighteenth Century government on a Twentieth-first Century people, handguns would be allowed on commercial flights, the EPA gutted, federal lands sold off, Interior and Education Departments abolished, healthcare programs and Social Security phased out, the tax system made regressive, and restrictions lifted on offshore oil drilling. He is, of course, the only member of Congress to vote against banning lead in children’s toys. After all, it isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.
So is the Congressman right-wing or left-wing? As he can’t or won’t see that corporate power is as great a threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the authority of the state–he is both, and he is neither. The sage maintained that people tend to take their collection of political beliefs as a package, leaning towards either criticism or support of hierarchy in general. The traditional instincts of both left and right are violated by Ron Paul in one way or another, which is why he will never gain wide enough popular support to win the presidency on the basis of policy alone.
But while Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney continue to claw at each other on national television, in that surreal traveling circus that is the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, I can’t help but root for the old country doctor hurling cognitive monkey wrenches into dumbfounded crowds. Not just anyone gets away with denouncing militarism in South Carolina, the Cuban embargo in Florida, or ethanol subsidies in Iowa. As millions are spent by candidates over the coming months subliminally promoting the idea that power justifies itself, victims are persecutors, and war is peace, I’ll take as much psychic rebellion as I can get. At the very least, the absurdity will be priceless.