“What the support for Ron Paul among potentially progressive voters signifies to me is the failure of today’s left to enunciate an anti-imperialist position better than that put forth by the libertarian right,” Ron Jacobs commented recently on Counterpunch. This astute observation should give pause to all concerned with the scale of degeneration now afflicting the U.S. left. Indeed, it is worth remembering that only eight years ago, the left was on the ascendancy.
Back in 2000, Bill Clinton still occupied the White House and his neoliberal agenda remained alive in the left’s collective consciousness. In that context, Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign easily filled stadiums across the country, as activists and left-wing celebrities alike embraced Nader’s third party candidacy in a blow against both corporate parties. Those were also the heady days of the global justice movement, when optimism prevailed and solidarity grew, christened by the “Teamster-Turtle” alliance during the Seattle anti-WTO protests in 1999.
Then along came George W. Bush. The attacks of 9-11 catapulted the idiot president to the role of revered statesman virtually overnight, while his reckless band of neocon advisers moved from the margins to the center of imperial policy. That dismal period demoralized the broad left, and the mood of pessimism that ensued led many to sheepishly return to the folds of the Democratic Party. “Anybody But Bush” was the clarion call for this surrender to the logic of lesser evilism, which has kept the corporate duopoly in power historically.
Nader’s 2004 election bid witnessed the mass defection of liberals and antiwar activists, who flocked to Democrat John Kerry’s campaign while heaping invective on Nader as a “spoiler” who would aid Bush’s victory. Alas, Kerry needed no help in spoiling his own chances for soundly defeating Bush: his pro-war, neoliberal campaign failed to sufficiently inspire the Democrats’ traditional voting base on Election Day. Once again, the chosen candidate of the well-organized Christian Right carried the day.
The 2004 election, therefore, marked the disintegration of the broad left that had risen so spectacularly in the final years of the twentieth century. Now, as the 2008 election approaches, the left is fracturing yet further amid a spurious debate over the merits of voting for Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul that has surfaced on numerous left and antiwar websites, including Counterpunch. With breathtaking speed, self-avowed anti-imperialists and even former Nader supporters have embraced the logic of single-issue voting to justify support for this right-wing libertarian–based solely on his opposition to the Iraq war.
To be sure, Paul’s vigorous opposition to the war has provided a breath of fresh air during the otherwise stultifying presidential debates of both parties. Paul famously ruffled fellow Republicans’ feathers when he remarked last May at a Fox News-sponsored debate, “So, right now, we’re building an embassy in Iraq that’s bigger than the Vatican. We’re building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting.”
But Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson have likewise offered a refreshing departure from the antiwar posturing of this election’s crop of pro-war Democrats. During a September debate sponsored by MSNBC, Kucinich declared that he would remove troops from Iraq within “three months after I take office.” Kucinich went a step further, arguing for reparations to the Iraqi people: “The U.S. and Great Britain have a high moral obligation to enable a peace process by beginning a program of significant reparations to the people of Iraq for the loss of lives, physical and emotional injuries, and damage to property.”
But welcoming such departures from what currently passes for debate among the chosen candidates from the two corporate parties does not require endorsing the candidates who advance them. Rhetorical flourishes not withstanding, an alternative worldview is in order, and no candidate from either party is offering one in this election year.
Kucinich has attracted a significant left following since 2004. In addition to his forthright opposition to the Iraq war, he supports immigrants’ rights, single-payer healthcare, the legalization of gay marriage and abortion rights. But Kucinich embittered many of his most ardent supporters by backing Kerry and abandoning any fight for an antiwar platform at the Democratic Party’s 2004 convention. In so doing, he betrayed himself as unwilling to build a coherent alternative to the party establishment.
Ron Paul’s right-wing worldview
In contrast to Kucinich, Ron Paul’s lone appeal to the left is his vocal opposition to the Iraq war. Paul is a long-standing Republican who brandishes his right-wing libertarian worldview, consisting of standard reactionary fare-much of it coinciding with that of traditional states’ rights segregationists and the Christian right. For years, Paul has dodged accusations about his past murky association with an assortment of noxious right-wing newsletters. The January 8 edition of The New Republic contains an exposé by assistant editor James Kirchick that documents the bigotry contained in newsletters dating back to the 1970s–all “published under a banner containing Paul’s name.” Paul unconvincingly denies that he was aware of the vile content of these newsletters bearing his stamp of approval-over a period of decades.
But one need look no further than Paul’s own policy statements to determine the overarching political character of his campaign. His opposition to immigration is linked to his opposition to basic welfare provisions for U.S. born workers. In an article entitled “Immigration and the Welfare State,” Paul argued, “Our current welfare system also encourages illegal immigration by discouraging American citizens from taking low-wage jobs.” He voices admiration for Senator Robert Taft, the virulent opponent of 1930s New Deal reforms who went on to co-sponsor the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, strangling the rights of union workers to this day.
Opponents of U.S. imperialism should also take note that Paul’s anti-immigration policy specifically targets Mexicans crossing the U.S.’s Southern border and immigrants hailing from so-called “terrorist” [Arab and Muslim] countries. U.S. imperialism has historically regarded Latin America as its low-wage backyard, while rising racism against Arabs and Muslims has accompanied more recent imperialist forays in the Middle East. “With our virtually unguarded borders, almost any determined individual including a potential terrorist can enter the United States,” Paul has argued. His television ad aired prior to the New Hampshire primary advocates a draconian clampdown on immigration that rivals that of Tom Tancredo: “No amnesty. No welfare to illegal aliens. End birthright citizenship. No more student visas from terrorist nations. Standing up for the rule of law Ron Paul for President.”
Ron Paul is not an open racist, but he opposes every federally mandated historical advance for African-Americans, from Reconstruction to affirmative action. In a December 23 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Paul described the U.S. Civil War as “senseless” and criticized Abraham Lincoln for getting “rid of the original intent of the republic.” Paul also stands in proud opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was the only member of Congress to vote against its fortieth anniversary commemoration. He justified his no vote in an article entitled “The Trouble With Forced Integration,” in which he argued, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country [T]he only way the federal government could ensure an employer was not violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to ensure that the racial composition of a business’s workforce matched the racial composition of a bureaucrat or judge’s defined body of potential employees. Thus, bureaucrats began forcing employers to hire by racial quota.”
Paul’s opposition to abortion rights is not a “side issue” as some have suggested, but a centerpiece of his campaign. Twice in the last year, (in February and again in June) Paul introduced the Sanctity of Life Act, proclaiming, “human life shall be deemed to exist from conception.” In February of last year, Paul also sponsored the Taxpayers’ Freedom of Conscience Act, banning the use of federal funds for “family planning activity” whether “foreign or domestic.” Paul thus hopes to accomplish what the abstinence-obsessed Bush has failed to do thus far.
Who’s holding back the left?
Yet Paul’s anti-imperialist supporters-who arguably should know better–have responded with vitriol to those unwilling to surrender once cherished left principles merely to advance Paul’s presidential campaign. In a Counterpunch article dated January 4, for example, Stan Goff lashed out at the “program-intoxicated, ‘I won’t endorse this-n-that position’ liberal-left. Ron Paul is backward on abortion, passively racist, anti-immigrant, and on and on.”
This begs the following question: Is Goff suggesting that immigrants who are horrified at the notion of voting for someone with Paul’s anti-immigrant policies guilty of enabling imperialist conquest? Are African-Americans who are unwilling to surrender the merits of the 1964 Civil Rights Act standing in the way of ending the war in Iraq? Are women who shudder at the thought of supporting Ron Paul, an anti-abortion zealot, holding back progress? I think not. And no amount of huffing and puffing can hide the fact that Goff himself is abandoning central left-wing principles.
On the contrary, by advocating single-issue voting, Paul’s left-wing supporters are endangering the survival of anything resembling a coherent U.S. left. Single-issue voting requires choosing one overriding issue and ranking its importance above all others in a given election year-pitting constituencies against each other as if their interests are counter-posed. Those now stumping for Ron Paul have effectively accepted the notion prevalent in bourgeois politics that “interest groups” are in competition with each other.
In reality, the rights of women, African-Americans, immigrants and gays are not counterposed to, but aligned with, those oppressed by imperialist war. This was demonstrated vividly with the rise of the Gay Liberation Front in the late 1960s-which, inspired by the armed struggle of the North Vietnamese against the forces of U.S. imperialism, chose its name as a formal identification with the National Liberation Front (NLF), the Vietnamese resistance.
Single-issue voting was once the bastion of Democratic Party liberals. Pro-choice organizations supported Bill Clinton in the 1990s because he favored abortion rights and then sat silently as he dismantled the New Deal welfare state, impoverishing poor women and children across the country. This silence also enabled Clinton to bomb Iraq with impunity while starving its citizens through sanctions and to claim that the U.S. invasions of Haiti, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia were “humanitarian missions”-not the result of imperialist ambition.
This faulty logic proved the death knell of liberalism in the U.S. by the end of the 1990s. The same logic now leaves Ron Paul’s left-wing supporters teetering atop a slippery slope, and perhaps headed into oblivion. Paul’s enthusiastic grassroots support shows the potential to energize the antiwar electorate. But the left should do more than applaud, for Paul’s libertarian worldview lands his supporters in the same political cul-de-sac as any other bourgeois politician. Indeed, the left has a responsibility to itself-to rebuild, however difficult the circumstances.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org