It’s no secret that Ralph Nader has held the Democratic Party establishment in low regard for decades now: the marginally more palatable alternative in an ugly duopoly, he claims, is still quite ugly. But lately Nader’s disdain has reached a new high. “It’s gotten so bad,” he tells me, “that you can actually say a Republican president—with a Democratic Senate—would produce less bad results than the present situation. That’s how bollixed stuff has gone.”
Not that he was ever particularly optimistic about the Obama administration, especially its potential to make headway on curtailing corporate welfare, now Nader’s signature policy objective. But in that, as with so many aspects of Obama’s presidency, the adjectives “disappointing” or “inadequate” don’t even begin to capture the depths of progressive disillusionment. Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race, one might assume that Nader has little to be cheerful about.
Yet he says there is one candidate who sticks out—who even gives him hope: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
That might sound counterintuitive. Nader, of course, is known as a stalwart of the independent left, having first gained notoriety for his 1960s campaign to impose greater regulatory requirements on automakers—a policy act that would seem to contravene the libertarian understanding of justified governmental power. So I had to ask: how could he profess hope in Ron Paul, who almost certainly would have opposed the very regulations on which Nader built his career?
“Look at the latitude,” Nader says, referring to the potential for cooperation between libertarians and the left. “Military budget, foreign wars, empire, Patriot Act, corporate welfare—for starters. When you add those all up, that’s a foundational convergence. Progressives should do so good.”
I thought I’d bring up the subject of Ron Paul with Nader after seeing the two jointly interviewed on Fox Business Channel in January. Nader had caught me off guard when he identified an emergent left-libertarian alliance as “today’s most exciting new political dynamic.” It was easy to foresee objections that the left might raise: if progressives are in favor of expanding the welfare state, how well can they really get along with folks who go around quoting the likes of Hayek and Rothbard?
“That’s strategic sabotage,” Nader responds, sharply. “It’s an intellectual indulgence. … If they’re on your side, and you don’t compromise your positions, what do you care who they quote? Franklin Delano Roosevelt sided with Stalin against Hitler. Not to draw that analogy, I’m just saying—why did he side with Stalin? Because Stalin went along with everything FDR wanted.”
There may be an insurmountable impasse between the camps on social-safety-net spending. “But,” Nader says, “you could get together on corporate entitlements, subsidies, handouts, giveaways, bailouts. Ron Paul is dead set against all that. So are a lot of libertarian-conservatives. In fact, it’s almost a mark of being a libertarian-conservative—in contrast to being a corporatist-conservative.”
“Do you read all these right-wing theoreticians?” he goes on. “Almost every one of them warned about excessive corporate concentration. Hayek did, [Frank] Meyer did, even Adam Smith did in his own way.” He leaves the mechanics of a left-libertarian political coalition to be sussed out later.
If the issues around which progressives and libertarians can coalesce, I ask Nader, are the most intractable, deeply entrenched problems, is he proposing that such a coalition would be more tenable than the one currently cobbling together the Democratic Party, with its many Blue Dogs and neoliberals?
“Exactly,” Nader says. “Libertarians like Ron Paul are on our side on civil liberties. They’re on our side against the military-industrial complex. They’re on our side against Wall Street. They’re on our side for investor rights. That’s a foundational convergence,” he exhorts. “It’s not just itty-bitty stuff.”
Nader cites opposition to “the self-defeating, boomeranging drug war” as another source of common ground, in the face of both parties’ indifference—with the scant exceptions of a few House Democrats who favor decriminalizing marijuana—to drug prohibition’s many ills. Ron Paul’s rejection of the very notion that personal drug use should be a criminal offense is something that has resonated with younger supporters, often catalyzing their first moment of political consciousness.
“This is one place where conservatives and liberals can get together,” Paul tells me. “Because it’s sort of a nullification approach—a states’ rights approach.” California attempted to legalize marijuana outright via ballot initiative “because they have millions and millions of people who are using it, yet the federal government’s position—Obama’s position—is still to go after people even if it’s being used for medicinal reasons, and putting sick people in jail.”
“But of course,” Paul goes on, “the conservatives are very weak on states’ rights when it comes to marijuana, which I find rather ironic. Why don’t they just stick to principle and say, ‘Well, we’re for states’ rights. Let the states do this.’ But no, they come down hard and say, ‘We need a federal law’.” He sounds exasperated. “I think both sides should work harder at being consistent.”
Some critics allege that Paul himself has proven inconsistent on states’ rights when it comes to the Defense of Marriage Act, which created federal criteria for the recognition of marital unions. Campaign literature distributed by the Paul campaign, under the header “Barack Obama’s Assault on Marriage,” asserts that the administration has shown “a profound lack of respect for the Constitution and the Rule of Law” by no longer defending one of DOMA’s provisions in federal court. “As President,” the literature reads, “Dr. Paul would enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, stopping Big Government in Washington, D.C. from forcing its definition of marriage on the states.”
The flyer’s aggressive tone suggests it may have been written with an eye towards appealing to Evangelical voters. In our interview, Paul offers a nuanced position. He wasn’t in Congress in 1996 when DOMA was approved, but says he “probably” would have voted for it. “Looking back,” Paul tells me, “I believed it protected the states over the federal government’s dictates.”
How sharp is the divide on social issues between progressives and Paul’s more conservative supporters? I ask for his opinion on the central role religion has seemingly taken in the Republican presidential contest, something that has distressed progressives and libertarians alike. Texas Governor Rick Perry preceded the announcement of his bid with a massive Evangelical prayer rally in Houston, just miles from Paul’s congressional district.
“It certainly is his judgment call,” Paul says of Perry’s decision to convene a stadium-sized worship event. “There’s nothing that says he should not do it. But whether it’s the wisest thing to do? For me, I would consider it unwise.”
Paul is typically demure about his own belief in Christianity—willing to speak about it when prompted, but never ostentatious. “It might be the way I was raised. We weren’t ever taught to carry religion on our sleeves.” He references New Testament admonitions against going “out on the sidewalk” to “make a grandstand.” “You’re supposed to go quietly into your closet to pray,” Paul says, “and not be demonstrating in any particular way. So I think I have followed that more than others.”
I ask him at what point journalists should be entitled to press candidates on their personal doctrinal views. Ordinarily, Paul says, it’s inappropriate. “But if you start using religion precisely to gain political advantage,” he adds, “then I think it’s much fairer to ask those questions.”
Nader takes a grim view of Perry, who polls indicate is the Republican frontrunner. “It’s easy to say he may self-destruct, but he’s starting to get some of that Reagan teflon. The Republican Party is going to self-destruct with Perry. I don’t think he’s like Reagan. He’s too cruel and vicious.”
There are nascent movements underway to bring disaffected progressives into Ron Paul’s fold. A new organization called Blue Republican, advertised on the Huffington Post and elsewhere, urges Democrats to pledge their support for Paul. While Nader isn’t willing to endorse Paul’s candidacy at this point, during our interview his praise grew increasingly effusive. “Ron Paul has always been anti-corporate, anti-Federal Reserve, anti-big banks, anti-bailouts,” Nader says. “I mean, they view him in the same way they view me on a lot of these issues. Did you see the latest poll? He’s like two points behind Obama.”
“That’s where the hope comes from,” Nader continues. “Because the left will reach out. I mean, they’re already reaching out. They want as many allies as possible. It’s the right-wing that is being split, and that’s historically been the case—the corporatists make sure authentic conservatives are vectored in other directions. They’re vectored on the social religious issues, abortion, more recently on raising the debt limit. ‘Keep going after the libs,’ the corporatists say. Because otherwise, authentic conservatives may develop a cooperative effort with the ‘libs’ on other issues, which are our issues,” he concludes. “The big issues.”
Michael Tracey is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Reason, Mother Jones, and other publications.