Ron Paul seems to be media poison. He came within nine tenths of a percentage of winning Saturday’s Iowa straw poll, yet featured in hardly any of the political coverage. The result was strong enough to elevate the lady who placed first (Michele Bachmann) and eliminate the gentleman who came third (Tim Pawlenty). Yet, as comedian Jon Stewart has lamented, the media has actively ignored the poor fellow who ran second. In a particularly shoddy bit of reporting, CNN refused to cover Ron Paul’s speech in preference for footage of Sarah Palin. The show’s host told his roving reporter, “If you get video of Sarah Palin or a sound-bite from her, bring that back to us. You can hold the Ron Paul stuff.”
Ron Paul is a serious candidate with a real constituency, a twelve-term congressman who ran for the Presidency twice (as a Libertarian and a Republican). He is a doctor, a veteran and a fine public speaker. I saw him orate at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference and was bowled over. For ten minutes I was spellbound by his rapid-fire straight-talking, which detoured into scholarly pot-shots at the American-Philippine War of 1899 and John Maynard Keynes. He polled first in the Conference straw poll, a feat he repeated in 2011. Yet even when he romps home, the media pretends he doesn’t exist. If Ron Paul were to win every single primary on next year’s Super Tuesday, the New York Times would run with the headline “Mitt Romney Comfortable Second – Nomination Assured”.
Ron Paul confuses the American media because his ideology is an awkward fit for the two-party system. As a libertarian, he is anti-war: a position better represented among the Democrats. But he is also against welfare, which makes him more attractive to Republicans. From this anti-government philosophy he could construct a “leave me alone” majority that appeals to independents. That’s the big plan.
But Ron Paul complicates things by being a conservative libertarian, or paleo-libertarian. Usually libertarians don’t care how other people live. But paleo-libertarians believe that leaving people alone is actively good for them. Given a spell of hardy self-reliance, they’ll all revert to being law-abiding Christian Capitalists. According to the Ron Paul history of the United States, the innate goodness of the American people was corrupted by war with foreign powers. War excused the growth of the state: taxes were created to pay for arms, welfare to buy the consent of the public, prison for the dissenters. What began as a temporary measure to expand the American empire evolved into a monolithic central state. Patterns of traditional living – small, simple, charitable – were absorbed or destroyed by the new “progressive” bureaucracy. Ergo the state, fuelled by war, became the motor of social decay.
As this mythos suggests, Ron Paul is fundamentally a cultural conservative. That is how he can simultaneously be libertarian and prolife. To Paul, the two are not just reconcilable but mutually affirming. He believes that rights come from God, not the man-made warfare-welfare state. Liberty is rooted in the right to life, and that right is divinely inspired. Ergo, in order to protect an individual’s liberty we must first safeguard his right to life and outlaw abortion. By such contortions of logic is a paleo-libertarian born.
All of this makes sense to Ron Paul, but not to millions of people who presume that libertarianism is socially liberal. Democrats can’t understand his loyalty to the Republican label and, when they know about it, loathe his views on sex and sexuality. Republicans either hate his position on war or find his association with Democratic libertarians off-putting. His constituency of support is split across the political spectrum and brimming with internal contradictions.
Paulites are aware of that and insist that it’s no problem. In a crowded field, all they need to do is mobilise a regular, committed vote of about 25 percent and they can win a couple of primaries and launch themselves into contention. Yet they refuse to acknowledge that what gets Ron Paul that 25 percent is precisely what turns the other 75 percent off from voting for him. Twenty-five percent isn’t a winning strategy, it’s a ceiling.
And there’s another, unspoken reason why the media like to keep their distance from the Paulites: some of them are mad. If I ever write about the Republican primaries and fail to call Ron Paul the New Messiah, my inbox fills with unpleasant emails. Some of them are of the “I have a gun and I know how to use it” variety. I wouldn’t care, but I find it odd given that a) I always cautiously praise him and b) I have said far, far worse things about Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin and no one seems to care. Are Evangelicals just nicer people than libertarians? God only knows, but anchormen and journalists have had many similar bruising encounters with Ron Paul’s people. Of course, the vast majority of his supporters are brilliant patriots. But radicalism attracts crazy, too.
Sometimes the media ignores Ron Paul out of ignorance or spite. Sometimes it’s because they’ve done the math and convinced themselves that he can’t win. Other times, I suspect that they take a look at the people chanting his name in the bleachers and they don’t like what they see. The Paulites are good folk worried about the direction of their country, but their exclusion from the mainstream makes them come off like the vanguard of a Hicksville revolution. Television is a cool medium. Ron Paul and his angry army are too hot for it.
Dr Tim Stanley is a research fellow in American History at Royal Holloway College. He is working on a biography of Pat Buchanan. His personal website is www.timothystanley.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @timothy_stanley.