Meeting the people: Paul at Salem, New Hampshire, town hall meeting. Jocelyn Augustino/Redux
Meeting the people: Paul at Salem, New Hampshire, town hall meeting. Jocelyn Augustino/Redux

Speaking Libertarian Lingua Franca

Republican Ron Paul's presidential bid fell short. He never won a Republican primary or polled better than 6 percent nationally. But he engaged voters in ways no other Republican dared and no Libertarian had thought to try. The question is whether Paul's campaign marks the end of a revolution or just the beginning.
June 1, 2008
 

In the early 1960s, as most students at Duke Medical School learned about anatomy, and some of them free love, Ron Paul delved into Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek, reading their paeans to the then-unfashionable free market. By 1971, Paul, who received his M.D. from Duke in 1961, was so drawn to Rand's and Hayek's small-government ideas that he closed his OB/GYN practice in rural South Texas for a day just to drive to Houston and hear a prominent libertarian deliver an economics lecture. Incensed at the decision of President Richard M. Nixon LL.B. '37 to divorce U.S. monetary policy from the gold standard, Paul finally resolved to jump into politics. Although his political views were libertarian, he was attracted to the small-government ideas and political influence of the GOP. In 1976, the young physician entered the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican and quickly gained a reputation as Congress' most quixotic opponent of government power. He voted against so many bills—the invasion of Iraq, the Patriot Act, almost every government tax or budget—that colleagues called him "Dr. No." To libertarians, this made him a hero; to Republicans, a punch line.

Last year, when the seventy-two-year-old Texas Congressman hopped into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the joke seemed to be on anyone who thought more than a handful of die-hard libertarian ideologues would care. But two months into the race, something changed. It was mid-May, and Paul was at the second Republican presidential debate on the campus of the University of South Carolina, telling an audience of GOP partisans that 9/11 had been caused by America—specifically, its imperialist foreign policy. The audience gasped. Rudy Giuliani butted in, demanding that Paul withdraw the comment. But the Congressman held his ground. "I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback," he said. "[Terrorists] don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come, and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if other foreign countries were doing that to us?"

Rally rouser: An enthusiastic crowd of Iowa supporters cheer their candidate on.

Rally rouser: An enthusiastic crowd of Iowa supporters cheer their candidate on. Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux

Spoken in a different era or by a different candidate, Paul's message might have been forgotten in the crush of the front-runners. Instead, it took the Internet by storm—it was viewed more than a half million times on YouTube—and catapulted Paul's race from a fourth-tier candidacy into the most vibrant online campaign in American history. In the following months, Paul became the most popular candidate on the Net by almost every measure. He garnered more Facebook and MySpace supporters than any other Republican candidate; more Google searches, YouTube subscribers, and website hits than any presidential candidate; and more Meetup.com members than the front-runners of both parties combined. "The campaign calls itself the Ron Paul Revolution," notes Republican Internet consultant David All. "And I don't think that's a far stretch."

Paul's opponents struggled to explain his Internet success. Democrats, who had, until then, comfortably assumed that progressive bloggers, YouTubers, and ex-Deaniacs would give them, and only them, an edge online, chalked it up to the Sanjaya effect: The Web loves weirdoes. And yet Paul was riding more than a spike in curiosity. His 67,000 Meetup members launched more than 1,000 independent campaign groups everywhere from San Francisco to Paducah, holding hundreds of "real-world" events each week, ranging from painting billboards to leafleting gun shows. Paul's November 5 Internet "Money Bomb" event pulled in $4 million from more than 35,000 individual donors, a single-day, online fundraising record in a primary—at least until December, when a second Paul money bomb raised $6 million. Many of these donors and volunteers were people who had never participated in a political campaign or even voted.

In the end, of course, Paul's presidential bid fell short; he never won a state GOP primary or polled better than 6 percent nationally. But his volunteer corps, fundraising, and even his performance at the polls were exponentially better than that of any libertarian-oriented presidential candidate in recent memory. He placed third in New Hampshire, ahead of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, and second in Nevada, with 14 percent of the vote. "The single most important event in political libertarianism in the last twenty years is the Ron Paul Revolution," says Michael Munger, a Duke political science professor and Libertarian Party candidate for governor of North Carolina. "There is no doubt about that." The question is whether Paul's campaign marks the end of that revolution or just the beginning.

To gauge whether Paul's campaign will evolve into an enduring movement, it helps to consider the history of another physician: one-time party outsider and Internet sensation Howard Dean. His 2004 presidential campaign flamed out in Iowa after he'd flooded the state with ads and volunteers, in much the same way Paul's campaign failed in New Hampshire. But Dean's supporters, many of them also first-time volunteers, stuck with politics; they went on to become Democratic precinct captains in their local communities, run leading blogs such as DailyKos and MyDD, and occupy high-level positions (often in online organizing) in the offices of almost every major Democratic presidential campaign in 2008. Dean himself became chair of the Democratic National Committee, the embodiment of the party mainstream.

It's hard to see Paul following exactly the same course. "Dean is at core a pragmatist," says Zephyr Rain Teachout A.M. '99, J.D. '99, a visiting assistant professor of law at Duke who was Dean's online campaign director. "That's why he was antiwar—it was pragmatism, it wasn't pacifism. And my sense, although I know it makes Ron Paul supporters angry when I say this, is that Ron Paul is an ideologue. And so those do then attract very different kinds of people."

Paul's uncompromising stances on civil liberties and taxes, his anti-establishment rhetoric, and his knack for co-opting outsiders have deified him among a ragtag group of radicals. They include card-carrying members of the Libertarian Party who reject compromise candidates, conspiracy theorists who deny the media's explanation of everything from 9/11 to Israel, and anarcho-capitalists who oppose the very idea of government.

Larger than life: Speaking at the Republican Party of Iowa's annual Ronald Reagan dinner last October, Paul espoused views that transcended party lines.

Larger than life: Speaking at the Republican Party of Iowa's annual Ronald Reagan dinner last October, Paul espoused views that transcended party lines. Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux

And yet other avid Paulites—most notably, techies—seem to have been plucked straight from the Dean camp. Dean has characterized his partnership with the Netroots online activists as completely organic (when a reporter asked him last year why he'd chosen to embrace the Net, he replied, "The Internet embraced us"), but the truth is that the tech crowd came late to the Dean campaign and in response to targeted outreach by staffers. "We had a tech council, we reached out to people like [open-source guru] Larry Lessig, we got [the tech blog] Slashdot—no other candidate had done that before," Teachout says. "But as politics go, it was not a natural fit. It was just the first time that anybody had talked to them."

When Paul talked to the tech crowd at Google last summer and promised to eliminate the Department of Homeland Security, the IRS, and the Department of Commerce, he spoke in Silicon Valley's lingua franca. Many valley libertarians are furious about the investor-protection rules of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law they blame for driving Wall Street IPOs to London. That kind of self-interested, anti-government leaning cross-pollinates in the techie brain with the yearning for a reassuringly Cartesian political philosophy. "Techies think of life as like code," says Peter Leyden, a Democratic strategist and former editor of Silicon Valley's original libertarian-leaning tech bible, Wired. "You just find where the bug is and fix it." Capitalism and democracy are seen as self-regulating systems that bureaucrats can only screw up—exactly the way Paul sees them.

Obviously, Paul's radical views make appealing to a broad swath of the electorate more difficult than it would be for more mainstream candidates. Still, a recent study by the Cato Institute found that some 15 percent of voters hold typically libertarian opinions on the issues, and trends suggest they're hungry for a political leader they can believe in. Although they've most often voted Republican—enthusiastically for Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan in 1980—they began to abandon the GOP in droves just as the party pressed ahead with the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, and the war in Iraq. In the 2002 midterm elections, Republicans won 70 percent of the libertarian vote to the Democrats' 23, but in 2006, the split was much closer: 54-46.

This year, Paul engaged these voters in ways no fellow Republican dared, and no Libertarian Party candidate had thought to try, wrapping his opposition to domestic spying, torture, and taxes in a shrewd populism. During the Republican debates, the other candidates emphasized wealth and security, but "the rhetoric of freedom was almost entirely missing, except for Ron Paul," Teachout observes. "This is a really deep American idea. If only one candidate talks about it, that's really exciting [to voters], and there is some anger that the other candidates are not."

Paul is soft-spoken, charming, and articulate but not particularly charismatic. Supporters tend to see him as a straight-talking everyman, someone for whom appearances are less important than classic American values. He grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, where his first job, at age five, was to watch as his uncle washed milk bottles and put them on a conveyor belt. He earned a penny for every dirty bottle he found. Money saved from delivering newspapers, mowing lawns, and working at a drug store and coffee shop paid for college. Ron Paul was "brought up with the ethic that you worked for six days a week and went to church on the seventh," his wife, Carol, has written. These early experiences would inform his belief that anyone can succeed in life—without the help of the government.

Paul's near mythical biography helps him evoke the memory of an older, better, and mostly forgotten American republic, lending his radical ideas the legitimizing tinge of history. Throughout the campaign, Paul described himself as a Constitutionalist and pledged to uphold the document as the Founding Fathers (and not the Bush administration) had intended. And he revived a nineteenth-century debate over the gold standard, addressing a long-dormant American suspicion of the federal banking system that had been awakened by the tumbling dollar.

"He is calling on our collective memory with these symbols that have a deep American resonance," Teachout says. "The Constitution and the gold standard are both really visceral symbols at a time when people are feeling insecure."

In a few other ways that went beyond the standard small-government script, Paul capitalized upon American disquiet. He broke with most libertarians to support much tighter controls on immigration, tapping into resurgent American nativism. And his pro-life views, though they doubtless wooed some cultural conservatives, aren't shared by the Libertarian Party. Still, both Paul stances find a place in the wider libertarian tent, falling into an ideological sideshow, known as paleolibertarianism, which seeks common cause with the conservative movement that predated the neocons. The best-known exponent of this strain, Lewellyn Rockwell, is Paul's former chief of staff and directs the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a paleolibertarian think tank in Auburn, Alabama.

The clear downside of Paul's populist brand of libertarianism is that it has attracted an unusual amount of support for his campaign among racists. In November, the Paul campaign refused to return a $500 donation from the publisher of a well-known neo-Nazi website after it was brought to his attention. Two months later, The New Republic reported that dozens of overtly racist articles had appeared over the span of decades in newsletters published under Paul's name. Although Paul denied knowledge of the articles, Munger, the Libertarian Duke political scientist, faults him for, at minimum, creating an environment in which racism flourishes. As if to make amends, Paul held his third money-bomb fundraiser, which raised nearly $2 million, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "Two great men, with one great message," says the script of a slick video promoting the event. Both King and Paul were fighting back against the "War on Freedom," according to the video.

A montage of protest and battle footage that screens like the preview to a Hollywood thriller, the video was created and posted on YouTube by a twenty-five-year-old. It is one of hundreds of independent short films, music videos, and websites supporting Paul that have been posted online by volunteers in their twenties and thirties. Many of the ads call to mind libertarian messages in commercials such as Apple's "Think Different" campaign, a fitting parallel given that the Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 in the living room of an advertising executive. "We might be coming full circle," Teachout says, "where there is this co-option [in campaign ads] of this libertarian language in advertising—be yourself, don't be dominated—which is now actually pretty deeply embedded in young people."

As the major state primaries neared, Paul's newbie volunteers had created so many pro-Paul ads on the Net, donated so much money, and swarmed so many online straw polls (often to the point that media outlets spiked the polls or removed Paul's name) that they posed the risk of creating an echo chamber. Someone who lived online might never know that Paul polled in the low single digits in the real world. Many Netizens believed the polls were wrong and the media were complicit in the cover-up. "People I know, people who were otherwise rational, they were shocked when he did so poorly, when the polls proved accurate," Munger says. He worries that the crushing defeat might discourage Paulites from future activism. "A lot of them are going to swear off politics forever."

Reflecting on history: Paul gathers his thoughts in the Iowa Historical Building, surrounded by a retrospective exhibit of the state's caucuses.

Reflecting on history: Paul gathers his thoughts in the Iowa Historical Building, surrounded by a retrospective exhibit of the state's caucuses. Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux

Dean's sudden, demoralizing loss in Iowa, however, did not hamper the long-term zeal of his volunteers. "The primary experience of the Dean campaign seemed to be a recognition of power, as opposed to depression," Teachout says. Staffers were depressed. Volunteers, not so much. Partly that's because they had found a social network of like-minded people; making friends can be almost as fun as winning.

The most reliable determinant of political volunteerism is whether somebody has volunteered in the past, Munger notes. And members of Meetup groups, which gather on a regular basis, are even more likely than other political activists to stay involved, Teachout says. By encouraging his supporters to rely on Meetup, Paul "probably has created a new network of libertarian-oriented activist groups around the country that will really see their power [within the GOP] ten years from now."

The vexing question for Paul supporters is how to volunteer right now or in the next election. Unlike the Dean campaign, which encouraged its local Meetup groups to devote half of their time to working on local issues, Paul's Meetups have been more focused on Paul. And with "Dr. No" neutralized, there are few other viable libertarian-leaning Republicans or Libertarian Party candidates for his supporters to rally around. Libertarian activists lack anything resembling a strong political farm team, unlike the Deaniacs, who in 2006 backed a bumper crop of antiwar Democratic Congressional candidates. "The analogy to the Dean campaign is false," Munger says. "The Ron Paul campaign is sui generis. People made contributions in large numbers but without any sort of political sophistication or sense of what do we do next. And that's what's missing: the next step up the pyramid."

Already, though, a few Paul partisans have vaulted up to the next level of political sophistication. Independent websites such as ronpaulsacrossamerica.com and PaulCongress.com list Republican and Libertarian Party candidates who have been endorsed by Paul or share his agenda. PaulCongress.com creator Tim Fauer, a retail manager from New Mexico, acknowledges that only a handful of the candidates have a prayer of winning and that none of them has experienced anything close to Paul's fundraising success. Still, he says, "People I talk to say they are in this for the long term. This is a movement, and not just a presidential campaign."

People who hold libertarian views sharply disagree over whether to pursue the movement within the constraints of the GOP or redirect their efforts back into the Libertarian Party. That Paul failed to win a single GOP state primary with his arsenal of cash and volunteers convinced Munger that no libertarian will anytime soon. The Republican blogosphere remains hostile to Paul (RedState.com banned his supporters from promoting their candidate in the blog's comments section), and the grass-roots party structure is dominated by Evangelical Christians. Better to act as a third-party spoiler in the general election, "where at least it's close," Munger says. On the other side of the debate, Brian Doherty, an editor with the libertarian magazine Reason, sees in the outsized influence of Evangelicals the idea that a committed cadre of libertarian activists could sway the Republican Party despite their limited numbers. Yet he notes that rigid ideologues like Paul don't make attractive party members. "That's actually why the GOP is a little less respectful of them than you'd think they might be," he says.

In the short term, several events could prove pivotal to Paul's movement. The campaign is promoting a "Ron Paul Freedom March" on Washington for this summer, which is billed as "the largest rally and march for freedom in recorded history." A large turnout could carry the movement into the next stage; a paltry showing could help deflate it. And Paul has yet to announce whether he'll use his multimillion-dollar war chest to support like-minded local candidates. His followers are divided on the question. Given the decentralized nature of Paul's campaign, though, it's clear that whatever he does will matter less than decisions made between now and the next election by his thousands of avid supporters. They, not Paul, are the real revolution.