Let's face it, the dogged Republican quest to find the one "true conservative" is beginning to look more and more like the search for the Holy Grail. It's an article of faith for most Republican stalwarts that there should be some such animal; but, it seems, the voters can't make up their mind just which contender fits that bill of particulars. Mitt's devotion to the ideal scores high in one primary; Santorum's in another; then enter Newt, managing to capture some piece of primary fame and glory. The series of Republican debates has become, in essence, the most entertaining variety show since Ed Sullivan.
Standing quirkily apart, is Ron Paul: one time Libertarian Party Presidential candidate (1988), gone mainstream Republican. I've always thought of him as something of a cross between the kindly TV icon, Dr. Marcus Welby, and the infinitely patient Fred Rogers, star of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Except in Ron Paul's neighborhood, bankers don't get bailed out and if you've got a prescription to be filled, don't count on Medicaid to pay.
At 76, Ron Paul remains the most visible standard bearer for the Libertarian ideal of absolute freedom, or at least as much as you can get. In the primary ring, he doesn't do much dancing or rope-a-doping; he boxes with a flat footed style, absorbing body blows, staying composed and readying himself for the next flurry of jabs. His followers are passionate and loyal; a "give me space/get out of my face" crowd that runs the gamut from middle-aged, middle-American pistol packers to an under-30 "let me smoke/snort/shoot up my drugs of choice" crowd. The debates are boxing matches; Ron's fans shout and cheer when he scores with a particularly incongruous remark. This is followed by a sense of apoplectic unease among traditional Republicans when he calls for things like no foreign aid for anybody - and that includes Israel.
But, I submit, Ron Paul is blazing a trail on an old road, one that's lined, philosophically, with both Libertarian and Anarchist pavers. Yes, Anarchism: the word whose name Fox News dares not speak -- except as an epithet. Is it a stretch to call Ron Paul an "anarchist?" Is it possible that even one Presidential contender could be painted with that brush?
If you google Ron Paul/Anarchism you'll get a number of interesting hits: a confusing mix of yes, no, and maybe. Anarchism and Libertarianism are two political philosophies that have clearly shared the same space, though emerging from wildly different places. For every anarcho-communist or anarcho-syndicalist you find under the bed, there's an anarcho-individualist and anarcho-capitalist lurking nearby.
This notion of who is and isn't an anarchist, and who acts like an anarchist, without explicitly flaunting the label, was a question that inspired a 1980 documentary, ANARCHISM IN AMERICA, produced by Pacific Street Films (a company I co-founded along with Steven Fischler), and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our colleague and partner in this endeavor was Paul Berman, the author, critic, and now MacArthur fellow, one of whose works is titled "Quotations from the Anarchists." The humanities theme we pursued in the film was simple: is "anarchism" something that washed up on our shores, brought here by a rag tag bunch of immigrants, mainly Jews and Italians, fleeing late 19th century class warfare in Europe? Or was there a nativist brand, evolved as part and parcel of the American character?
The so-called "American as Anarchist" theory, postulated on the observation that over here (as opposed to over there: Europe) we hate being told what to do, where to go, who to be friends with, and that rather than blindly follow orders, we'll bolt and run at the earliest opportunity. One of our interviewees back then, who has now ascended to the status of Poet Laureate of the United States, was the self-described anarchist, Philip Levine. His experiences living in England convinced him that there was something distinctly un-American in the way most Brits conformed to their societal norms, he told us, "staying in line, cueing up... while I broke all the rules." To be an American, he related, was to be street smart; to know for whom the laws were made and who they benefited (his example: John D Rockefeller). His conclusion: the anti-authoritarian streak was not necessarily anarchist, but simply American.
Ron Paul taps into this same sensibility, or at least what's left of it. "How do we minimize the role of the State? To bring about radical and permanent change in any society, our primary focus must be on the conversion of minds through education," he has said.
But there's a downside: when you wander through a forest of alternative political thinking you're bound to pick up a few cockleburs -- in his case, accusations that he's been supported by White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups. Whether there's any truth to the allegations (which many of his opponents would like to believe) the controversy has certainly guaranteed that his dream of inhabiting the White House will never go beyond a fantasy. Whether Ron's run for the White House will deposit any unwanted baggage at the doorstep of his Libertarian supporters - tarring the message -- also remains to be seen. But it may prove useful for those on the left (or even those in the dazed and confused moderate right or middle ) to examine just what the message is, and its applicability to the way we live today in a post 9-11 society.
Anarchism, in any guise, champions the struggle of the individual against institutions; the underlying premise being a call for more rather than less freedom, even when circumstances seem to dictate the opposite (think: Patriot Act). Ron Paul, as a spokesperson for this general idea, is usually given short shrift by pundits and editorialists, who are quick to shove him into the "crackpot" category (most recently by Paul Krugman in the New York Times). However, it doesn't obscure a message that's become downright appealing for a constituency on both sides of the political fence, and he's capturing an audience with an ever younger demographic.
We did witness an interesting left/right convergence of sorts when filming ANARCHISM IN AMERICA. At a Libertarian Party conference in 1980, one of the invited guests, left wing anarchist theoretician Murray Bookchin told an enthusiastic audience of buttoned down, white bread Libertarian conservatives, "I believe in individual freedom, as my primary and complete commitment, and when I normally encounter my so-called colleagues on the left - socialist, Marxist, communist - they tell me that after the revolution they're going to shoot me and Karl. I feel much safer in your company."
Bookchin was sharing the podium with Karl Hess; a Libertarian with a particularly interesting pedigree. As a political speechwriter, he'd penned the famous lines for Barry Goldwater's 1964 Republican Presidential acceptance speech: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Poetic as those words were, they also helped lose the election for Barry; tarring him with a "if you elect this guy we're all screwed" label and igniting a Democratic counter-campaign that featured the famous TV spot, "Daisy," juxtaposing a young girl with a flower set against a slowly ascending mushroom cloud.
After Goldwater's defeat, Hess, disillusioned, bade a fond farewell to the Republican camp. He fled south to a West Virginia homestead (where we encountered him); took up commercial welding, refused to pay taxes and began to study the writings of the 19th century American Individualist anarchists, among them, Lysander Spooner (individualist and abolitionist); Benjamin Tucker ("unterrified Jeffersonian"); and Ezra and Angela Heywood (believers in free love and feminism). He also immersed himself in the work of the 20th century Libertarian Party muses like Murray Rothbart and Ludwig von Mises, both part of the Austrian School of Economics. Then, he recalls, a funny thing happened on the way to the Libertarian forum: Hess discovered Emma Goldman.
"When I read Emma Goldman," he told us, "you immediately see, consciously or not, that she's the source of the best in Ayn Rand. She has the essential points that the Ayn Rand philosophy makes, but without this crazy solipsism that Rand is fond of, the notion that people accomplish everything in isolation. Emma Goldman writes that all history is a struggle of the individual against the institution, which is what I always thought Republicans were saying."
Heady stuff coming from a guy still considered a Libertarian Party icon, and while Hess was fleeing from the tax man, Ron Paul was ensconced with Libertarian Party colleagues discussing the arcane economic theories of self described "anarcho-capitalist" Murray Rothbard.
"Ron Paul, in short, is that rare American, and still rarer politician, who deeply understands and battles for the principles of liberty that were fought for and established by the Founding Fathers of this country. He understands that sound economics, moral principles, and individual freedom all go together, like a seamless web," Rothbard said in his preface for Paul's book, Gold, Peace, and Prosperity: The Birth of a New Currency. Although Ron Paul has entered a mainstream political stage his economic tap dance remains essentially all Austrian, all Rothbard, all the time: Anti-Federal Reserve/Pro-Gold Standard.
It's been more than 30 years since ANARCHISM IN AMERICA was released. Things have changed to such a great degree that now the examples of "unconscious" anarchists, highlighted in the film (ie: independent truckers), may simply be viewed as cute relics of a bygone time. Post-911 American society has undergone a transformation; an alchemical process of conformity that's slowly breeding out the essential anti-authoritarian impulse. Today, surveillance cameras are ubiquitous; we're forced to submit to dehumanizing searches when boarding planes; questioned to death when applying for a driver's license; asked, and asked again for ID when entering the most benign of office buildings. The log line in this drama should read '1984 meets Brave New World,' where suspicion rules the day, perpetuated by fear-mongering institutions like the Teutonic sounding Homeland Security. Citizens are told what they can or can't do - whether it's smoke a cigarette in a park (No, says Mayor Bloomberg) or decide to abort a fetus (No, say three of the four Republican candidates). Ben Franklin, I'm sure, is rolling in his grave given how few remember his prescient admonition, "They, who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Back in the 1980s a bunch of us -- including Paul Berman -- used to troop down to the weekly meetings of something called the Libertarian Book Club. It was founded in 1946 by Jewish and Italian Anarchists of the extreme left wing variety. They were veterans of the 1930s labor struggles; some had ventured to Spain during the so-called civil war to work with anarchist colleagues in Barcelona, and, yes, they shared the same Libertarian sentiments as many of Ron Paul's current supporters.
For all his blemishes, Ron Paul has demonstrated that there is still a constituency that can be called on to hoist principle above political expediency. I've never considered the Tea Party movement compatible with Libertarian goals, since they've hoisted themselves on their own political petard by following a "means justifies the ends" political strategy. But whether Ron Paul's campaign machine would now consider an outreach to include a visible left component -- perhaps the OCCUPY movement -- is probably not in the cards. His playing style seems to be set, and his base of support is the previously mentioned usual suspects.
However, it is tempting to imagine a new fangled party styled on Libertarian lines: principled, but with fresh blood, a refreshed agenda and a something-we-can-all-agree on platform. Down the road this sort of movement might gain some real political traction; especially if we keep racing down the path towards more muscular restraints on personal freedom. I strongly suspect that there's still a hefty bit of gumption left in the American character, and if Ron Paul can help nurse that along, he's definitely added value to this Presidential race.
Joel Sucher, a New York film maker, is now working on "Foreclosure Diaries," a documentary about the financial crisis. If you would like to contribute, as a citizen journalist, to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections, please sign on at www.offthebus.org