Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ron Paul and the Libertarian Movement: An Interview With Brian Doherty

Originally published in Red Racing Horses.

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Brian Doherty is the Senior Political Editor of Reason, a monthly libertarian magazine, and the author of a forthcoming biography on Rep. Ron Paul entitled Ron Paul's rEVOLution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired. We discuss how old libertarian rivalries are dying with Ron Paul's new followers, why the candidate's young supporters may be more intellectual than you think, and how Doherty didn't see Paul's rise coming two years before it happened. You can pre-order the book, which comes out on May 15th, here.

Red Racing Horses: A couple of months ago I read Radicals for Capitalism, and the big thing that stuck out at me reading it now is that there is not very much discussion of Ron Paul. And since then, you've noted just how significant he has become in the libertarian movement. How did Ron Paul manage to start such a major political movement without anyone noticing?

Brian Doherty: That is a majorly perceptive question, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to explain that. That book was published in 2007, but it had a really long production process. I was done with it completely by early 2006, and in the context of early 2006 Ron Paul was just this sort of weird curiosity on the scene. He was a very obscure congressman, very hard-core libertarian, kinda no one understood how he was there but there he was. In that context, I thought the sort of 2-3 pages I gave him were about what he deserved. When he made the decision to run for President in early 2007, he proved me and himself really, and I think nearly everyone involved, wrong about how important he was going to turn out to be.

I think the simple answer to, "How did Ron Paul become what Ron Paul became?" is that he made the decision to run for President. As much as libertarians and people like me disdain electoral politics (which I definitely do, I kind of in general don't find it very interesting or important) it is undeniable that the context of national elections is where almost all Americans engage with and think about political ideas. If Ron Paul were just a congressman or just a guy chattering on the Internet about liberty, hardly anybody will pay attention. But because he was a guy running for President, he was on the debate stages in 2007 and 2008 with the other Republican candidates, which was very key. You know, I interviewed hundreds of Ron Paul fans for my book, and overwhelmingly the answer to the question, "How did you get into the Ron Paul?" they were either watching the debates or some friend sent them a Youtube clip of one of the debates. So Ron Paul had this opportunity to say what he has always been saying in the context where people were actually paying attention, and once they started paying attention a surprising number of people found it very interesting.

It is also worth noting that almost all of the fans and supporters of Ron Paul gathered for his presidential run this time or last time were not people who previously thought of themselves as libertarians, were not people who had any connections to the libertarian movement or cared about the Libertarian Party or read Reason magazine or read my book, these were just normal Americans, to a large degree people who would say, "I kind of didn't care about politics, I was alienated, I was frustrated, I thought it was all bullsh*t, every politician seemed like an idiot," and said, "Oh, this makes sense. I didn't know I was a libertarian, but this guy makes sense to me and then they were brought into the fold."

RRH: Ron Paul is known for being able to bring in a lot of youth supporters. He'll tell you, when people ask him about it, that the young people just love sound money, individual money and small government. Do you think there is more to it than that?

BD: I'm not sure that I would- I mean don't want to say no, there's nothing more to it, but to say there is more to it is to imply that there is something emotional about it, or there is something like a cultural zeitgeist, and I actually did find when I did talk one-on-one with these people, it really is a level of intellectual engagement and conversion. They hear this stuff and, unlike almost any other politician, Ron Paul, if you start listening to Ron Paul and getting involved in the world of Ron Paul, posting on the Ron Paul message boards, getting involved in the Ron Paul blogs like Ron Paul Forums and the Daily Paul, you start hearing about other books and other ideas. Paul actually leads people to this pre-existing intellectual world of libertarians. He will tell them read von Mises, read Bastiat, read Blowback by Chalmers Johnson.

It is a very intellectual thing. It's somewhat oversimplifying to say there is nothing more to it than the ideas, but I think you're misjudging what is actually happening if you don't make the ideas central. These people hear things, they read more, they think about it, and they find that they agree... [For example,] the Fed stuff, that's an extremely complicated historical and economic argument that people read and hear more about it and decide it makes sense to them.

RRH: On the flip-side of Ron Paul's success, is the libertarian movement at-large at risk of becoming too Ron Paul centric?

BD: My gut reaction to that is that it is not a worry of mine. Of course this is a guy who has a book about Ron Paul coming out, so it may be a self-interested answer, but I will step back and skylark a bit about why someone might think that and there might be some validity to that point... That is that when the campaign is over and let's say Ron Paul does not end up the nominee in 2012, and at 76 he is not going to be running for national office again, so does all of that energy just dissipate? I think it's likely that a lot of it is going to dissipate, yes.

There's probably a whole- I don't know how [acquainted with] the whole Austrian economics thing you are, but they talk a lot about the boom bust cycle. You might say the libertarian movement is going through the Ron Paul boom bust cycle where we are going through a boom right now, but if he doesn't actually end up winning the nomination we are going through a bit of a bust. But there is absolutely going to be a libertarian movement larger and more viable than in 2006 when my book came out. And even if 70% of these excited Ron Paul voters or activists get frustrated and move beyond politics, that is still going to leave a group of libertarian-minded activists and donors that is way bigger than in 2006.

RRH: One thing I have noticed in conversations with a lot of newer Ron Paul supporters is that they don't have any concept of the history of the movement. So one of the bigger fractures that sticks out is the divide between the 'beltway' libertarian crowd and the Mises Institute crowd. Do you see that becoming less of an issue as all of these new supporters come in?

BD: I agree with you for the exact reason you just said, because they don't even know about it. I find when you try to explain it to them, it just doesn't make sense to them. They get into Ron Paul, eventually they're going to hear about the Mises Institute and get on their website. Almost certainly eventually they're going to hear about CATO, and they're probably going to like both of them, and I find in most cases they do. They might recognize that, "Oh, these people are reaching different people and have a different style," but honestly if you read my book, the whole root of that whole fight is super-personal. I mean, they all have recognizable ideological and attitudinal differences. But the reason why people are so up in arms about it honestly does come down to personal things that happened in the 1980s between Murray Rothbard and Ed Crane or Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul or whatever. But I am very pleased to see a younger generation of libertarian-minded people who don't care about those old feuds that recognize every side of that divide is reaching out to a different audience and that's good for them. Obviously Mises isn't going to appeal to everyone; CATO is not going to appeal to everyone. So it's great in your whole market differentiation thing that different people with different approaches and- I very much think, the libertarian movement 5-10 years from now, because of this Ron Paul influx, will not be stuck in this old divide.

RRH: As far as some of the other actors that are important in the libertarian movement. I am sure you have read all of the pieces about how the Koch brothers and the network of institutions they helped finance and provided seed money to, that they provided a space for the rise of the Tea Party movement (with a negative value judgment attached to it). What type of role does this network of libertarian institutions play now? Will they be able to capitalize on this new influx of activists?

BD: When you say they do you mean existing libertarian institutions?

RRH: Yeah. CATO, IHS [Institute for Humane Studies], that type.

BD: Sure. Yeah, I don't see a lot of conscious attempts to capitalize, and to a certain degree I'm seeing attempts to keep the whole Paul thing at arm's length. There are reasons for that that are buried in these things we were just talking about, the whole "We associate Paul with the Mises Institute side of things."  You'll see people like Matt Zwolinski [of Bleeding Heart Libertarians] say "Don't support Ron Paul, support IHS instead..."

But whether or not they consciously make an attempt to embrace or not embrace the Ron Paul people, what we are faced with is thousands of people between the ages of 18-30 who are very excited about these ideas, that are going to go on their own intellectual odysseys, who will no longer have a Ron Paul campaign to occupy all of the attention, and they are going to find CATO. They are going to find IHS. They are going to find Reason. They are probably going to build a new generation of organizations. The Ron Paul world specifically has Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty [full disclosure: Surman is an active member of YAL]. There's Students for Liberty- I mean, there are two large, active, college-oriented libertarian groups, which to me is amazing because for most of my lifetime there was none. There was Students for a Libertarian Society active in the late 70s, early 80s, and then there was nothing. Right now we have two: Young Americans for Liberty, which is explicitly Paulist, and Students for Liberty, which is a little bit more of the CATO / Koch vibe. But again, when you talk to the kids..., they're not so worried about that stuff. It's going to benefit these existing libertarian institutions whether or not they are trying to make them benefit or not.

RRH: One last quick thing.  Former Governor Gary Johnson is also running as a Libertarian right now, and he tried to run for the Paul mantle until Paul ran for the Republican nomination. So do you see his bid as having any impact, or is it going to be another bid that comes close to hitting 1% but not quite.

BD: I think that depends very much on how well Paul does in the next three months within the Republican Party. And if that whole campaign, with the Republican Party totally pissing on Ron's shoes again like they did last year, if the great majority of Paul people walk away from this primary campaign feeling like, "Screw you Republican Party, I hate you and I want you to die," then undoubtedly a lot of those people are going to vote for Gary Johnson. But I would say that if the Republican Party is at least respectful to Ron Paul moving forward, that Gary Johnson will [still] unquestionably do better than any Libertarian has ever done- I really don't like making precise guesses, I don't think I'm such a great future-teller, but in such a context I think Gary getting 3-5% might not be an insane guess. If somehow Paul people come out of this feeling, "Ok we didn't win, but we are making important inroads in this party for our ideas, and that maybe completely walking away from this major party and all of the benefits a major party brings might not be the smartest idea," then Gary will probably be more in the 1 million vote range.

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