On Voter PrioritiesPosted: January 3, 2012
A Response to Taryn Hart.
As his infamous newsletters resurface, as he gains national support, and as the Iowa caucus is held today, Ron Paul is all over the damn Internet, especially in progressive circles. Matt Stoller, Mike Tracey, Robert Scheer, and Glenn Greenwald – among many others – have all written compelling pieces on the liberal debates surrounding the noted libertarian.
Taryn Hart, who blogs at Plutocracy Files (whose Occupy Wall Street interview work I recommend), joins the discussion to critique Greenwald’s article, and since she requested my thoughts, I’ll provide them here. The piece is called “Glenn Greenwald on Ron Paul: Why Worldview Matters.”
A preliminary reminder: Hart is not among the primary targets of Greenwald’s piece. The article, entitled “Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies,” first and foremost takes aim at progressives who support Obama over Paul and continue to tout their anti-war credentials. As Hart makes explicitly clear in her first footnote, she does not “support Obama nor justify his actions as President.” Hart has claimed she is considering not voting, and I hope she revisits that discussion soon.
But she is a progressive, and the question of support for Paul, or at least his candidacy, remains. Hart’s criticism of Greenwald’s argument goes like this:
Specifically, Greenwald’s argument assumes that all that matters is a candidate’s positions on isolated issues – as if it’s just a matter of creating a ranked pro and con list for each candidate and crunching the numbers.
Greenwald suggests choosing between the candidates is just a matter of prioritizing a limited list of isolated issues. However, it’s not just a candidate’s positions on individual issues that are important**; what’s also important (in most instances more important) is the candidate’s worldview. A President’s worldview will determine the outcome of thousands of decisions the President will make, almost all of which will not be campaign issues and many of which are unforeseeable.
First, I take issue with the “isolated issues” claim – one I think trivializes progressives’ stance. Paul opposes our current wars (hot, cold, covert, on drugs, and on whistleblowers), opposes imperialism, has called American corporatism a route to “soft fascism,” supports Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, has praised Occupy Wall Street, and opposes the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance and police state. These are many issues that progressives (especially under Bush) have supported in the past, and they are hardly isolated – reducing the military-industrial complex would reduce our national deficit, removing our troops from the Middle East and ending support for Israeli apartheid would have drastic effects in global relations, to comment on just two.
Furthermore, though, I have a problem with the argument that voters don’t prioritize a list of individual issues. I agree that ideally we’d have candidates who supported our worldview and subsequently would take all the positions we’d want them to take, but the fact remains that we don’t. I get the feeling that Hart would support someone like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich, if they were running. But since we’re discussing who actually is running, and therefore who could actually be the next president, I’d argue that voters do prioritize their lists of issues. Since there will never be a candidate who supports all of our positions, and since Hart is not arguing (here) against voting altogether, I think it’d behoove Hart to reconsider Greenwald’s brutally honest hypothetical, which she quotes and denounces:
It’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else. An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:
Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.
The point is, someone is going to be president come 2013. If you’re a progressive who plans on voting, you cannot ignore this set of choices. This is a limited version of “lesser-evilism,” or voting for someone who holds positions you dislike in favor of someone whose positions you dislike even more. But for me at least, and I am a progressive who values Paul’s candidacy without endorsing it, it’s a very specific one that puts my anti-war, pro-civil-liberties stances first. It’s saying that if you’re going to choose a lesser evil, stop arguing that Obama is the lesser evil on these many important issues.
There are many examples of liberals putting specific values first. Balloon Juice writer DougJ proclaims:
For a liberal like me, who is primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class and in providing opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc., I just don’t see why I should be “challenged” by Ron Paul. I understand that if you’re a liberal who is primarily interested in civil liberties and a less bellicose foreign policy, then you might be conflicted about Paul. But to me, he’s just another racist asshole who wants to fuck the American middle-class.
DougJ is explicitly arguing that the “well-being of the American middle-class” is more important than the lives of the Muslims we’re killing abroad, which he callously disguises as a “bellicose” foreign policy. This reads to me as arbitrary nationalism, dressed up as righteous middle-class protection.
David Atkins, in a particularly pedantic lecture, distorts this prioritizing here:
It’s true that some liberals are so legitimately incensed by President Obama’s transgressions on civil liberties that they are inclined to support Paul in the same way that a person obsessed with illegal immigration might support a hardline anti-immigration Democrat over a Republican like George W. Bush or John McCain. But both of those cases are standard single-issue monomanias. Neither case speaks to any sort of real ideological hypocrisy.
Atkins ignores the other aforementioned progressive stances to minimize the importance of civil liberties in favor of his preferred issues, like regulating corporations and a woman’s right to abortion.
Worldview does matter, but it can be easily overstated. Atkins argues with Paul’s worldview, even when it aligns with his positions:
Ron Paul is against the drug war, yes, but for the same reasons he is against preventing factories from dumping mercury in our rivers: he opposes any sort of intervention at all by the government to assist those in need, or to stop those who would do harm to others, except in the most simplistic cases of the use of force.
Ron Paul is against foreign interventions, yes, but for the same reason he opposes providing healthcare to sick people: he believes that the U.S. government should not be in the business of interfering against almost anyone, on behalf of anyone else.
J.A. Myerson approaches Paul’s foreign policy similarly (emphasize in original):
Yes, Ron Paul’s aversion to foreign policy leads him to adopt a host of positions that are very attractive, but they don’t come from a humane or sophisticated ideology.
To paraphrase both: I agree with Paul’s conclusions, but I disagree with how he got there. Both are putting the ideology above the policy, as is their preference. But if they’re going to be honest about their priorities, we must examine the consequences of those decisions. Is it really OK to allow the continued slaughter of innocent civilians just because it’s in the name of a president who claims to be a liberal? I can hardly stomach typing it out.
Everyone who votes prioritizes in some ways. If you’re arguing against prioritization, you’re arguing against American electoral politics (and I’m with you! Let’s talk about that!). But if you’re going to vote, no candidate will take your every position, and so you value some things above others. That Paul has caused such a progressive uproar speaks volumes about where priorities really lie.