I’ve been pleased to see several progressives making qualified defenses of Ron Paul in the last few days, and I wanted to join in. The most important point about Ron Paul’s campaign from a progressive standpoint is that it might politicize the militant American policy in the Middle East. Americans will get to argue this openly. That is why the Washington Post is slamming Paul--it doesn't want that to happen. That is why the New York Times has conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and white supremacism--to marginalize Ron Paul's ideas.
Imagine for a moment that Ron Paul is not there. And that Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum, or Michele Bachmann, gets the Republican nomination and it's him/her against Barack Obama. Who is going to be framing an antiwar position? None of them. Obama's big donors are pushing an attack on Iran and Romney's Super Pac is pushing the same and Santorum and Bachmann's Christian Zionist friends are pushing war.
Ron Paul represents the opportunity to push an antiwar agenda inside the center-ring political system. His candidacy might actually force Romney and Obama into more antiwar positions. If he disappears, that prospect all but vanishes. An attack on Iran might actually be in the balance. On the other hand, if he sticks around, we might have a presidential debate in which candidates openly dispute aid to Israel, an attack on Iran, and what Paul has called apartheid conditions on the West Bank, with honesty no other candidate is capable of.
If you care about the antiwar issue, joining with Ron Paul is like seculars joining with the Muslim Brothers to get rid of Mubarak. You needed a broad coalition to push Hosni out. In the end, that coalition did the impossible; it moved Obama. Obama wouldn't have jumped in if not for Tahrir. He needed political cover, and a popular coalition gave it to him.
But what if leftwing secular social-media types had stood around Tahrir Square asking the smart question, Hey what do these folks-- Muslim Brothers and Salafis-- want to do with the role of women in politics? They would never have gotten rid of Mubarak.
Similarly, if progressives fasten on the fact that Ron Paul published racism in his newsletters in the 1990s and has never come clean on this-- all true--they will lack the political power to take on the antiwar agenda. Occupy Wall Street is way more timid on the antiwar issue than Ron Paul. (The other day a commenter on this site said that OWS has vacillated on the Iran sanctions issue. If this is true, it's shocking.)
There is a larger political challenge to progressives in Paul's movement. He has a populist movement behind him that seems to have a couple of good ideas. Can progressives engage populists? What class and cultural divides stop us from doing so? Is this a blue-state/red-state issue, or a working and middle class issue? And what is the public-square role of progressives? Are we only in Zuccotti Park? Are we so intolerant of American political processes that we will refuse to engage, holding our nose or not, to try and shift a popular movement? I'm not telling progressives to engage with social conservatives or Tea Partiers-- but Ron Paul has embraced the great Bradley Manning and denounced the Patriot Act.
And if you deny the importance of red state populism, then what is the progressive political program? With our books and our websites, are we just elites staking out righteous positions and not dealing with the vast ignorance of the American people on any number of issues? In that sense, the question of engaging with Ron Paul is the question of whether you believe in the messy business of American politics, in organizing the kind of people who may have to go serve in those awful wars, in bands of public opinion that you can either loftily disdain, or hear out.
Go back to Tahrir for a minute. The privileged seculars with whom I identify are a tiny minority. They teamed up with many intolerant people in order to revolutionize the political order. And let's be clear: This is the nature of Egyptian society; as James North wrote in his very respectful piece here last week, Egypt is socially conservative. But Tahrir seems to have transformed the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers worked closely with the seculars, and are surely evolving, socially. Alas, Salafis are a whole other story. In Tunisia the same division among Islamists is taking place; and the seculars know they must be engaged with these folks.
This election year campaign is the American equivalent of Tahrir. We don't have revolutions, we have elections. And this is our chance to push the antiwar issue--by sharing spaces with people who may be objectionable in other ways.
One way Paul is unbearable is his whiteness. His movement seems almost entirely white, and there is the white racism in his past. But these are not skinheads. And the issue is: Can progressives engage these people? Can they learn anything from Paul's radical economic agenda? And while you are judging that racism, look at the role of Zionism in progressive communities. The casually-racist statements about Arabs that are absolutely routine in my community. "Arabs and other animals"-- chapter title, Erica Jong's bestseller, Fear of Flying.
Or look at this: Obama campaigns with Eric Yoffie, who doesn't want "too many Arabs" in Israel. Yoffie didn't say that in the '90s. He says it now, all the time. And Obama goes happily to AIPAC, which all but sponsors ethnic cleansing.
You say promoting Paul is dangerous. Here is my insurance policy. Ron Paul will not win. He can’t. Our society is so constituted that if the media elites don’t get him, the mainstream voters will. He’s too eccentric. “Erratic,” as the CSPAN callers like to say. His economic positions (not his foreign policy positions) are the ones that are way outside the mainstream. He won’t win. In the meantime, the further he goes the more he will politicize foreign-policy issues. Myself, I will almost certainly follow Tony Kushner's imperative at the Nation Institute gala last month, to support Barack Obama. I'm going to have to hold my nose to do that. In other years I've voted for Ralph Nader and Jesse Jackson; but I don't think I'll have that option this year.
Obama will be a better policymaker the longer Ron Paul is in the process. Paul will actually give Obama more political capital to take on the warmongers and neoconservatives by raising consciousness on these issues. I don’t want Ron Paul's foreign-policy ideas to be in the margins of political life, I want them in the mainstream. That is what he represents.