Ron Paul: Patron Saint of Conservative Hipsters?

This is the second article in a series about Texas congressman and two-time presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Last week we discussed how the libertarians of the past tended to be very well-off individuals who could afford to foot the bill for services provided by the government. At the same time, however, we noted that a great deal of support for Ron Paul’s campaign today comes from younger, college-age demographics that do not appear to fit this mold. This week, I will explore some of the nuances of these “new” libertarians, and hope to shed some light on the sociological phenomenon that is Ron Paul’s political success.

Daniel Parks

Supporters of Rep. Ron Paul gather outside Doe Library at the University of California, Berkeley, to hear him deliver a speech on the historic campus, April 5, 2012.

Put simply, why do young people, often with very uncertain futures, even amongst the most educated strata, support a candidate whose policies will often hurt them the most?

The reasons behind this are multifaceted. One of the reasons may be a burgeoning sense of intellectual arrogance among America’s youth, and, indeed, the rest of America, as well. The youth are drawn to Paul’s iconoclastic, “I know better than you, and so therefore I will not compromise” style in part because many of them also believe that they know how to do Washington’s job better than Washington. This is, of course, often not the case, as the trick to navigating the murky waters of federal politics is often hidden in subtle places not easily discernible to the naive eye. It is very easy to advocate cutting the Department of Education or the Department of Energy, but do those who advocate this really know what it means? For example, do they know that the Department of Energy supports about half of all non-biological basic research in the U.S.? It is easy to paint in broad strokes when one is not being scrutinized closely, but, to paraphrase Spider-Man, real power brings with it real responsibility.

Also, unlike with other candidates, supporters of Ron Paul feel that they can be certain that he would unequivocally do the things that he claims to support, or die trying. There is a sense of candor and conviction about Paul that has long since been lost by most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. This purity of purpose is very attractive to people of all stripes.

Unfortunately, this purity is there in part because Paul has always been a congressman on the fringe. If one is not mainstream enough to be taken seriously by the rest of Congress, there is no reason to compromise. While this sort of hard-headedness wins zealous followings from those ideologically similar to him, it will also inevitably cost him the moderate support needed to win any election at the national level.

Additionally, Paul has also often been described as the “intellectual godfather” of the Tea Party movement. Whatever one has to say about its tactics and the efficacy of its policies, it is undeniable that, at least for a brief period, the Tea Party was quite successful in getting a large number of candidates flying their banner elected to Congressional and state legislative offices, putting together an agenda that has caused consternation for both Democrats and Republicans alike, often employing the same unwillingness to bend that Paul personally exemplifies.

However, it is precisely this sort of identification with the extremes of the political spectrum that dooms Paul as a serious candidate.

Let it not be said that we accuse Ron Paul of being a fringe candidate solely because of his polling: many of his proposed policies are simply unworkable. Switching the country back to a gold standard would involve decreasing the money supply not by 20 percent, but to 20 percent of what it currently is, if every ingot of gold collectively owned by everyone in the United States were to be used to back the currency. Eliminating the Department of Energy at the onset of an energy crisis and eliminating the Department of Education at a time when American students continue to fall behind their international peers is insane. These are policies that grab attention, not traction.

But therein lies Paul’s secret, and another reason why he is so strongly supported: he is a rebel who does not particularly care if he wins.

To Paul, and to his supporters, the message is much more important than the man. This is the basis behind his refusal to compromise, and one of the key reasons why he attracts such a rabid following. If nothing else, Paul will not betray his convictions, and will soldier on without budging an inch. No one will ever accuse him of flip-flopping, because his goal isn’t to position himself to win an office, from which he can make his voice heard: in today’s 24 hour, blogosphere-driven media cycle, he can make his voice heard just as well, and much more cheaply, on the campaign trail.

Because of this, Ron Paul will continue to have a major impact on the American political and cultural landscape even if none of his preferred policies is ever enacted. In next week’s edition, we will explore just what some of these impacts might be.