Ron Paul's Revolution
By Bryan Caplan
Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired is the latest book by historian and journalist Brian Doherty. Like his magisterial Radicals for Capitalism, Ron Paul’s Revolution is first and foremost an oral history. Doherty lays out all the main facts, writes engagingly, and has a great sense of humor. But his book stands out because he interweaves the public record with hundreds of interviews. Doherty picks the brains of insiders, associates, critics, and Paul followers of every description. And that’s a lot of descriptions. Doherty affectionately calls them the “usual Paul fan motley”:
[C]oncerned veterans, pierced anarchists, conservative Christian moms, real estate brokers and homeschoolers and weapons enthusiasts and peace hippies.
Even now, it’s tempting to dismiss Paul for his lack of electoral success. But what’s amazing is that how far Paul got with minimal effort to pander to the median voter. He preaches peace, civil liberties, and drug legalization to Republicans – and actually makes headway:
…Ron Paul’s biggest problem is his foreign policy – even though in another sense Ron Paul’s biggest attraction is his foreign policy.
Both statements are very likely true. Pretty universally, when I ask someone in the amateur or professional business of selling Ron Paul to potential voters, What’s the biggest stumbling block they run into? the answer is: his foreign policy.
That was made abundantly clear at that moment in May 2007, the dustup with Guiliani, that launched the revolution in earnest. Paul’s foreign policy puts him outside the normal realms of not just his party, but any party. He’s the only politician willing to judge America’s foreign policy adventures by the same standard we apply to other countries’ foreign policy adventures…
He’s aware, he has to be, that his foreign policy stand is his hardest sell with the modal GOP primary voter. So he frequently reminds his audiences that a humble foreign policy is a political winner – for candidates.
Paul even has a strange tendency to downplay his libertarian deviations on immigration and abortion for the Republican audiences most likely to appreciate them.
If you’re just looking for a great history of the Ron Paul movement, this is the book for you. But Doherty’s narrative also indirectly raises the bigger – and, to my mind, more interesting – questions.
For starters, what on earth makes Paul so persuasive to so many people? Though I usually agree with Paul’s conclusions, his speeches strike me as rambling, even evasive. But in terms of measurable results, Paul is a master of rhetoric. His words inspire the apathetic and even convince the hostile. You might think that Paul’s followers fail to grasp what he’s saying, but Doherty’s first-hand account reveals extremely high issue awareness.
Perhaps the best story behind Paul’s success is that it’s the bandwagon effect in action. Ron Paul made himself focal in 2007 by sticking to his guns in the Republican debates. This didn’t just attract legions of the politically homeless; it also gave the politically homeless a home of their own. The Paul movement shows that people who don’t fit in still want to fit in. Indeed, they crave belonging more than all the normal people who take belonging for granted.
Will Paul’s legacy be any more lasting than, say, H. Ross Perot‘s? Doherty’s convinced that it will be. I’m still unsure, but Doherty’s definitely convinced me that practical politics is more mysterious than social scientists care to admit.