Although not a single vote has been cast, it’s safe to say that Ron Paul has run the most successful libertarian presidential campaign in American history. Sure, the Libertarian Party nominates a candidate every term, but said candidate struggles to garner money and media attention. Paul, however, has become a legitimate phenomenon, if not a particularly likely GOP nominee. With his full-throated rejection of the imperial project in Iraq and a radical vision of a stripped-down state (though, oddly, one that still forces pregnancy), he’s attracting large crowds at campaign events and polling at a healthy 8 percent in New Hampshire. In November he broke the single-day fundraising record with a $4.2 million haul.
So you would think that the circle of DC-based libertarians centered around the Cato Institute would be ecstatic. Not quite. “He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person that’s tapping into those elements of American public opinion that might lead towards a sustainable move in the libertarian direction,” says Cato vice president for research Brink Lindsey.
Self-identified libertarians may be a tiny portion of the electorate, but small numbers have never stood in the way of bitter intramural sectarian disputes. When Lindsey says that Paul “comes from a different part of the libertarian universe than I do,” he’s referring to the libertarian version of the Trotsky/Lenin split, which opened up in the early 1980s and continues to echo through libertarianism today.
In 1981 American libertarianism’s founding father, Murray Rothbard, had a falling out with Cato leaders over their weak-kneed conception of libertarianism as “low tax liberalism.” After being kicked off the board of the organization he had helped found, Rothbard, a Jewish, Bronx-born economist who’d studied with Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, helped found the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. The institute became the intellectual center for what Rothbard protégé Lew Rockwell termed “paleolibertarianism,” a worldview rooted squarely in the populist Old Right tradition. Paleolibertarians tend to be culturally conservative (attracting, on the edges, a fair share of Confederacy nostalgists and white supremacists), zealously against imperial foreign policy and the Federal Reserve. “Ron Paul has shown that the core of the state is the Pentagon and the Federal Reserve,” says Rockwell, who was Paul’s Congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982.
The division between paleolibertarians, centered around the Mises Institute, and cosmopolitan libertarians, centered around Cato, is also a case of “culture clash,” according to Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com and prominent member of the Mises set. “There’s the populist wing of the libertarian movement, and then there’s the Washington crowd that’s still trying to sell libertarianism, or their version of it, to elites. These people want to go along and get along. As long as they can abort their babies and sodomize each other and take as many drugs as they want to, they are happy. They don’t care who is being killed in Iraq and how many Iraqis are dying. That’s their hierarchy of values.”
As you can tell, there’s no love lost between the two camps. One DC-based libertarian–who asked not to be named because he “would like to avoid getting endless 2 am calls from nuts yelling at me for not agreeing with the gold standard”–told me he thinks Rockwell is “one of the most loathsome people ever to set foot on this continent.”
But nothing breeds harmony like success, and the Paul bandwagon is now getting big enough for both the Hatfields and the McCoys to get on board. “Our readership is very enthusiastic,” says Nick Gillespie, editor of the DC-based magazine Reason. A few months ago Reason published an article titled “Is He Good for the Libertarians?” That no longer seems an open question. “On basic fundamental issues he speaks strongly for libertarians, regardless of the flavoring,” says Gillespie, who recently co-wrote a pro-Paul op-ed in the Washington Post.
This gets to the paradox at the heart of the Paul campaign: he’s the candidate least likely to hedge or obfuscate, the most apt to spell out in sharp detail his underlying principles–and yet he’s also something of an ideological cipher, attracting the support of everyone from hipstertarian kids on Northeast college campuses to John Birchers in Texas. “You have this weird group of people,” says Lindsey. “You’ve got libertarians, you’ve got antiwar types and you’ve got nationalists and xenophobes. I’m not sure that is leading anywhere. I think he’s a sui generis type of guy who’s cobbling together some irreconcilable constituencies, many of which are backward-looking rather than forward-looking.”
But even if the Paul campaign doesn’t point the way toward some lasting, powerful, paleo-cosmo libertarian coalition (and, really, let’s hope it doesn’t), he is at least providing libertarians with a long-awaited Kumbaya moment. “There are personal animosities that will probably never heal,” says Raimondo. “But, you know, maybe Ron Paul can unite us all.”