Nothing Succeeds Like ‘Success’
Electoral politics and the future of the antiwar movement
The anti-interventionist movement, if we can refer to such an amorphous creature, is at a crossroads at the start of this election season. On the left, the remnants of the antiwar movement have been dispersed and absorbed into the Democratic party, where they have become foot soldiers for Obama — a President who has taken up the foreign policy of his immediate predecessor and injected it with some pretty strong steroids. Left-wing antiwar activism has almost disappeared entirely, except for the marginal protests of a few Marxist-Leninist grouplets. Indeed, some on the left are even jumping on the interventionist bandwagon,claiming the Western-backed Syrian rebels are really Marxist “revolutionaries,” and not Osama bin Laden-wannabees.
On the right, the only significant anti-interventionist mass movement in decades, the Ron Paul campaign, has been bushwhacked by the Romneyites, who have taken harsh administrative measures against Paul’s supporters and outright stolen a good number of their delegates to the Republican national convention, ensuring that the Paulians will be kept in a well-guarded corral in Tampa.
Ron Paul’s campaign has been a lodestar for anti-interventionists of the left as well as those on the right: it has inspired us, heartened us, and given us that most essential fuel — hope. Now it is giving us a lesson in how the political system in our “democratic” country really works.
The two-party system is playing the role it was designed for: to keep the national discourse within “acceptable” bounds, and make sure nothing too “radical” is presented to the American public for their consideration. Aside from domestic issues, what this means is that our foreign policy of perpetual war is not up for debate: Romney’s straining to define some significant difference between himself and the administration on, say, Afghanistan, or Syria, underscores this filtering process at work.
By privileging two state-sanctioned “parties,” the Democrats and the Republicans, with automatic ballot status and government subsidies, the political Establishment has rigged the game, and nothing proves this better than the experience of the Ron Paul campaign in the GOP this past primary season. The Paulians played by the rules: they organized at the grassroots level and got their people to the various local and state conventions, where the real delegate selection process took place. Highly organized, and dedicated to their candidate and their cause, the Paulians showed up in record numbers — and the Republican party bosses freaked out.
In Louisiana they called the cops when they realized they had been outmaneuvered, and they did the same elsewhere. They shut down conventions and party caucuses rather than see delegates pledged to Paul take the prize. In Maine, where Paul won fair and square, their delegates are being challenged — a challenge almost certain to be upheld by the Republican National Committee and the credentials committee in Tampa.
If the game is rigged, what is an opponent of the American empire to do? Abstain from electoral politics?
No. Intervening in major party politics is a valid strategy, one that can be utilized to great advantage — provided it doesn’t become an end in itself. While some Paulian operatives are hailing the primary importance of achieving “mainstream success,” this oily phrase requires definition. What does it mean to succeed in the “mainstream,” as opposed to simply succeeding? I fear it means doing what Sen. Rand Paul has done: endorsing Romney and pledging to campaign for him and his thoroughly authoritarian and war-minded party.
Libertarian and conservative anti-interventionists who take this road will find themselves marginalized — not because their ideas are too “extreme,” but because they will have become cogs in a machine that is antithetical to their goals. We are told by some of Paul’s most prominent supporters — not Ron himself, however — that the Paulian movement needs to integrate itself into the GOP for an indefinite period. While they never flat out say it the clear implication is that this is to be a permanent “strategy”: we must liquidate the “liberty movement” (they’ve stopped calling it “libertarian”: sounds too radical) into the Republican party, and if only we’ll turn ourselves into water boys for Romney and his local clones we’ll have “proved” ourselves such loyal servants of Power that we’ll “win” in the end.
This is being marketed as “practical politics,” while anyone who raises an objection is smeared as a “radical anarchist.” The irony is that this kind of ostensibly “pragmatic” strategy is naïve to the point of being infantile: the proof is in the treatment the Paulians have received to date by the party leadership. They aren’t going to let the Paulians win, no matter how closely they follow the rules: when the old rules don’t work, they’ll revoke them and make new ones. That’s what’s happening in Maine and Massachusetts and Louisiana right now, as Paul delegates duly and legally elected are kicked out and Romney drones put in their place.
This doesn’t mean Paul’s supporters need to retreat and leave the GOP: what it means is that they have to fight — and not capitulate. It means making a scandal of the Romney Machine’s vote-stealing shenanigans and showing them up for the shameless hypocrites they are: after all, this is a party that constantly screams about “voter fraud” and is engaged in a nationwide campaign to keep people from voting “illegally,” and yet their own leaders have engaged in a systematic campaign of vote-stealing and outright vote fraud throughout this entire primary season.
Anti-interventionists in the GOP will never achieve “mainstream success” by kowtowing to the Establishment and dutifully endorsing their warmongering robot of a presidential candidate. Instead, they will transform a generation of hardworking libertarian activists and staunch anti-interventionists into platoons of yes-men (and yes-women) who will take any insult, any betrayal, because “in the long run” they expect to win. As they climb slowly up the political ladder, and seek offices and support within the Republican party, the “pragmatic” strategy is to downplay the most controversial aspect of the Paulian ideology, opposition to the ever-expanding American Empire. After years of arguing, “Oh, we can’t talk about that, it’ll get Mitch McConnell mad,” they’ll wake up one day, look in the mirror, and discover they’ve become what they started out to oppose.
When the “movement” is everything, the ostensible goals of that movement are invariably shelved — “in the long run” becomes never. When the political careers of certain would-be leaders become the measure of “mainstream success,” selling out becomes only a matter of time — and, as we have seen, not very much time at that.
There is only one possible tack for Ron Paul’s supporters in the Republican party to take, and that is irreconcilable opposition to Romney, and to the neocon-dominated party leadership. This doesn’t mean dropping out of the party: it means biding their time.
Paul’s supporters should continue their guerrilla war against the GOP leadership — yes, right up to the bitter end — and dispute Romney’s brazen vote fraud and the party’s disenfranchisement of its own grassroots activists. The best place to do this is in Tampa, where a fight over credentials can be turned into a cause celebre. I can see it now: the “Freedom Republican” delegation from Louisiana demands to be seated, objecting to the ideological segregation of libertarian Republicans and the denial of voting rights to American citizens. It’s a story the mainstream media will eat up: how’s that for “mainstream success”?
There is but one way to ensure the “mainstream success” of anti-interventionist activists in the GOP, and that is by maintaining their political independence. Yes, a policy of irreconcilable hostility to the Romneyites will isolate the Paulians for a while, but in the end, when the Romney campaign implodes, and the GOP goes down to a well-deserved defeat, they can be in the enviable position of being able to say “I told you so.” In picking up the pieces, the libertarian faction can achieve true “mainstream success.”
If you’re going to infiltrate one of the two major parties in order to inject anti-interventionism into the “mainstream,” it has to be done with no illusions. The GOP is the Party of War: militarism is the very core of its official ideology. Under George W. Bush, the party attracted tens of thousands of pro-war fanatics, the kind who, today, believe Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” really did exist, and were somehow spirited away. They love Israel more than they love America — because, after all, the latter isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bible. They support the PATRIOT Act, indefinite detention of American citizens, and drone strikes, too — they cheer when the neocons call for war with Iran, and they just can’t wait until Obama is out of office so they can let the world know Bush-ism is back, and with a vengeance.
Anyone who expected Paulian anti-interventionists were going to be welcomed into this kind of party is a fool. And certainly they were not welcomed. The “solution” of some in the campaign was to ditch the anti-interventionism, and just talk about how we have to audit the Fed. If we just keep quiet about these “controversial” issues, say the “pragmatists,” we can somehow sneak it in later, when we’re in a better position to do so. However, the problem with this “stealth anti-interventionism” is that it didn’t work, because Ron himself kept talking about how we have to get rid of the Empire. Every question on economic issues and the crisis of solvency was answered by him with the suggestion that we just have to stop paying for all these wars and then we’ll at least take a few steps back from the brink of bankruptcy.
The future of the political insurgency Ron Paul inspired is unclear, and that is of the utmost importance to anyone who understands the need for a broad-based antiwar movement in this country. If we look at the long and distinguished history of antiwar activism in America, what is clear is that, since the 1950s, the barricades have been manned by a few dedicated pacifists and a few politically idiosyncratic writers, as well as the minuscule Leninist sects. There was a burst of antiwar activism in the 1960s, but this soon petered out as the former New Leftists settled down to mortgages and tenured positions in the universities. In the age of Obama, these same types are celebrating the “liberation” of Libya and Syria, authoring learned treatises on the virtues of “humanitarian” interventionism.
The inspiring sight of thousands of college students lustily cheering Ron Paul’s calls for dismantling the Empire — this is the future of the actually existing antiwar movement, if there is to be one. Paul’s movement is just the latest in a whole series of developments that have enabled anti-interventionists to establish a significant niche on the intellectual Right for the first time since the 1940s. The success of the Paul campaign was largely an expression of this growing tendency among conservatives.
A new chapter is being written in the history of antiwar activism in America, and we don’t yet know how it will end. What we can know, however, is this: the leadership of any movement has to be earned. It isn’t automatic, it isn’t hereditary, and its authority is entirely derived from its fidelity to the original message — the ideas that inspired many thousands to give their time, energy, and money. Once those ideas are cast aside, or corrupted, the excitement and idealism that generated all that activity begins to die down — and the movement begins to shrink, in numbers and in spirit.
It is possible, of course, to fall into the opposite error, which is sectarianism. The sectarian disavows all alliances and satisfies himself with showing up at a meeting, denouncing all present as tools of the Establishment and Pawns of Mysterious Forces, and then sitting down to nervous giggles. The Paulians showed their tactical flexibility when they united with supporters of Santorum to ensure a level playing field at party conventions.
Tactical flexibility married to political independence and ideological intransigence — these are the elements of a victorious anti-interventionist strategy inside the GOP, or, indeed, inside any party organization. These lessons are taught in the course of the struggle, and it is hugely important the right lessons are learned. In politics, as in life, nothing succeeds like success — but whose success, and at what price?
As we stare down into the abyss of a major war in the Middle East, such issues as whether or not to vote for imposing draconian economic sanctions on Iran are matters of life and death. In times such as these, you are either on one side of the barricades or you are on the wrong side. It’s dangerous to straddle the fence when it comes to war: you’re likely to get shot at by both sides.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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