When it comes to taking credit for social movements and changing minds, Fox Business Network’s John Stossel said it best about those in power, “Government is like the person who gets in front of a parade and pretends to lead it.” Meaning when the people start to change their mind on an issue, either a softening of attitude or a moral panic which demands a government response, political leaders will take charge and take the credit for what happens next. (They will not, however, ever take the blame when things go wrong.)
When I began paying attention to politics at about the age of 13, no reputable politician would touch the war on drugs. During presidential elections, it was not a campaign issue, because it was not something to be questioned. It was an inherency, not an object for debate. Naturally, libertarians and oddities of the right and left would vehemently oppose this life-destroying public policy. But that was all until just a few years ago.
Barack Obama hinted at the badness of the war on drugs when he was a senator, and while he was on the campaign trail. But he saved any actual progress on the anti-drug war front for the last few years of his second term. In fact, the Pauls probably deserve more credit for this change than they will ever get. Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) is best known for using the 2008 and 2012 elections to wax poetic about the twin evils of the Federal Reserve and warmongering. However, in 2012 in South Carolina, Paul memorably mocked the idea that people would rush out and do heroin if only the government would legalize it.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has made more concrete, albeit more ideologically subtle strides in fighting the war on drugs. He has attacked draconian mandatory minimums, and introduced or co-sponsored several bills that would reduce these punishments. He has also also repeatedly discussed the racial disparities in criminal justice, and has come out in support of changing these and related excesses of punishment. Democrats such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have helped him, making these efforts bipartisan (as was the original drug hysteria which gave us these laws). Rand Paul is not unique in caring about this, but in the fact that he actually used political capital to push on criminal justice. Other politicians including Obama and Hillary Clinton previously hinted about the need for reform, and then dropped the unpopular issue.
Though they express it more timidly than Paul – and they mysteriously had none of these opinions before Paul began his efforts – suddenly every 2016 candidate is ready to fix this drug war disaster! Everyone – except for Gov. Chris Christie, who bravely vowed to fight drugs harder than ever if elected – is fighting to be the laxest on drugs, the most sympathetic towards the prison population.
As nauseating, infuriating, and Johnny-come-lately as this, it’s nonetheless a staggering improvement over the past 40 years. It should be applauded and celebrated, even as we fight down the bile that rises when these cretins finally get it right on the drug war issue. If anti-prison, anti-drug war is a trend, let us put on our Ugg boots and trucker hats and embrace the trend.
But that raises another question, if we can make an issue as important as criminal justice reform a hot ticket for 2016 and beyond, can we do the same with other desperately important, yet ignored issues? In short, why can’t we make being against war trendy? Why can’t the new class of 2016 candidates be out-pacifisting each other?
Drugs were sold as an existential threat to America back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. So are myriad other domestic panics, such as sex trafficking, pornography, and guns. Usually, if something is seen as a problem, laws are the answer. Overcriminalization of American lives worked for a long time – if you consider “worked” to mean enough people could ignore the ravages of prohibition. Perhaps the fact that nearly a third of the country had tried marijuana finally got the point across – the enemy is not drugs, it is the hysteria that gave us 50,000 SWAT raids a year and 2.7 million people in jail or prison.
Wars simply don’t hit home like that. More than 2.5 million soldiers served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war on terror. Some 6600 died. Those are nasty figures, but Americans are constantly informed that they matter much, much more than the million or so Iraqis who died in the American war. (And certainly America can’t be blamed for the existence of ISIS, right?) So, the thousands of dead American soldiers are most important, but they are not nearly important enough to make anyone reconsider the necessity of the war on terror.
Vietnam was lost by those damned hippies, right? Well, maybe. But it was a losing war, and whomever is to blame (perhaps American leaders?) took their sweet time about it. If, as some argue, conscription stops wars from happening, Vietnam sure took a long time to stop. You definitely can get the average American to care about war if you draft him, or her loved ones. But 60,000 dead Americans and 2 million dead Vietnamese is a high price to pay for that popular disapproval. There needs to be a better way that doesn’t brutalize an entire country before it’s done.
Americans become weary of war even without a draft, it’s true. Barack Obama clamped onto that, and the relative lull in Iraq that came along during his first term. Sure, Obama ramped up Afghanistan and used drone warfare more than anyone had before, but he was vaguely considered to have ended the War in Iraq. And he was applauded by liberals for doing so. Now that ISIS has butted in to become the new bogeyman, the right is delighted to have been proven correct that the US left Iraq “too soon.” And as they do, Democrats meekly fell back into toeing the warmonger line. The inevitable Hillary Clinton candidacy would seem to prove that that fact it unlikely to change.
Though Rand Paul should be commended most of all for his criminal justice stances, he has in recent months dialed back on that whole “let’s be cautious about going to war” thing. Is anyone else likely to play anti-war candidate, if the man who once sounded this similar to dear old Dad seems to have forgotten how to explain or even believe in blowback? Not so much.
Anyone around for George W. Bush can remember the initial anti-war outrage that got smaller and smaller, and soon turned into the embarrassed silence of Obama supporters who could accept a few hundred dead Middle Eastern children as an “improvement” over Dubya. But people in the street is only one aspect to an anti-war backlash. It should happen more. It’s an outrage how little Americans are able to be outraged over faraway deaths that happen thanks to their tax dollars.
Politicians are even worse. If the people had had enough of war once and for all, they could end it. But that would take demanding it, and ignoring the scaremongering about how terrorists would take over the US in five minutes. It would take admitting that things wouldn’t be perfect after war ended and the troops came home, and that people abroad would still have reasons to hate the US. (But at least we wouldn’t be creating new ones.) Most of all, it would take the third grade levels lessons in empathy that Ron Paul tried all throughout 2008 and 2012 – and hell, years before when nobody was listening – to impart to a dubious audience.
Lessons like: We would hate them if they bombed us the way we bomb them. We would be murderously angry if they came and killed our kids. There’s nothing happy about this message. There’s no letting the drug offenders out of prison and saying “oops, things are different now.” Being anti-war requires a faith in people of a different religion who live in places most of us will never visit. It demands empathy and recognizing their humanity, regardless of culture clashes. It is a great risk to say we’ll stop being violent, and suspect most of you will do the same in response. It’s too frightening for politicians to even consider.
Ron Paul’s influence on the modern libertarian movement is hard to oversell. He also more gently influenced other Republicans to consider auditing the Fed or other more accessible views. But nobody has picked up his anti-war views and run with them, because America the international bully will never catch on with American politicians or people. We can’t hear these ideas. We’re way up here in our shining city on the hill and we can’t hear your laments, and we can’t see your dead kids either.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.