Ron Paul is an unusual political figure. He’s a genuinely nice guy who actually understands the viewpoints he expresses. In policy terms he is the Republican version of Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader; the committed zealot who makes the Party’s most radical case. What’s that you say? Neither Nader nor Chomsky could aspire to win any office in the Democratic Party? That’s true. The left’s most radical voices can’t get a seat at the table while the right’s extremists are in Congress and winning straw polls for President. Draw your own conclusions. But the comparison is still apt.
Paul has been turning out adoring crowds lately at right-wing pep rallies. This past weekend he made an appearance at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference where he came within two votes of beating Romney in their Presidential straw poll. In his speech he made an interesting comment. He explained quite rightly that Obama is not a socialist, and described him instead as a “corporatist.”
The label seems to have left many attendees befuddled, but it shouldn’t. It emphasizes a theme I’ve been harping on for months – that much of the GOP is confused by its own rhetoric. For all the bluster about protecting Capitalism from Socialism, they don’t care a whit about either. Paul knows what he and the movement stands for and he’s been saying it loudly for years, it just hasn’t been widely covered.
Paul says that corporations are basically being put in charge of the country to run it on our behalf. He’s not the first person to express these ideas. He is speaking from an old tradition; a worldview based on a perversion of Thomas Jefferson’s model of the independent rural farmer-citizen. Though Paul himself may not be best example of it (he’s closer to a traditional Libertarian), the zealots pushing the Party ever farther into the extremes are effectively Confederate Libertarians.
The plantation class that dominated Southern life prior to the war embraced a peculiar worldview. It was similar to Jefferson’s philosophy and modern libertarianism in that it was opposed to any government involvement in economic affairs. But unlike modern libertarianism it was intensely authoritarian on religious and personal matters.
A slave-owning society has no room for genuine personal freedom. This is reflected in their version of Christianity which was heavy on the “thou shalt nots” and light on the “blessed are the hungry” and continues to dominate Southern religious culture into our time. They didn’t need a central bank, or vast railroad networks, or factories. They just needed a government weak enough that it couldn’t rein them in and strong enough to be a robust policing force.
They felt that Northern Capitalism was a threat to their way of life. They were right. They were certain that Lincoln’s plan was to turn the slaves loose and unleash his godless Capitalism on them.
Capitalism encourages individual initiative, education, and infrastructure. It distributes wealth based on achievement. It taxes to maintain institutions needed for development. A plantation culture values land, religion and authority. It distributes wealth based on family relationships and race. It taxes very little to provide almost nothing besides courts and police. It has little need for public infrastructure of any kind, especially anything that would disrupt settled race and class relationships.
Ron Paul isn’t suggesting we return to slavery, but he is very loudly embracing the style of government that prevailed in the old South. Doubt it? Spend some time on his blog, or just ask him. Paul takes a predictably dim view of both Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton, because they are the American prophets of capitalism and they challenged the plantation arrangement.
Paul is expressing the most powerfully distilled version of a tradition that quietly animates much of the GOP’s right flank, from the Tea Party movement to the fundamentalists. Claiming to fight for Capitalism against Socialism is a lot more marketable than stating outright (or even admitting to yourself) that you miss Dixie. It works if people don’t know the difference.
Regardless whether we are willing to admit it, that way of looking at the world developed by our long ago ancestors is still written in our bones. It is a force that has weakened, but it is stirring again and it is dangerous.
We can choose to leave behind Confederate Libertarianism, grow up, and embrace a more complex and challenging world rich with economic opportunity and personal liberty. Or we can let our fears overwhelm us and start organizing militias like this Tea Party group in Oklahoma. Some people think the country needs more middle-aged, well-armed, white men passing drunken weekends at beautiful Camp McVeigh. I disagree. We fought a war over this stuff and we lost for a good reason – because Confederate Libertarianism is a formula for building a banana republic. It doesn’t work.
I believe that our generation, primarily in the South and primarily inside the Republican Party, will determine what direction our country will take over the coming century.
I believe that the country and the Party will awaken to the lingering impact of a few negative elements of our proud Southern legacy. If nothing else, demographics will force the matter. I believe that the Republican Party will recognize that the enemy of a 19th century plantation owner is not our enemy, that capitalism and the dynamic, individualistic culture is fosters is a powerful good, and that sound, adult government is not a threat to liberty.
We’ll get there. We have to.
I leave you with the wise words of Governor Sam Houston.
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