Exclusive: There was buzz on the Internet after libertarian Ron Paul delivered what was billed as his final address in Congress. But his near-hour-long speech sounded more like the ramblings of a right-wing crank than the coherent thoughts of the principled idealist that his fans rave about, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Rep. Ron Paul, an icon to the libertarian Right and to some on the anti-war Left, gave a farewell address to Congress that expressed his neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution and his anti-historical view of the supposedly good old days of laissez-faire capitalism.
In a near-hour-long rambling speechon Nov. 14, Paul also revealed himself to be an opponent of “pure democracy” because government by the people and for the people tends to infringe on the “liberty” of businessmen who, in Paul’s ideal world, should be allowed to do pretty much whatever they want to the less privileged.
In Paul’s version of history, the United States lost its way at the advent of the Progressive Era about a century ago. “The majority of Americans and many government officials agreed that sacrificing some liberty was necessary to carry out what some claimed to be ‘progressive’ ideas,” said the 77-year-old Texas Republican. “Pure democracy became acceptable.”
Before then, everything was working just fine, in Paul’s view. But the reality was anything but wonderful for the vast majority of Americans. A century ago, women were denied the vote by law and many non-white males were denied the vote in practice. Uppity blacks were frequently lynched.
The surviving Native Americans were confined to oppressive reservations at the end of a long process of genocide. Conditions weren’t much better for the white working class. Many factory workers toiled 12-hour days and six-day weeks in very dangerous conditions, and union organizers were targeted for reprisals and sometimes death.
For small businessmen, life was treacherous, too, with the big monopolistic trusts overcharging for key services and with periodic panics on Wall Street rippling out across the country in bank failures, bankruptcies and foreclosures.
Meanwhile, obscenely rich Robber Barons, like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, personally controlled much of the nation’s economy and manipulated the political process through bribery. They were the ones who owned the real “liberty.”
It took the Great Depression and its mass suffering to finally convince most Americans “that sacrificing some liberty was necessary,” in Paul’s curious phrasing, for them to gain a living wage, a measure of security and a little respect.
So, under President Franklin Roosevelt, laws were changed to shield working Americans from the worst predations of the super-rich. Labor standards were enacted; unions were protected; regulations were imposed on Wall Street; and the nation’s banks were made more secure to protect the savings of depositors.
Many social injustices also were addressed during Ron Paul’s dreaded last century. Women got the vote and their position in the country gradually improved, as it did for blacks and other minorities with the belated enforcement of the equal rights provisions of the 14th Amendment and passage of civil rights legislation.
The reforms from the Progressive Era, the New Deal and the post-World War II era also contributed to a more equitable distribution of the nation’s wealth, making the United States a richer and stronger country. The reforms, initiated by the federal government, essentially created the Great American Middle Class.
But in Paul’s view, the reformers should have left things the way they were and he blames the reforms for today’s problems, although how exactly they’re connected is not made clear.
Paul said: “Some complain that my arguments make no sense, since great wealth and the standard of living improved for many Americans over the last 100 years, even with these new policies. But the damage to the market economy, and the currency, has been insidious and steady.
“It took a long time to consume our wealth, destroy the currency and undermine productivity and get our financial obligations to a point of no return. Confidence sometimes lasts longer than deserved. Most of our wealth today depends on debt.
“The wealth that we enjoyed and seemed to be endless, allowed concern for the principle of a free society to be neglected. As long as most people believed the material abundance would last forever, worrying about protecting a competitive productive economy and individual liberty seemed unnecessary.”
But Paul’s blaming “progressive” reforms of the last century for the nation’s current economic mess lacks any logic, more a rhetorical trick than a rational argument, a sophistry that holds that because one thing happened and then some bad things happened, the first thing must have caused the other things.
The reality is much different. Without Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the direction of America’s capitalist system was toward disaster, not prosperity. Plus, the only meaningful “liberty” was that of a small number of oligarchs looting the nation’s wealth. (It would make more sense to blame the current debt problem on the overreach of U.S. imperialism, the rush to “free trade,” the unwise relaxing of economic regulations, and massive tax cuts for the rich.)
Besides his reactionary fondness for the Gilded Age, Paul also embraces an anti-historical attitude toward the Founding Era. He claimed that the Constitution failed not only because of the 20th Century’s shift toward “pure democracy” but because of a loss of moral virtue among the populace.
“Our Constitution, which was intended to limit government power and abuse, has failed,” Paul said. “The Founders warned that a free society depends on a virtuous and moral people. The current crisis reflects that their concerns were justified.”
However, there’s no compelling evidence that people were more moral in 1787 or in 1912 than they are today. Indeed, one could argue that many slave-owning Founders were far less moral than Americans are now, a time when tolerance of racial, gender and other differences is much greater.
And as for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pious morality of the Robber Barons included the cruel exploitation of their workers, the flaunting of obscene wealth amid widespread poverty, and the routine bribery of politicians. How that measures up to moral superiority is a mystery.
In his speech, Paul declared that “a society that boos or ridicules the Golden Rule is not a moral society,” but many of the Founders and the Robber Barons did not follow the Golden Rule either. They inflicted on others great pain and suffering that they would not want for themselves.
Misreading the Constitution
Paul’s historical incoherence extends to what the Framers were doing with the Constitution. He argues that they were seeking “to limit government” in 1787 when they drafted the Constitution. But that was not their primary intent. The Framers were creating a strong and vibrant central government to replace the weak and ineffective one that existed under the Articles of Confederation.
Of course, by definition, all constitutions set limits on the power of governments. That’s what constitutions do and the U.S. Constitution is no exception. However, if the Framers wanted a weak central government and strong states’ rights, they would not have scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. The Articles made the states “independent” and “sovereign” and left the federal government as a supplicant.
The key point, which Paul and other right-wingers seek to obscure about the Constitution, is that it granted broad powers to the central government along with the mandate to address the nation’s “general Welfare.”
The key Framers of the Constitution, particularly George Washington and James Madison, were pragmatists who understood that a strong and effective central government was necessary to protect the independence of a large and sprawling nation. For that reason, they recognized that the Articles had been a failure, preventing the 13 states from functioning as a cohesive nation. Indeed, the Articles didn’t even recognize the United States as a government, but rather as a “league of friendship.”
General Washington, in particular, hated the Articles because they had left his Continental Army begging individual states for supplies during the Revolutionary War. And after the hard-won independence, Washington saw European powers exploiting the divisions among the states and regions to whittle away that independence.
The whole American enterprise was threatened by the principle of states’ rights because national coordination was made almost impossible. It was that recognition which led Madison, with Washington’s firm support, to seek first to amend the Articles and ultimately to throw them out.
When Madison was trying to get Virginia’s endorsement of an amendment to give the federal government power to regulate commerce, Washington wrote: “the proposition in my opinion is so self evident that I confess I am at a loss to discover wherein lies the weight of the objection to the measure.
“We are either a united people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of a general concern act as a nation, which have national objects to promote, and a national character to support. If we are not, let us no longer act a farce by pretending it to be.” [For more on this background, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
On to Philadelphia
After Madison was stymied on his commerce proposal in the Virginia legislature, he and Washington turned their attention to a convention that was technically supposed to propose changes to the Articles of Confederation but, in secrecy, chose to dump them entirely.
When the convention convened in Philadelphia in spring 1787, it was significant that on the first day of substantive debate, there was Madison’s idea of the federal government regulating commerce.
As the Constitution took shape and the Convention spelled out the sweeping “enumerated powers” to be granted to Congress Madison’s Commerce Clause was near the top, right after the power to tax, to pay debts, to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare,” and to borrow money and even above the power to declare war. Yes, the Right’s despised Commerce Clause, which was the legal basis for many reforms of the 20th Century, was among the “enumerated powers” in Article 1, Section 8.
And gone was language from the Articles of Confederation that had declared the states “sovereign” and “independent.” Under the Constitution, federal law was supreme and the laws of the states could be stricken down by the federal courts.
Immediately, the supporters of the old system recognized what had happened. As dissidents from the Pennsylvania delegation wrote: “We dissent because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government.”
A movement of Anti-Federalists arose, led by the likes of Patrick Henry, to defeat the Constitution. They organized strong opposition in the states’ ratifying conventions of 1788 but ultimately lost, after winning the concession from Madison to enact of Bill of Rights during the first Congress.
The inclusion of the Tenth Amendment, which reserves for the states and the people powers that the Constitution does not give to the federal government, is the primary hook upon which the modern Right hangs its tri-corner hat of anti-federal ideology.
But the amendment was essentially a sop to the Anti-Federalists with little real meaning because the Constitution had already granted broad powers to the federal government and stripped the states of their earlier dominance.
The Right’s “scholars” also make much of a few quotes from Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 45, in which he sought to play down how radical a transformation, from state to federal power, he had engineered in the Constitution. Rather than view this essay in context, the Right seizes on Madison’s rhetorical attempts to deflect the alarmist Anti-Federalist attacks by claiming that some of the Constitution’s federal powers were already in the Articles of Confederation, albeit in a far weaker form.
In Federalist Paper No. 45, entitled “The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered,” Madison wrote: “If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS.” Today’s Right also trumpets Madison’s summation, that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
But it should be obvious that Madison is finessing his opposition. Whether or not some shadow of these federal powers existed in the Articles of Confederation, they were dramatically enhanced by the Constitution. In No. 45, Madison even plays down his prized Commerce Clause, acknowledging that “The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained.”
However, in Federalist Paper No. 14, Madison made clear how useful the Commerce Clause could be as he envisioned national construction projects.
“[T]he union will be daily facilitated by new improvements,” Madison wrote. “Roads will everywhere be shortened, and kept in better order; accommodations for travelers will be multiplied and meliorated; an interior navigation on our eastern side will be opened throughout, or nearly throughout the whole extent of the Thirteen States.
“The communication between the western and Atlantic districts, and between different parts of each, will be rendered more and more easy by those numerous canals with which the beneficence of nature has intersected our country, and which art finds it so little difficult to connect and complete.”
The Framers also understood that the country would not remain locked in a late 18th Century world. Though they could not anticipate all the changes that would arise over more than two centuries, they incorporated broad powers in the Constitution so the country through its elected representatives could adapt to those times.
The true genius of the Framers was their pragmatism, both for good and ill, in the cause of protecting American independence and unity. On the for-ill side, many representatives in Philadelphia recognized the evils of slavery but accepted a compromise allowing the states to count African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress.
On the for-good side, the Framers recognized that the American system could not work without a strong central government with the power to enforce national standards, so they created one. They transferred national sovereignty from the 13 “independent” states to “We the people.” And they gave the central government the authority to provide for the “general Welfare.”
Yet, the fight over America’s founding principles didn’t end with the Constitution’s ratification in 1788. Faced with a growing emancipation movement and losing ground to the industrial North the Southern slave states challenged the power of the federal government to impose its laws on the states. President Andrew Jackson fought back against Southern “nullification” of federal law in 1832 and the issue of federal supremacy was fought out in blood during the Civil War from 1861-65.
Even after the Civil War, powerful regional and economic forces resisted the imposition of federal law, whether intended to benefit freed slaves or to regulate industry. In the latter third of the 19th Century, as Jim Crow laws turned blacks into second-class citizens, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan created industrial monopolies that rode roughshod over working-class Americans.
For different reasons, the South’s agrarian oligarchs and the North’s industrial oligarchs wanted the federal government to stay out of their affairs and they largely succeeded by wielding immense political power until the 20th Century.
Then, in the face of widespread abuses, President Theodore Roosevelt went after the “trusts,” President Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression with the New Deal, and post-World War II presidents and federal courts began the process of overturning racial segregation.
The Right’s Emergence
In reaction to those changes federal regulation of the economy and rejection of overt racial discrimination the modern American Right emerged as a sometimes uneasy coalition between the “free-marketeers” and the neo-Confederates, sharing a mutual hatred of modern liberalism.
Those two groups also drew in other constituencies harboring resentments against liberals, such as the Christian Right angered over Supreme Court prohibitions on compulsory prayers in public schools and abortion rights for women and war hawks, drawn from the ranks of military contractors and neoconservative ideologues.
These right-wing movements recognized the importance of propaganda and thus in the 1970s began investing heavily in an infrastructure of think tanks and ideological media that would develop supportive narratives and disseminate those storylines to the American people.
It was especially important to convince Americans that the New Deal and federal interference in “states’ rights” were a violation of the Founders’ core principles. Thus, the Right could pretend that it was standing up for the U.S. Constitution and the Left was out of step with American “liberty.”
So, right-wing “scholars” transformed the purpose of the Constitutional Convention and recreated James Madison in particular. Under the Right’s revisionist history, the Constitution was drafted to constrain the power of the federal government and to ensure the supremacy of states’ rights. A few Madison quotes were cherry-picked from the Federalist Papers and the significance of the Tenth Amendment was exaggerated.
The success of the pseudo-history can’t be overstated. From the Tea Party, which arose in angry determination to “take back our country” from the first African-American president, to the hip libertarians who turned the quirky Ron Paul into a cult figure, there was a certainty that they were channeling the true vision of the American Founders.
A large segment of the American Left also embraced Ron Paul because his ideology included a rejection of imperial military adventures and a disdain for government intrusion into personal lives (although he is a devout “right-to-lifer” who would deny women the right to have an abortion).
Paul’s mix of libertarianism and anti-imperialism has proven especially attractive to young white men. He is viewed by some as a principled prophet, predicting chaos because the nation has deviated from the supposed path of “liberty.”
However, as his farewell address revealed, his ideology is a jumble of anti-historical claims and emotional appeals. For instance, he posed unserious questions like “Why can’t Americans decide which type of light bulbs they can buy?” apparently oblivious to the need for energy conservation and the threat of global warming.
In the end, Ron Paul comes across as little more than a political crank whose few good ideas are overwhelmed by his neo-Confederate thinking and his sophistry about the inherent value of free-market economics.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).