Rand Paul played it safe last night, delivering a Republican National Convention address that might have been given by Jim DeMint, with one of Tom Coburn’s notecards on defense cuts shuffled in. It was a common-sense attempt to unite his father’s libertarian base with the Republican mainstream — hence the senator’s focus on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe, an us-against-them theme that ought to rally Republicans of all stripes.
Under the circumstances, that was impossible: his father’s supporters had been so mishandled by the party establishment that less than an hour after Rand spoke they marched out of the hall shouting, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.” This is the last unhealed rift in the Republican Party, and it may run deeper than anyone, including the senator, imagines.
Jim Antle has likened Ron Paul’s role this year to Pat Buchanan’s in 1996. Unlike Congressman Paul, Buchanan eventually gave his imprimatur to the party’s nominee, but many of his supporters didn’t like it: “Pat walked off to boos” after endorsing Dole at a rally, Buchanan biographer Timothy Stanley recounts. Rand might sympathize, in light of the reception his Romney endorsement received from some of his father’s devotees.
Buchanan’s truest believers may have been disappointed that their man gave Dole his blessing, but it was never any mystery what the GOP had to do to reintegrate the bulk of Buchanan’s people into the party: a firm anti-abortion plank and a commitment to nominate more justices like Antonin Scalia would do the trick. And did: by 1999 nothing was left of the Buchanan movement, as his final GOP run and Reform Party bid demonstrated. The Republican establishment had conceded enough ground, or given enough lip service, to Buchanan’s issues to bind most of his voters to the party, even when it fielded the distinctly anti-Buchananite George W. Bush as its candidate. Just as important, the take-no-prisoners tone that had rallied Buchanan’s brigades in the 1990s was now omnipresent on right-wing talk radio and Fox News, where it was directed exclusively against Democrats and liberals rather than the wider rogue’s gallery that Buchanan had targeted. (Which included CEOs, after all.)
A little give from the party on “social issues” coupled with mass-media playback of Buchanan’s cadences sufficed to quell the pitchfork rebellion. But the party won’t have it that easy with Ron Paul’s revolutionaries. That the GOP platform this year includes a plank for auditing the Federal Reserve shows how eager the establishment is to win over the Paul vote, despite the shabby treatment of his delegates. But auditing the Fed, while important to Paul’s supporters, is not paramount the way fighting abortion was for Buchanan’s brigades. Even ending the Fed is only a limb of the larger body of thought that impels them.
If most Buchananites were mutant Republicans, Paulians are a new species altogether. They’re not just unhappy that the Republican Party isn’t Republican enough, which was the crux of Buchanan’s complaint; they want a GOP that is fundamentally different from what the party has been over the last 30-odd years. In the ’90s, it was obvious how to stitch together Buchananites with the Robertson-Reed religious right and old Cold War hawks (like Dick Cheney or John Bolton, if not the neocons), and even the Chamber to Commerce, to restore the 1980s Reagan coalition. Buchanan might bait Wall Street, but most of his supporters were close enough to the Republican mainstream.
Today it’s not at all clear what formula would integrate the Paul bloc within the GOP. Here the demographic difference may be decisive: Buchanan’s voters were reasonably close to the demographics that Republicans were already targeting, in age and religious commitments if not in income. (And even that was probably not so great a gulf.) Ron Paul’s supporters, by contrast, are a mix of baby boomers and post-boomers, all of whom respond to Paul’s authenticity but who otherwise are not susceptible to the same kinds of dog whistles. Peeling the older, Bircher-types off the Paul movement and gluing them back onto the GOP is easy: just bash liberal elites or the UN and say you’re for cutting government and sticking to the Constitution. It’s an old formula, but it works: the boomers are conditioned to respond. They responded to Rand Paul last night.
The post-boomers, though, are another story. The Paul movement’s own institutions confront a problem here: except for Young Americans for Liberty, they all have a boomer character. Rand himself is a boomer, and he sounds like one. (He cracks jokes about how “gay” Obama’s marriage policies are, something that’s hard to imagine coming from a socially conservative but younger hero of the liberty movement like Rep. Justin Amash.) In trying to build a winning movement, Rand faces a dilemma: he could be the first of the next-generation Republicans, or he could be one of the last — but perhaps most successful — of the older generation. To infuse his father’s movement into the GOP mainstream, however, would require him to be both. That demands much more creativity than was on display in his speech, if it’s possible at all.
Senator Paul is arguably the only figure on the horizon who can make the Republican Party whole again. He has the potential to pull together the many tribes of the conservative base (leaving out the neoconservatives, who have no grassroots following) into a unified coalition, something the party hasn’t seen since 2004, when even Buchanan was on board with Bush. But there’s a complication: the very signals that help establish Rand with the biggest boomer tribes risk alienating the post-boomers.
The more conventionally conservative — that is, boomer conservative — Rand sounds, the less of his father’s appeal he’s likely to have to the next generation. It’s not that politically correct 20-somethings are outraged by the occasional dip into polarizing rhetoric. Rather, the old polarities are beside the point. Both political correctness and its opposite are irrelevant for them. The struggles that shaped the way boomers talk — civil rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, urban decay, the ’70s-’80s crime wave — aren’t touchstones for the rising generation. Their conservatism has a different accent.
Right-wing boomers who see this as a sign that the kids are all liberals are missing the point. Someone like Congressman Amash is a cultural conservative in his own right — he’s strongly anti-abortion — but has a style radically different from the bloodsport that excites the boomers. This generational shift in tone and emphasis is apparent on the right even beyond the Ron Paul movement: the “crunchy cons” and Front Porch Republic also have notably different emphases from the culture warriors of the last four decades. They’re planting trees rather than picketing clinics.
This isn’t the first time such a shift has taken place: Russell Kirk was also more likely to be planting trees than picketing clinics, though no one had any doubt where he stood on abortion. The conservatives and libertarians who came of age before the Korean War — that includes Kirk as well as Ron Paul — have something in common with today’s 20-somethings that most 40- and 50-year-olds don’t share with either group. The baby boom generation’s characteristic attitude toward politics has been utopian or apocalyptic by turns. They lived through the unraveling of one social order and never came close to building a more perfect one; their dreams are filled with visions of end times and the New Jerusalem, and every battle over raising the debt ceiling is met on the fields of Megiddo.
The GOP’s generation gap is about more than just the Ron Paul vote, emblematic though it may be. Take a look at the recent Kaiser Family Fundation study of partisanship and ideology: the youngest cohort in party, dubbed “window shoppers” because they’re ideologically eclectic, are the only Republicans significantly disenchanted with Romney: 37 percent of them are planning to vote for Obama, compared to 6 percent of values voters and just 1 percent of Tea Partiers. The study, correctly, doesn’t characterize these young people as libertarians: their beliefs are messier than that and more pro-government. But it’s fair, I think, to assume that the Paul kids and young crunchies have some common ground with this bloc. After all, most of Paul’s youthful supporters have themselves only come into their beliefs quite recently — they too were window shoppers before Ron Paul’s distinctly un-boomer style drew them to his philosophy.
The short-term electoral impact of these young voters is small, but in a close election perhaps not negligible. The long-term significance of their shifting beliefs, however, is momentous. After eight years of Bush and nominating John McCain and Mitt Romney, the GOP establishment has comprehensively failed to make the sale to these voters. They won’t buy what passes for boomer conservatism.
There is a tremendous opportunity here to advance a Burkean philosophy in place of boomer apocalypticism. Even if their “values” on the surface seem less conservative than those of their parents, these young men and women are better off for having rejected right-wing ideology. The insurmountable obstacle conservatism has faced among baby boomers is that they’re stuffed full of ideological presumption, much of it now right-wing rather than left. They can’t unlearn the mistaught lessons of the past — lessons like “bombing foreign countries is good because George McGovern was bad” or “regulation is bad because Jimmy Carter was bad.” This crippled, ideological way of thinking — or not thinking — is incurable once it takes hold.
But the next generation, while it has its own defects, hasn’t yet calcified. This is the time to teach them aright. They have a passion for knowledge: they’re drawn to Austrian economics or distributism, not just Chamber of Commerce economics; they love Kirkian conservatism, not just “culture war” animosity. They’re not merely in favor of entrenched interests and prejudices; they want a philosophy that’s reflective and open. It will have to be prudent, too, if all this is to amount to more than the boomers’ protest politics. But then, they can’t do any worse than the generation that gave us Bill O’Reilly.
Appealing to this cohort won’t be a winning political strategy for some time yet: there’s a reason even the Paul movement’s official organs focus on boomers. But the GOP’s fracture is only going to get worse — to the benefit of a stylish but vapid next-generation liberalism like Obama’s — if a prospective leader like Rand Paul can’t find a way to adjust his pitch so the young want to hear it.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor of The American Conservative. Follow @ToryAnarchist.