In the wake of Rachel Maddow’s interrogation of Rand Paul and his stance on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Young Americans for Liberty blogger Wesley Messamore posed a few choice questions for the MSNBC host: Would it be moral to force black restaurant owners to serve former Ku Klux Klansman, David Duke? If Fred Phelps, of “God Hates Fags” fame, walks into a gay bar, does he have the “right” to a Cosmopolitan? Considering that Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church spends most of its time protesting military funerals, should this unpatriotic “preacher” be allowed to hoist red, white, and blue ribbon beer alongside Vietnam veterans at the local VFW, by force of law?
Maddow would probably consider these questions hypothetical, improbable, and irrelevant to the discussion at hand—just like her needling of Rand Paul about his support of the long -settled Civil Rights Act. Ironically, if Maddow were to admit that Duke or Phelps could or should be denied service, it would place her squarely in the libertarian camp–you know, along with Rand, the Klan, and the “racist” rest.
Though some liberals and even libertarians might disagree, there is a larger point being made than whether Paul or Maddow is correct in their particular debate. The most significant news is that finally—there will be actual debate.
The phony Left/Right divide represented by our two-party system hardly ever addresses any issues that have anything to do with what truly ails this country. To listen to Democrats, Bush wrecked the country and Obama’s wrecking machine is somehow fixing it, and too many Republicans seem to believe America has just now reached the point of collapse with the arrival of our current president, as if his predecessors had nothing to do with it. To follow the logic of the partisans who direct our national conversation, America’s problems aren’t systematic—but the result of the wrong party controlling the system. This is absurd.
Challenging our current, broken government necessarily means questioning sacred cows. With a $14 trillion dollar debt, should the federal government be in the retirement and healthcare business? Should the government be bailing out private industry and banks? Can the U.S. afford to continue policing the world? Democrats oppose Republicans’ micromanaging of such issues just as the GOP now opposes Obama’s tweaking of the status quo, but few venture outside conventional debate to question whether these should even be issues in the first place. With the rise of the Tea Partiers and widespread bipartisan disenchantment, American politics is changing and more substantive, root cause questions are beginning to be raised—and the establishment’s got nothing. Writes columnist Rich Lowry “When politics as usual is out of favor, expect some politics as unusual. That’s the newcomer Rand Paul, a stilted public performer with an unassailably anti-establishmentarian pedigree.”
Having a conversation about private property rights by addressing half-century old, segregation-ending, civil rights legislation is not a good way to make a national debut in a high profile campaign for U.S. Senate. Neither is talking about the Civil War and slavery a good way to begin a discussion of states’ rights, a conversation Ron Paul had with the late Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” in the midst of his 2008 presidential campaign. But this is what we’ve come to expect from the Pauls—professorial and often controversial questions about the very nature of American government.
Rand’s civil rights controversy has led some pundits to declare that that the Pauls’ brand of politics might be fine for the lecture hall but have no place in practical politics. Wrong—any politician at this late, economically unsustainable juncture, who is unwilling to bring up philosophical questions about what government can and cannot do, should or should not do, is not being practical. Writes Lowry: “If Kentucky Republicans had nominated Paul’s primary opponent, Trey Grayson, he certainly wouldn’t have been discussing the propriety of desegregating the Woolworth’s lunch counter by force of law the day after the election.” Lowry is right. Grayson would not be having a politically unwise and potentially damaging conversation about private property and civil rights—or a conversation about anything of substance, ever. It’s simply not in his DNA or that of most in his party.
The notion of the philosopher-statesman might be alien to the pundits and hacks who dominate today’s politics, but wasn’t unusual to the Founding Fathers, many of whom saw themselves in the same light. In our history, when the philosophy of Karl Marx has been implemented through legislation the Left always calls it “progress,” but if Ron or Rand Paul dare revisit the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, we are told they are not ready for “prime time” and should retreat to the libertarian ghetto from which they came. But the exact opposite is true—we all know that the supposed grownups in charge know how to win elections and make modern politics function, but to what end, what good and what function? It is hard to imagine challenging a status quo that almost everyone agrees needs challenging, without first questioning the statist consensus on which it has been built. This is a task that will require philosophers, and thank God there exists at least two such statesman—a father and son—with the wisdom and will to carry out this crucial, and practical, democratic function.