The Devil’s Tools For Angelic Projects

In the vast array of commentary about Rand Paul’s filibuster last week, one of the more interesting raps was from Ross Douthat, who argued that Paul’s visceral connection with the right-wing Republican “base” and his careful selection of issues connecting policy with hatred of Barack Obama had enabled him to break a long deep freeze in intra-GOP debate over foreign policy and national security issues:

But if his ideas are still evolving, his savvy is impressive. Paul has recognized, as a figure like Huntsman did not, that to infuse new ideas into a moribund party you need to speak the language of the base, and sell conservatives as well as moderates on your proposed course correction. (There’s a reason his recent foreign policy speech was delivered at the Heritage Foundation — normally a redoubt of Cheneyism — and his two big interviews after his filibuster were with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.) And he’s exploited partisan incentives to bring his fellow Republicans around to his ideas, deliberately picking battles — from the Libya intervention to drone warfare — where a more restrained foreign policy vision doubles as a critique of the Obama White House.

This is a very similar argument to the one made by David Dagan and Steven Teles in their fascinating piece in the November/December 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly on the slow conservative-initiated kindling of interest on the Right in prison reform, long a subject conservatives neglected or used to mindlessly call for ever-tougher sentencing policing and deliberately barbarous prisons.

Only advocates with unquestioned ideological bona fides, embedded in organizations known to be core parts of conservative infrastructure, could perform this kind of ideological alchemy. As Yale law professor Dan Kahan has argued, studies and randomized trials are useless in persuading the ideologically committed until such people are convinced that new information is not a threat to their identity. Until then, it goes in one ear and out the other. Only rock-ribbed partisans, not squishy moderates, can successfully engage in this sort of “identity vouching” for previously disregarded facts.

So should Republicans who want fresh thinking in their party invariably wrap their arguments in the heady scent of base-pleasing red meat? And should progressives who would like to get something done stop encouraging suspect RINO moderates and start cheering for people like Rand Paul, who favor the right policies for the wrong reasons?

I’d be a little skeptical of generalizing what Paul is doing. For one thing, his careful selection of issues on which to popularize (or at least sanitize) his heresies is not only inherently narrow (because remote from core “base” concerns), but is not likely to survive different political conditions than today’s, with a hated Democratic incumbent who is pursuing civil liberties policies associated with a politically dead former Republican president, George W. Bush. The non-interventionist impulse in American conservatism has not recently flourished during an interventionist Republican administration. There’s no particular reason to assume it will in the future. More immediately, liberal praise for Rand Paul, even on narrow and tactical grounds, is exactly what he does not need to broaden his respectability in GOP circles.

And then there’s this little matter that the same ideology that leads him to attack Obama on drone policy also leads him to lust for destruction of the New Deal/Great Society legacy, and forget from time to time that it’s not kosher to question the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Progressives cheering on Paul, however noisily or quietly, are a bit reminiscent of the 1930’s era Marxists who hoped that fascism would provide reactionary petit bougeois with a path to socialism.

That’s not to say that progressives cannot forget tactical alliances with conservatives–libertarian, theocratic, or “moderate”–on individual issues. But I’d be a little leery of any dialectical theory that suggests Republican extremism will eventually “heighten the contradictions” and produce progressive gains, or even better terms of debate. Preferring the devil’s tools for angelic projects can make you start mistaking brimstone for incense.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.