Political Animal


March 11, 2013 4:09 PM The Devil’s Tools For Angelic Projects

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on March 11, 2013 4:43 PM:

    "Preferring the devilís tools for angelic projects can make you start mistaking brimstone for incense."

    FSM, I LOVE that line, Ed!!!

    And yeah, Rand Paul is nothing less than a false prophet for people on the left.
    He's basically WITH the Republicans on everything except war and pot, and AGAINST every other core Liberal belief.

    And those are two very thin things we might agree with him on, to hang any long-term support for him.
    But, yeah, take advantage when an opening is presented!

    Plus, of all of the grifters, and self-interested and self-important sharks and pricks and douchebags in the Senate on both sides, Rand Paul is basically a high-functioning idiot - even Inhofe is probably smarter and more sane.

    House Republicans are basically the 3rd humanoid from the right, on a left to right evolution chart.

    And THAT is not exactly anything that should be a selling point to anyone to the left of Evan Bayh or Ben Nelson.

  • Josef K on March 11, 2013 4:53 PM:

    Preferring the devilís tools for angelic projects can make you start mistaking brimstone for incense.

    Nice quote. Think I'll write it on my shaving mirror.

  • FlipYrWhig on March 11, 2013 4:53 PM:

    Douthat is too young, probably, to remember when Republicans were livid about the air campaign over Yugoslavia. It really isn't new, or news, that Republicans will moan about how the Democrat in the White House isn't fighting guerre du jour just right.

  • Pat on March 11, 2013 5:17 PM:

    Absolutely one should be skeptical of what Paul is doing, because it involves no real legislative work on his part. Coming up with solid policy is difficult.

    Nonetheless, using his fans to push through bipartisan legislation that can be used to hold future presidents in check - I'm on board. I just recognize that Democrats will have to do all the work again.

  • Sean Scallon on March 11, 2013 9:11 PM:

    "The non-interventionist impulse in American conservatism has not recently flourished during an interventionist Republican administration."

    That's funny I could have sworn Ron Paul's first campaign started in 2007 during the Bush II Administration.

    The Paul movement (unlike the Tea Partiers) didn't wait until there was a Democrat in the White House to get going.

  • My Brain says. on March 11, 2013 11:30 PM:

    Haven't we seen this with his father.

    His father had a lot of supporters on the left over the Iraq war. Yet the left is not going to support either of them because they are bat shit crazy.

    A dead clock is right twice a day.

    It doesn't mean anyone on the left is going to support them.