A few weeks ago I attended a speech by Ron Paul, a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. There were about 1000 people there, and the crowd was remarkably diverse. My wife and I brought our little children, and I was surprised by how many other young families were there. There was the usual contingent of animated college students, but the middle-aged and elderly were at least as numerous. By the attendees’ clothing, I could tell that they came from diverse economic backgrounds. The “high-and-tight” hair cuts revealed many military supporters—even though none were wearing uniforms. And there were a few of the pot-smoking hippies that always somehow appear in the news footage.
Ron Paul’s speech was enthusiastic and optimistic. He talked about the importance of liberty to both economic progress and social harmony. He condemned unconstitutional foreign wars and warned about unintended consequences of intermeddling in the affairs of other sovereign nations. He explained that free trade, friendly relations, and example are far more powerful tools for the spread of democracy than bombs and bullets, and that aggressive posturing and economic sanctions are the true isolationism we should worry about. He decried the federal reserve’s surreptitious theft from the American people through the devaluation of the dollar. In short, he delivered the same powerful defense of liberty, peace, and prosperity that he has been giving for decades, and I left puzzling over the same question that I have wondered about since 2008 when I first learned of Ron Paul: what is it about Ron Paul and his message that can unite and energize such a diverse group of people and yet fail to resonate with the majority of voters?
Granted, Ron Paul sometimes stumbles a bit in his public speaking; his training and experience delivering babies didn’t translate well to delivering speeches. But I don’t want to believe that the majority of voters are so superficial that they would reject the message merely because the messenger isn’t polished enough. I prefer to think that it is an issue of communication. Ron Paul frequently references topics about which many Americans are woefully ignorant: the U.S. Constitution, economics, monetary policy, and world history. References to these topics during speeches and debates leave casual listeners confused, and confused listeners don’t become supporters. But I think the communication barrier runs even deeper than that.
Ron Paul thinks and talks about politics in a way that is fundamentally different from his opponents. The best way I can describe this difference is by offering examples: when Mitt Romney explains the moment that he changed his stance on abortion, he talks about how pro-abortion legislation arrived at his desk for signature and he had a change of heart and simply couldn’t sign it; when Rick Santorum talks about why he changed his stance on No Child Left Behind, he says that politics is a team sport and sometimes you have to rally around the leader and do something, compromise, take one for the team. I am not faulting these men for their sentiments. I believe they each sincerely hope to do good. But notice that in each of these examples, key political decisions were the product of emotional reaction: Santorum felt like he needed to be loyal and play ball with his colleagues; Romney had a change of heart when faced with the prospect of enabling the death of an unborn child.
This type of decision-making is understandable because whatever we may tell ourselves about being rational, emotion often trumps reason. This is especially true when a majority of those around you are swept up in the emotional tide. But Ron Paul is exceptional when it comes to politics; he uses reason and principles to make political decisions. In other words, he actually does what the other politicians only pretend to do. Consider this exchange from a presidential debate held in South Carolina on 5 May 2011:
Moderator: You say that the federal government should stay out of people’s personal habits, including marijuana, cocaine, even heroin.
Ron Paul: It’s an issue of protecting liberty across the board. If you have the inconsistency, then you’re really not defending liberty. We want freedom [including] when it comes to our personal habits.
Moderator: Are you suggesting that heroin and prostitution are an exercise of liberty?
Ron Paul: Yes, in essence …
Notice that he starts with a principle, personal liberty, and follows that principle to its unavoidable conclusion. Obviously he doesn’t advocate heroin use or prostitution. He is a devout Christian, so both of those behaviors undoubtedly are emotionally and morally repugnant to him. But he believes in the principle of personal liberty. So he is willing to let people make poor choices, like using heroin, since that is what protecting personal liberty requires. This shocks many people. Like I said, it is fundamentally different from other candidates. If Rick Santorum were to say something so shocking—no matter how consistent it was with the principles he claims to follow—there would be a valiant attempt at spin, followed by an apology. Remember the scandal about his statement that he wanted to throw-up after he heard President Kennedy’s speech about religion and politics?
This isn’t just a Republican problem. Just ask honest people who supported Barack Obama during his 2008 run. They believed that his principles—especially those relating to civil liberties—would lead to different decisions than those made by President Bush. But that didn’t stop President Obama from ordering the execution of American citizens without trial or public hearing. Those principles didn’t stop him from signing into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention, again without trial or public hearing, of anyone deemed a threat to national security.
What it boils down to is this: for most candidates, principles are vague guides that easily bend or crumple under political pressure; for Ron Paul, principles define his political goals and methods from beginning to end and top to bottom. This means that, even when a principle leads to shocking conclusions, Ron Paul doesn’t shy away. This confuses voters and makes them nervous. Throw in a few references to unfamiliar topics like the U.S. Constitution, economics, monetary policy, and world history, and the average voter runs for the familiar smooth-talking candidates they are used to.