We are once again facing that most dreadful of all seasons, a presidential election. We on the Republican side are again faced with the choice of selecting a presidential candidate, and many of us feel that on this selection hinges the future of the country. The stakes are high. Of course they are always high. But the choice of the right Republican to run against Obama is, we feel, of crucial importance.
It is in this backdrop that many point to a candidate such as Ron Paul. As something of a political junkie, I am frequently asked what I think of Ron Paul. I have had difficulty articulating my objection to Paul as a candidate, but decided it was time to think it out and express it. I will do so by means of a literary allusion, from one of the greatest novels in the English language, Middlemarch:
He had formerly observed with approbation her capacity for worshipping the right object; he now foresaw with sudden terror that this capacity might be replaced by presumption, this worship by the most exasperating of all criticism, -that which sees vaguely a great many fine ends and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them.
A little background is necessary, which is worthwhile since this is such a fascinating book. Mr. Casaubon, the speaker in the previous quote, is a middle-aged, eccentric clergyman whose life is poured into writing an epic book which will seek to unlock the common key in all the mythologies of the world. Dorothea, the “she” mentioned in that quote, fell in love with Mr. Casaubon and married him, despite the warnings that many gave her that it was an unsuitable marriage. She is a deeply idealistic young lady, and has projected onto Mr. Casaubon all of her desires for changing the world, believing that by being his partner and help she will share in his noble work. Once she marries him, she finds out that Casaubon is in fact a rather small and petty man, whose fears and insecurities prevent him from ever finishing his work, and that in fact the book he is working on is simply his way of hiding from the world.
Casaubon is not a bad man. The novel is at pains to point this out. He is merely human. The problem comes from the fact that Dorothea has projected her highly unrealistic ideals onto Casaubon, forcing him to carry a burden which he is unable to bear. The quote above reflects the moment when Casaubon realizes this.
This is the approach, I feel, which a certain segment of the electorate takes to selecting a presidential candidate. Some, of course, pick candidates for the shallowest of reasons- who is more attractive, who promises them all the goodies the want, etc. But there is also a segment who has a vague idea in their mind of what kind of world they would like to live in without any conception at all of what would be required to get there, and fall in love with the candidate who promises them that. Because this candidate is connected to their Utopia, they refuse to see any real flaws in that candidate and even make the flaws out to be virtues. So, if a person has no experience, they say that’s a good thing, since experience corrupts. If the person regularly says stupid things, they say that just shows that they’re “real” or “honest”, instead of being a fake, airbrushed candidate. This is mainly the way that we elected our last president, Barack Obama. There were of course some who knew exactly who the man was and elected him, because they want radical socialism in this country. But many others simply projected all of their fantasies and wish fulfillments of a post-racial society, of an end to political conflict, of brilliant post-partisan political leadership, onto that man, who had deliberately cast himself in such a light as to make such “wishcasting” possible and desirable. He deliberately spoke in vague generalities and platitudes, reserving his much more specific (and very progressive) statements for small friendly audiences.
Conservatives must not make the same mistake. We live in a sinful world, where there is no such thing as perfection. Not by a long shot. All of our candidates are flawed in one way or another. But this should not be surprising. There is no savior in politics. There is no way out of the messy world we live in. Anyone who stays in the spotlight of elected government for any length of time is going to have some uncomfortable things revealed about them, and is going to make some bad mistakes. Oftentimes we are drawn to political outsiders such as Herman Cain, because they appear to be untainted by the corruption of government. But does that really make them better than anyone else? It’s easy to be untainted by the corruption of government when you’re not in government. Will they remain untainted once they’re in? I’m not against political outsiders, but there as in all cases, we must remain realistic. Pride, ambition and greed exist just as much in the private sector as they do in the government. It’s often just less visible- that’s why we call it the “private sector”.
Real candidates also know that there is a difference between where you want to be and where you have to go to get there. Dishonest political campaigns are always telling you, “Step 3- Profit!” without making terribly clear how we get there.
This is why I am a conservative, and not a libertarian. Libertarians and progressives both fail to be realistic about human nature. They claim they are, of course. But both of them simply posit an ideal world and insist that we go to that ideal world as fast as we possibly can. The major difference between the two is the nature of their utopia. Conservatives recognize that this world is fallen and that there is no such thing as perfection, and that anyone telling you that they can deliver any kind of perfection is a snake-oil salesman. Therefore we must be realistic about our candidates and realistic about the kind of change we can expect and the kind of change that is desirable. Government must be limited because of the sinfulness of politicians. But government must exist, and be strong in the things it needs to do, because of the sinfulness of politicians in other countries, as well as of non-politicians in our own. By being realistic about the human condition can we do the best job of restraining its defects and excesses, and encouraging its better side.
A further point about human nature- Revolutions always end badly, because in the breakdown of social structures, revolutions are always coopted by the worst sorts of power-hungry people, the people unrestrained by moral codes and driven most by personal ambition. Change therefore must always be incremental. Anyone promising you quick change is either deeply naive and unrealistic, or is a snake-oil salesman.
This brings me to Ron Paul in particular. I agree with much of Ron Paul’s ideals of limited government, sound currency and fiscal restraint. But the conservative movement as a whole agrees with those things, though we disagree about some of the details.
But I have two major issues with Paul. First, he does not seem to be living in the same country I am in. He seems to think that we can just get where he wants to be just by virtue of him being elected. Perhaps I am selling him short here, but he does not seem to have any concrete plan for dealing with our situation now in a realistic way, and instead just tells us how he’d like things to be, which is how I’d like things to be too. It doesn’t take any particular competence or virtue to dream. It doesn’t take any great intelligence to tell me the things that are wrong with the country right now. What is hard, but necessary, is to articulate a doable plan for moving the country in the right direction, from where we are right now.
Secondly, and this is an extension of the first, is his foreign policy. I understand that we are all weary of war after the last decade. Paul seems to think that we can end all these wars unilaterally, just by leaving. I have plenty of criticisms of how the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were handled. But again, that takes no special brains; hindsight is 20/20. Paul was saying we shouldn’t be involved back then, and everybody thought he was a crackpot. Now that we’re all tired of war, he’s starting to look (to some) like a genius. But he was wrong then and he’s still wrong. Just because we’ve seen the bad consequences of what we did doesn’t mean that those consequences are worse than if we had done nothing, or done something different. We don’t know what the consequences of doing nothing would have been. We cannot go back and have the argument again based on what we now know, much of which is only true because of the choices that were made in 2002-03. It’s always easy to criticize people who try things, to criticize the messes that are caused by accomplishment. It’s like the modern environmentalist who criticizes the pollution of industry- he’s not criticizing failure. He’s criticizing success. Because the industrialist has succeeded in industry, some secondary problems are created that need to be dealt with. But what is the alternative of no pollution? No industry, and living in caves. Where there are no oxen, there the stable is clean.
So it is with foreign policy. We can’t just not have a foreign policy. We can’t just withdraw from the world. I know we’d all like to. But the world isn’t going to let us withdraw. 9/11 happened because people hate Christianity and freedom, not because of some evil America committed. It’s not like 9/11 was the first time Muslims ever attacked Christians. 9/11 would have kept happening, and will keep happening, until America simply surrendered, unless we did something about it. We did something about it, and it wasn’t perfect, but we haven’t had any more 9/11’s.
Jesus told us to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If I lived in a country where I and my family were in danger of being tortured and killed for being Christians, or for being from the wrong tribe, or being opposed to the government stealing all my property, and there was a powerful nation who could do something about it, I would want them to do it. America can’t save the world. We can’t help everyone. But to say we can’t help everyone is not the same as saying that therefore we shouldn’t help anyone. God has given us overwhelming power and strength, and I believe that those who have strength and power should do what they can to help those who do not. We’re going to make mistakes. But the alternative is to hide our talent in the ground, which I do not believe is a viable alternative.
So this is my take on Ron Paul- like Dorothea, he has a vague vision of a great many fine ends, and not the least notion how to achieve them. Therefore, we need to find a presidential candidate who has plausible plans that make sense, who has integrity, who shares our vision. We need to understand that such a candidate is going to have flaws, and it’s always a judgment call where to draw the line. If you think your candidate has no flaws, then you are being unrealistic or you are being lied to. This is what being a conservative is all about- about being realistic. There is no savior, there is no golden age. Not in this world, anyway.