Rand Paul's Republican Revolution Should Be a Wake-Up Call For Democrats


The news. In a recent interview with Politico, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) discussed how the Republican Party could attract minority voters by focusing on a new slate of issues. These included reforming the war on drugs, opposing indefinite detention of detainees at military bases, and shifting the immigration debate away from border security and toward "find[ing] a place" for illegal residents who are willing to find work. He also repeated his earlier criticisms of the NSA's domestic spying programs, which culminated last week in a class-action lawsuit against the agency.

Since most experts agree that the GOP needs to increase its support among minority and female voters to be viable on the national level, Paul's latest statements are impossible to divorce from his 2016 presidential ambitions. As the only prominent candidate advancing even modestly libertarian ideas, he stands to benefit most from the argument that a distinctly "libertarian-slash-Republican" ideology offers the right-wing party its best chance of winning among key demographic groups. In addition to being nakedly self-serving, Paul's thesis isn't particularly convincing; data from PRRI and the Brookings Institute shows that self-identified libertarians are disproportionately male and overwhelmingly white, while Paul's personal efforts to reach out to women and African Americans made headlines for being awkwardly unsuccessful.

Why Democrats should pay attention. While Paul hasn't succeeded in demonstrating a pluralistic appeal for libertarianism, he has inadvertently highlighted how the Democratic Party is imperiling its own diverse brand by straying too far from its liberal roots. The term "liberal" (which evolved from synonimity with the economic conservativism and international isolationism of 19th century presidents like Grover Cleveland to association with the economically progressive and internationally interventionist ideology forged by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition) is usually associated today with the New Left. This movement, which arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s, supplemented the New Dealesque support for an Economic Bill of Rights with a proactive opposition to all forms of racial and sexual discrimination, an ethically consequentialist belief that the state should not interfere in the personal lifestyle choices of individual citizens, and an abhorrence for the perceived excesses of the military-industrial complex and security state. Just as the New Deal liberals transformed the Democratic brand into a natural home for minorities and women by concentrating on their common class-based interests, their New Left successors maintained the party's pluralistic status by responding to their needs as victims of discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia) and addressing their concerns about the oppressive growth of state power (from the neo-imperialism of a massive military establishment waging frequent wars to the civil liberty intrusions of banning drugs and abortions).

The bottom line. Although the Democrats have yet to produce a purely New Leftist president, most of our leaders have adopted pieces of New Left ideology over time, from Jimmy Carter's support for a foreign policy that prioritized human rights over Cold War containment and Bill Clinton's staunch support of abortion rights to Barack Obama's support for marriage equality. As Paul managed to point out, however, we remain behind the ideological curve on many issues where it matters most. The war on drugs not only violates our civil liberties but disproportionately targets racial minorities and the poor in the process, even as most Democratic politicians refuse to tackle it head-on. Similarly, despite our nation's long history of unconstitutionally imprisoning racial minorities, Obama has continued many of the detention policies implemented as part of George W. Bush's "War on Terror." Finally, as the NSA spying scandal has revealed, many Democratic leaders have violated civil liberties and expanded the power of America's security state in ways unimaginable when the New Left was first conceived.

This isn't to say that large numbers of minorities and women will leave the Democratic fold anytime soon. The racist programs and rhetoric that the GOP first adopted during Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," and Ronald Reagan's presidency will continue to repel minorities until it is purged from the party's policies and ideology, as is also true of the right-wing's underlying misogyny that has recently been aptly branded the "war on women." With that said, Paul is correct in diagnosing that there are many areas where we are not properly serving our own constituents. If we don't remain consistent with our core principles, the day may indeed come when we pay a dear price for it.