Is Rand Paul Crazier Than Anyone Else in D.C.?

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The Right Stuff: A history of conservative movements.

Forced to name the “craziest” policy favored by American politicians, I’d say the multibillion-dollar war on drugs, which no one thinks is winnable. Asked about the most “extreme,” I’d cite the invasion of Iraq, a war of choice that has cost many billions of dollars and countless innocent lives. The “kookiest” policy is arguably farm subsidies for corn, sugar, and tobacco—products that people ought to consume less, not more.

These are contentious judgments. I hardly expect the news media to denigrate the policies I’ve named, nor do I expect their Republican and Democratic supporters to be labeled crazy, kooky, or extreme. These disparaging descriptors are never applied to America’s policy establishment, even when it is proved ruinously wrong, whereas politicians who don’t fit the mainstream Democratic or Republican mode, such as libertarians, are mocked almost reflexively in these terms, if they are covered at all.

Kentucky GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul is the most recent subject of these attacks. “Is Rand Paul ‘Crazy’?” asked a headline in The Week. “Rand Paul may not be a racist, but he is an extremist,” Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post. “The newest Washington parlor game is coming up with wacky questions to ask Rand Paul about his worldview,” noted Robert Schlesinger, opinion editor of U.S. News & World Report.

This is how the notion forms that libertarians are especially nutty. The overall attitude is captured nicely by a hyperbolic post at Gawker, that reliable purveyor of snarky conventional wisdom. “Rand Paul, it seems, is the political-contender version of the mouth-breathing conspiracy theorist with missing teeth and a torn plastic bag full of photocopies who you hope doesn’t sit next to you on public transport,” Ravi Somaiya writes, prompted by an old speech the Senate candidate gave in opposition to a trans–North American superhighway that is more conspiracy theory than actual proposal.

And it’s true, Paul has plenty of beliefs that I regard as wacky, such as his naive, now withdrawn, assumption that markets would have obviated the need for certain provisions in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Or his desire to return America to the gold standard.

Of course, I feel world-weary exasperation upon hearing every national politician speak—have you ever gotten through the election-season television commercials without rolling your eyes?—but the media seem to reflexively treat some ideas and candidates less seriously than others for no legitimate, objective reason. Third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot was called a disparaging name so often that he tried to defuse the situation with humor by dancing in public to Patsy Cline’s rendition of the song “Crazy.” Rand Paul can’t escape this treatment even on Fox News, where an anchor called him a libertarian wacko.

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

Call them crazy, but Rand Paul, Ron Paul, and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, a likely 2012 presidential candidate, oppose those policies, which puts them at odds with an establishment whose consensus shouldn’t determine whether we grapple with or dismiss an idea. As the most egregious excesses of the war on terror so clearly demonstrate, libertarian ideology doesn’t always lead its adherents to lunacy, and being “in the mainstream” isn’t always a self-evidently desirable characteristic, nor has it ever been in the long history of American politics.

Will the dismissive treatment of libertarians nevertheless persist? Will reporters covering a 2012 Gary Johnson candidacy zero in on his opposition to the war on drugs, and ask him questions like “Will sex offenders who’ve served their time in jail be able to buy ecstasy on their way to a Miley Cyrus concert?” Quite possibly. The press loves to ask questions premised on the most absurd applications of libertarian theory. But Obama won’t face incredulous questions from the establishment press about asserting powers that, if abused, would theoretically enable him to declare a political opponent an enemy combatant, deport him, and murder him using the power of the state.

The beliefs of libertarians and other candidates on our political fringes should not escape media scrutiny, nor should the media start making reflexive judgments about the wisdom of nonlibertarian Democratic and Republican policies, treating them with the open mockery and barely concealed disdain that Rand Paul and his father have received. But the policies and ideology of libertarian politicians should be treated as seriously and equitably as those of Lindsey Graham or Joe Lieberman, especially given the balance of political power in this country. It’s a de facto two-party system. And crazy, kooky, extreme actions are perpetrated by establishment centrists far more often than by marginalized libertarians.

Friedersdorf writes at TheAtlantic.com and True/Slant. Reach him at conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @conor64.