There’s something about being a willfully marginal player in the political sphere that induces whininess. Or at least that’s the conclusion I can’t help but come to after reading the libertarian-ish Conor Friedersdorf’s epic lament over the media’s treatment of Rand Paul.
I’m tempted to take it apart, piece-by-piece; but I’m also aware of that whole Nietzsche thing about staring into the abyss. So rather than picking out the many, many places where Friedersdorf makes claims that are either highly questionable or laughably wrong, I’ll try to zoom out and focus on what he seems so incapable or unwilling to address.
Friedersdorf’s upset because: folks are acting as if Rand Paul said he didn’t believe in democracy, when all Rand Paul said was “I’m not a firm believer in democracy.” (How dare people, right?) So, in Paul’s defense, Friedersdorf writes:
If a scholar of political thought said of ancient Athens, “I’m not a firm believer in democracy — it required slavery, war, or both, to subsidize the lower classes while they carried out their civic duties,” no one would think that a strange formulation — it is perfectly coherent to talk about democracy in places that didn’t extend the franchise universally, given how the term has been used and understood for two thousand years of political history.
Even in the article, we have no idea what sentences Paul spoke immediately before or after that. Suffice it to say that if anyone else in the United States said, of federal intervention in the Jim Crow South, “They did the right thing overruling decisions made locally in Alabama and Mississippi, even though it was anti-democratic,” no one would blink, let alone criticize the speaker.
Well, here’s the thing: Rand Paul is many things, but he is not “a scholar of political thought.” And he’s certainly not the senator from Athens. What he is, though, is a man who still can’t give a straight answer as to whether or not he finds the Civil Rights Acts constitutional, though he’s proved happy to brandish Jim Crow as a kind of shield against further inquiry.
Even on its own terms, the Jim Crow example falters. If you listen to Friedersdorf or Paul, you’d almost think that majoritarian democracy is what led to Jim Crow. One imagines it as if, after the Civil War, there was a big meeting in every city, town, and holler of the South, and there was a show of hands. Jim Crow: yea or nay?
But, of course, that’s far from the truth. Jim Crow wasn’t a product of a democratic process — of the kinds of democratic processes we think of as our own in the United States. Those institutional channels were the ones that passed the laws that broke Jim Crow. The American apartheid, on the other hand, was the product of terroristic violence, white supremacy, and Northern indifference; of the kind of evil Rand Paul’s father’s newsletters trafficked in.
There are other cringeworthy moments — like when Friedersdorf refers to Paul’s self-immolation on Maddow as an example of the “nuances” of the senator’s thinking — but the superficial and ideologically convenient understanding of what the Civil Rights Act meant, that’s the real problem with Paul and Friedersdorf’s thinking.
And as to Friedersdorf’s suggestion that Ayn Rand has nothing to do with Paul’s anti-democratic streak? You know the one, “don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining?” That.