the national interest

Why Rand Paul Distrusts Democracy

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves after a caucus meeting at the Capitol February 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The GOP senators are working to hold up the confirmation vote on former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to be the next secretary of defense until they get more information from the Obama Administration about last fall's attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.
Was I not supposed to say that? Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The most unusual and interesting line in Julia Ioffe’s highly interesting profile of Rand Paul is Paul’s confession, “I’m not a firm believer in democracy. It gave us Jim Crow.” Of course, that’s an awfully strange way to condemn Jim Crow, which arose in the distinctly undemocratic Apartheid South (it was no coincidence that the dismantling of Jim Crow and the granting of democratic rights to African-Americans happened simultaneously). But it’s not just a gaffe or another historical misrepresentation — rather, it’s an authentic clue into an ideology Paul has been busily concealing as he has ascended into mainstream politics.

Paul, like his father, is a right-wing libertarian, though he has avoided the long and deep associations with white supremacy that have characterized his father’s career. (Ioffe persuasively suggests that this latter difference is not merely tactical but authentic — long before his own political career, Paul reportedly objected to his father’s embrace of racism.) In Paul’s defense, one could imagine a scenario in which white Americans imposed segregation through entirely democratic channels, and that such a scenario might give you pause about the virtues of democracy.

But horror at segregation isn’t really what drives Paul’s distrust of democracy. It’s the idea that democracy allows the majority to vote away the property of the minority. Rand Paul, like his father, is deeply influenced by the political-economic philosophy of Ayn Rand. Paul usually soft-peddles his Randism, though he sometimes communicates to fellow believers through dog whistles, like playing Rush (who once dedicated an album to “the genius of Ayn Rand”) at his victory speech.

Rand’s philosophy is a kind of inverted Marxism, imagining politics as a struggle between a virtuous producer class that creates all wealth and the parasites who exploit them. (Marx believed the workers produced all wealth and the capitalists robbed it from them; Rand believed roughly the opposite.) Also like Marx, Rand considered conventional democratic government as a cover for this kind of exploitation. If the majority could tax the rich to benefit itself, this was tyranny. 

Here’s Rand summarizing her aversion to democracy: “I do not believe that a majority can vote a man’s life, or property, or freedom away from him,” she argued. A less militant version of this philosophy is now the dominant credo of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney’s post-election comments to donors that President Obama used “gifts” to voters to buy their allegiance echoes this political analysis. Democracy is a process by which the minority that is responsible for progress and prosperity finds itself set upon by the grasping hordes.

The pervasiveness of this Randian ideology within the GOP is a big part of what has enabled Paul to rise rapidly from kook territory to his current status as a potential first-tier presidential candidate. And, as Ioffe notes, Paul is far savvier and more pragmatic than his father, shrewdly assessing which rough edges of his ideology need to be sanded off to make himself acceptable to the national party.

And yet, Paul retains enough intellectual integrity that he can’t fully let go of his principles. That integrity was why he dodged and weaved for six painful minutes with Rachel Maddow in 2010, not quite embracing his private property opposition to the parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that banned segregation in stores, but also refusing to abandon it. It’s why he couldn’t stop himself from letting slip that revealing line about democracy. And, while I’m no psychiatrist, I wonder if it’s why he was crossing his fingers.

Why Rand Paul Distrusts Democracy