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Is Ron Paul Changing American Politics?

- December 26, 2007

bq. Ron Paul is changing the ideological landscape of American politics and the fabric of modern classical liberalism.

That is from Tyler Cowen’s post at Marginal Revolution, and he is not a Ron Paul supporter. I disagree. Here is why Ron Paul will have little lasting impact on American politics:

1) He is introducing few new ideas that are gaining any traction, which I will define as “earning the support of a substantial fraction of the American public.” His opposition to the Iraq War and immigration already tap into healthy veins of American public opinion and indeed the views of many Democrats (re: Iraq) and Republicans (re: immigration). So it is unclear that he is having any independent impact. His opposition to federal government programs is in line with Americans’ skepticism of government, but this general skepticism tends to give way to broad support for many specific programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and most forms of gun control. The American public is not consistently libertarian and Ron Paul’s doctrinaire species of libertarianism is unlikely to win favor.

As such, an independent Ron Paul candidacy is unlikely to attract much of the general election vote. The Democratic and Republican nominees will share some of his views on highly salient issues, thereby eroding his potential base of support. His unique views will attract few converts. I would predict a single-digit share of the popular vote, at best.

2) His ideas and electoral support are not causing the other Republican candidates to change their strategy. Independent candidates and third parties can sometimes force the two major parties to tack in their ideological direction. If so, even if they lose, as they almost always do in American politics, they can still have an effect. Paul is if anything, having the opposite effect. His opposition to the Iraq War and the Patriot Act only encourages his fellow Republican candidates to defend Iraq and the War on Terrorism by beating up on Paul. If Paul runs as an independent, this could change, but I suspect that either party’s nominee can respond effectively with cheap talk — i.e., they will minimize defections to Paul with rhetoric rather than with any substantive shift in their goals or issue positions.

3) Most importantly, he is not building any infrastructure that would ensure his impact can survive the 2008 campaign. By infrastructure, I mean a formal organization, and one that is committed to something other than Paul himself. Indeed, he is doing the opposite. His campaign is driven by grassroots supporters, who, taking advantage of the Internet’s ability to lower transaction costs, raise money and organize events. Such a “bottom-up” campaign is a noteworthy departure from traditional campaigns, but different does not mean better in this case. What will remain when his campaign folds? Little, it would appear, unless he is planning a new political organization or party. Will his supporters constitute a political force? If he is not going to lead an organization of some kind, then likely they will not, especially those of his supporters who are otherwise politically alienated or inactive.

The fate of the Reform Party is instructive here. Even though Perot did try to institutionalize his ideas, the Reform Party itself could not find an identity once Perot himself stepped off the stage. (To wit, they nominated Buchanan in 2000 and endorsed Nader in 2004.) Ultimately, the party succumbed to factional disputes and is no longer a credible electoral force.

Why will the Ron Paul Revolution be any different? I am not sure that it will.