I'm going over to the other side
I'm happy to have not to have not
Big business is very wise
I'm inside free enterprise
Thus sang young John Lydon on 1984's This Is Not a Love Song from the record This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get by Lydon's post-Pistols' Public Image Limited. It's not quite a Tea Party anthem yet, but among libertarians of a certain age (and musical taste) that tune has to be right up there with The Fountainhead as at least a formative cultural underpinning of their near-anarchistic view of modern government and capitalism.
And the darling of their "movement" - if racially-tinged anger and class resentment coupled with vague and diffuse "principles" based on incredibly selective readings on American liberty can be said to constitute a movement - bears a striking resemblance to Lydon besides; hell, he looks more like Johnny Rotten's love child than he does the legitimate heir to Ron Paul's dead-enders estate.
While it's not generally my habit to emphasize the physical appearance of personalities on the political scene (I sat out Palinfest '08 in lonely fashion) there is something in Rand Paul's physicality and manner, in his speech and in his sneer, that draws your attention and holds it. He doesn't rock like the Sex Pistols, or even PiL, but it's all a performance piece nonetheless with an emphasis on the outrageous. Paul is challenging our assumptions of what can be said, of what can be asserted, in politely combative political company.
With Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity playing the Malcolm McLaren role, Rand Paul has been polished up and put on special in Kentucky, rollicking past the tired Mitch McConnell machine like a well-funded Lee Harvey Oswald handing out pamphlets in New Orleans crossed with a hopped-up William Shatner hawking cheap travel deals with goofy Kung Fu moves on YouTube. It all looks too much like the Charlie X episode of Star Trek's first season for my comfort. Too much too soon, do ya recall?
It's all performance art, but without John Lydon's wink. Rand Paul's absurd statements about civil rights and private business are revealing of the entire movement he now seems to lead. By refusing to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on Rachel Maddow's show, Rand left the GOP's slip showing at the big victory dance. It's no secret at all that Republican strategy has leveraged race and class resentment among southern whites for decades; but intellectual underpinnings that deny the advances of the civil rights movement and the strong Federal role in changing the racial formula at lunch counters and institutions of higher learning...well, that's some pretty dirty linen right there. As Jonathan Weisman wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Republican candidate Rand Paul's controversial remarks on the 1964 Civil Rights Act unsettled GOP leaders this week, but they reflect deeply held iconoclastic beliefs held by some in his party, and many in the tea-party movement, that the U.S. government shook its constitutional moorings more than 70 years ago."
Yet it's that unsettling feeling that's sticking - the old ruse, the sad "states rights" argument looks soiled and ugly taken to its even more conservative extreme by Paul, the new Republican Senate nominee from Kentucky. Talk about appropriate company: Paul embarrassed the so-called mainstream Republican establishment to such a degree that he joined Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia as the only guests ever to cancel a Meet The Press appearance on Sunday morning.
Still, I think it's a mistake for Democrats and progressive independents to under-estimate the Tea Party and its many flavors. Along with the native intolerance that fuels its darker precincts, the Tea Party movement feeds on deep unhappiness with this country's ever-growing wealth gap, with ineffective government, and with the fixed game that big business plays on capitalism's card table. I think Frank Rich is right about this:
The Tea Party is not merely an inchoate expression of a political mood, or an amorphous ragtag band of diverse elements, or a bipartisan cry of dissatisfaction with the supposed “government takeover” of health care. The Tea Party is a right-wing populist movement with a specific ideology. It resides in the aging white base of the Republican Party and wants to purge that party of leaders who veer from its dogma.The libertarian Republicans engage in what what Joan Walsh calls "their magical thinking about the free market," but their policy has always been selective at best, intellectually dishonest at worst. It's pick-and-choose "libertarianism" - yes on guns, no on privacy, yes on property rights, no on search and seizure, and on and on. The Paulists are supposed to be the most consistent keepers of the one true flame of liberty, and his candidacy is indeed a direct challenge of the broader Cheneyite "one central power" Republicans who have dominated the national party since Reagan. Yet Paul believes in certain strong Federal interventions in private lives, like a national ban on abortions and tough Federal drug laws, and his love for the free market apparently does not extend to ending subsidies for coal mining businesses.
Nor does anyone expect that in keeping with his dislike for government, he'll simply abstain from every single vote in Congress so as not to keep the Federal government's boot heel on the throat of private enterprise and local communities - like, in his own words, the Obama Administration's "un-American" policy of putting that heel to the throat of British Petroleum after its catastrophic accident fouled the Gulf of Mexico. Sticking up for a heavily-subsidized multinational corporation after its negligence damages the livelihoods of thousands of small American business owners - now that's a libertarian!
No, Rand Paul is eminently adaptable, as PiL shouted back in 1984. He comes off the phony and his "anarchy in the U.S." tour just another flavor of Republicans attempting to steer populist anger - and no small about of intolerance - into a few votes with the age-old claim of "taking back government." As John Lydon sang in his first band: "Your future dream is a shopping scheme."