Politics

01.17.14

Rand Paul is America's Smug Freshman Roommate

The Kentucky senator is so convinced of his brilliance that he says ridiculous things—like blaming "majority rule" for Jim Crow.

It’s no secret that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is unhappy with President Obama’s speech today on intelligence gathering and surveillance—he immediately went to cable news to criticize it—but he also went to Fox News to say a few words about Obama’s theory of executive power. In particular, he said that the president was committed to a tyrannical kind of majority rule, as evidenced by his reliance on executive orders. This is the kind of majority rule, he explained, that led to “Jim Crow” and “the internment of the Japanese.”

If you’re wondering if this sounds better in context… it doesn’t. Here’s the full comment:

“The danger to majority rule—to him sort of thinking, well, the majority voted for me, now I’m the majority, I can do whatever I want, and that there are no rules that restrain me—that’s what gave us Jim Crow,” Paul said. “That’s what gave us the internment of the Japanese—that the majority said you don’t have individual rights, and individual rights don’t come from your creator, and they’re not guaranteed by the Constitution. It’s just whatever the majority wants.”

Paul might have a point with Japanese internment, which was authorized by executive order. But the reference to Jim Crow—which he’s made before—is just nonsense. The thing about Jim Crow, after all, is that its emergence was profoundly undemocratic and distinctly anti-majoritarian. Throughout the South, pluralities of the electorate—and in the case of Mississippi and Louisiana, outright majorities—were disenfranchised through violence and terrorism. Republican lawmakers (black and white) were driven from office, black voters were barred from the polls (or sometimes, just murdered), and paramilitary groups suppressed black political life.

If we were witnessing any of this today, in the modern world, we would rightfully describe it as one part repression, one part coup, and—given the lynchings and massacres—one part ethnic cleansing. Say what you will about the end of the judicial filibuster—or President Obama’s use of executive orders—but it’s a universe away from what we saw a century ago in the American South.

This is blindly obvious to anyone who knows anything about the period, but—as evidenced by his other statements on civil rights—that doesn’t include Rand Paul.

Here’s the thing about our junior Kentucky senator: He doesn’t just carry himself with the ideological certainty of a zealot—the birthright of a Paul, it seems—but he walks with the arrogance of a smart undergraduate. For whatever reason, he assumes that no one could know as much as he does, a tendency which leads to things like his disastrous speech on at Howard University, and today’s rhetorical embarrassment.