It turns out that Divergent isn’t just the top movie in America. It’s also playing out in the run-up to the 2016 presidential race, with Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, in the starring role.
Based on the first volume of a wildly popular young-adult trilogy, Divergent is set in America of the near-future, when all people are irrevocably slotted into one of five “factions” based on temperament and personality type. Those who refuse to go along with the program are marked as divergent—and marked for death! “What Makes You Different, Makes You Dangerous,” reads one of the story’s taglines.
Which pretty much sums up Rand Paul, whose libertarian-leaning politics are gaining adherents among the plurality of Americans fed up with bible-thumping, war-happy, budget-busting Republicans and promise-breaking, drone-dispatching, budget-busting Democrats. Professional cheerleaders for Team Red and Team Blue—also known as journalists—aren’t calling for Paul’s literal dispatching, but they are rushing to explain exactly why the opthalmologist has no future in politics.
A national politician who brings a Berkeley crowd to its feet by attacking NSA surveillance programs and wants to balance the budget yesterday? Who supports the Second Amendment and the Fourth Amendment (not to mention the First and the Tenth)? A Christian Republican who says that the GOP “in order to get bigger, will have to agree to disagree on social issues” and has signaled his willngness to get the federal government out of prohibiting gay marriage and marijuana?
Well, we can’t have that, can we? Forget that Paul is showing strongly in polls about the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. “He is not doing enough to build the political network necessary to mount a viable presidential campaign,” tut-tuts The New York Times, which seems to be breathing one long sigh of relief in its recent profile of Paul. “Rand Paul’s Plan to Save Ukraine is Completely Nuts,” avers amateur psychologist Jonathan Chait at New York.
Writing at Slate, The Daily Beast’s own Jamelle Bouie grudgingly acknowledged that “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions” on civil liberties and secret surveillance. Still, Paul is “glib” and his critics “have a point,” one of which is that, according to Salon’s Elias Isquith, “he’ll never, ever, ever win over young voters.”
Well, nanny-nanny-boo-boo to you, too, kiddo.
The harshest and most sweeping dismissal of Paul comes not from the left but from the right. Writing in Politico, Kevin D. Williamson of National Review proclaims that “Americans hate Rand Paul’s libertarianism. They just don’t know it yet.” Sure, writes Williamson (a fellow I’m friendly with, and who’s also quite libertarian himself), Son of Ron can get cheap applause in Kentucky and elsewhere when railing against foreign aid to countries that burn the American flag. But those same patriots will start throwing rotten vegetables the minute Paul comes after Social Security, Medicare, and even the military-industrial complex.
And then there’s the Democratic base. “Whether it is abortion, guns, public-school curricula or the all-important issue of dropping the federal civil-rights hammer on noncomformist bakers [against gay marriage], Paul can count on bitter, unified opposition from liberal social-issue voters,” writes Williamson, who also confesses that right-wingers aren’t actually interested in shrinking size of government. “Any candidate who’s serious about fiscal reform is going to be a hard sell in 2016—or any other year.”
You can’t expect someone who works at National Review—whose mission is, famously and more than a little sadly, to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop”—to get misty-eyed about change, but Williamson simply presumes that things will never change. This is especially odd since his latest book,The End is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure, is predicated upon the idea that the era of fiscal reform is already upon us due to simple math. We’ve spent so much for so long, says Williamson, that “government as we know it is in retreat, a retreat that I expect to be accelerated by economic trends related to public debt and unfunded government liabilities.”
As it happens, change is everywhere around us. Party affiliation continues to droop for Republicans and Democrats, while the share of self-declared independents stays at or near historic highs. Millennials are “unmoored from institutions,” gasped Pew Research recently. There’s every reason to believe that large swaths of the country are ready to shake off the politics of exhaustion and move toward a future that is different from the past. Only the nosferatu pundits at The New York Times and other journalistic glory holes for the Establishment can even stomach the prospect of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush showdown in 2016.
Surveys such as the Reason-Rupe Poll (conducted quarterly by the nonprofit that employs me) that engage respondents on tradeoffs have found that healthy majorities are willing to scratch Social Security (61 percent) and Medicare (59 percent) if they can get out the dollar amounts they’ve paid into these unsound entitlement programs. When you consider such swings in public opinion along with sustained contempt for Obamacare, the rapid embrace of gay marriage and pot legalization, and more, there’s every reason to conclude that Rand Paul’s libertarian divergence from the status quo represents the future of politics rather than a curious diversion.
Whether or not the Kentucky Republican actually wins the Republican nomination, much less the White House, is besides the point. The question is whether the politics of the future will be the same as the politics of the present. “I don't want to be just one thing,” explains one of the protagonists in Divergent. “I can't be. I want to be brave, and I want to be selfless, intelligent, and honest and kind.” If anything explains Rand Paul’s rising profile, it’s precisely his ability to be more than just one thing—a social conservative, a civil libertarian, a budget cutter, a decentralizer, and more. There’s no reason to fear— and every reason to promote—such divergence in our elected representatives.