The most interesting – and quite possibly the most important – discussion about the future of American politics took place just last week. And unless you subscribe to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze TV – of all places! - you probably missed it.
“I think Republicans will not win again in my lifetime...unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told the lachrymose former Fox News host who now runs his own online media empire. “It has to be a transformation. Not just a little tweaking at the edges.” Not only that, says the Tea Party favorite and persistently popular 2016 presidential hopeful, the Democrats are overdue for an ideological overhaul too.
Only Team Red and Team Blue dead-enders can disagree. In January, Gallup found a historically high number of Americans – 42 percent – self-identify as politically independent. The Republican brand is totally in the crapper, with just 25 percent copping to that affiliation, and the Democrats are flatter than a leaking bottle of SodaStream seltzer, pulling just 31 percent (abandon hope, all ye who pray for Elizabeth Warren).
Neither party is clicking with voters any more. That’s despite – read: because – each party over the past dozen years has had ample opportunity to implement its preferred policies. Bush had six years of a Republican Congress and a free hand after the 9/11 attacks. Obama got everything he wanted during his first two years in office – expansion of TARP, stimulus, passage of The Affordable Care Act. The main result, other than the weakest economic recovery since the Great Depression? Losing the House to the Republicans in 2010.
Since assuming office over the initial objections of the senior senator from Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2010, Rand Paul has injected an unmistakably libertarian element into national politics. He’s called for major, across-the-board cuts to federal spending, pushed back against the Great American War Machine, and punked the D.C. establishment’s love of drone attacks and secret surveillance in a kidney-busting, 13-hour filibuster that set Twitter afire like a Miley Cyrus twerkathon.
None of this has endeared him to his party’s establishment. After his filibuster (in which he was joined by Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden), John McCain dubbed him a “wacko bird” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie aspirated against Paul’s “strain of libertarianism” as “very dangerous.” Apologists for Obama’s expansive understanding of executive power and the Democratic establishment were no less sparing, writing Paul off as delusional, paranoid, and altogehter nuttier than a Baby Ruth bar.
Unlike most of his Republican colleagues, Paul has also shown an interest in reaching out to minorities, especially by championing sentencing reform as it relates to the all-too-bipartisan War on Drugs (Vice President Joe Biden who created the drug czar’s office as a senator, still rails against pot as a “gateway drug”). As Paul told Beck: “Republicans haven’t gone to African Americans or to Hispanics and said, ‘You know what? The War on Drugs, big government, has had a racial outcome. It’s disproportionately affected the poor, and the black and the brown among us. We need to have better criminal justice.’ That message will resonate. Republicans haven’t been bringing that message.”
Paul recognizes that the way forward on the national stage is not to get hung up on social issues (marriage equality, abortion, immigration) that act as dog whistles for the party faithful but do little to address widespread concerns about the size, scope, and competence of government. After years of activist government under both George W. Bush (who jacked spending, regulation, and surveillance like nobody else) and Barack Obama, a large and growing majority of Americans agree that government is “trying to do too many that should be left to individuals and businessess”. The record 72 percent of people who consider government a bigger threat than big business or big labor to the future of the country are not likely to be wooed back to the Republican and Democratic folds via fervent appeals to build a really tall wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or to fight against the Koch Brothers.
While Paul’s past calls for a libertarian embrace of freedom in “both the economic and the personal sphere” have been inconsistent, he’s now also talking about procedural reforms that voters of all ideologies should support. “There is a third way and it’s out there,” he told Beck. “We need term limits, we need reading the bills, we need single-purpose bills...I think you would see people from both parties rally” around such ideas.
Among the political observers excited by anti-establishment pols such as Rand Paul is Joe Trippi, the legendary Democratic campaign strategist best-known for engineering the internet-fueled insurgency of Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) during the Democratic 2004 primary. “The younger generation is probably the most libertarian and sort of tolerant, and has more libertarian values, I'd say, than any generation in American history," Trippi recently told my Reason colleague Todd Krainin. Paul and others like him are engaging issues – drone strikes, drug legalization - that terrify old-line establishmentarians but energize disaffected voters that might include everyone from Glenn Beck to Occupy Wall Streeters. At the same time, argues Trippi, the traditional party establishments are growing weaker and weaker as direct appeals via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media make $5,000-a-plate fundraisers obsolete.
When it comes to the new breed of politicians who will force a change in politics as usual, Trippi says Rand Paul “is so far the likely embodiment of who's going to raise the flag and take the hill.” That may be in 2016 (Trippi says that a strong Paul candidacy will likely create a “fight of titans” between insurgent and establishment candidates last seen in the 1980 struggle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy) or it might come later. But the willingness of Rand Paul to roam far beyond his party’s stamping grounds and decentralize political campaigns, says Trippi, underscores the inevitability of an independent, libertarian candidate who ultimately ends up in the White House.
In a world of endlessly proliferating social identities (see Facebook’s now acknowledgement that human sexuality is too complex to be summed up as simply male or female) and new media (see Beck’s The Blaze TV!), there’s just no way either the Republican or Democratic Partys will be recognizable in ten years’ time. And for the vast majority of Americans, that will be a day that can’t come soon enough.