As Ron Paul's inability to expand his base within the Republican Party makes his bid for the GOP presidential nomination seem increasingly futile, media outlets are discussing whether he'll make another run as a third-party candidate. While the jury is out as to what he'll decide, one thing is certain: Paul would perform very well among the millennial generation.
The Texas congressman's strong support among people ages 18 to 36 is apparent everywhere, with the pro-Paul buzz that has long pervaded college campuses and online message boards now being reflected in the primaries, where he has won the youth vote in most states.
While some believe this reveals a pre-existing libertarian streak among millennials, that diagnosis overlooks some inconvenient details. For one thing, many in this same generation turned out in droves four years ago to elect Barack Obama.
What's more, his young followers are quite the eclectic bunch: Ayn Rand worshipers and old-fashioned paleoconservatives, Ph.D. candidates in economics and quasi-illiterate conspiracy theorists, stoners smitten by his stance on marijuana legalization, and bigots who embrace the racist newsletters published under his name, all topped off by a generous sprinkling of trendies who flaunt their independent-mindedness by mimicking other self-proclaimed independent-minded people, among whom Paul is currently chic.
So why are so many millennials gravitating to Paul? Simple: They are a generation in rebellion against banality.
That's why there was such a rally behind Obama in 2008. For all the attention paid to how his candidacy was making history by breaking racial barriers, Obama attracted millennials by being a throwback, offering the thoughtfulness, gravitas, and eloquence of John Kennedy after eight years of the callow faltering of George W. Bush.
By contrast, Paul's appeal comes from the fact that he's perceived as refreshingly novel. Even as he insists that his message contains nothing more than old-fashioned constitutional ideals (a claim many historians vigorously contest), Paul is primarily adored for being a gleeful slayer of sacred cows, from the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Reserve to the military-industrial complex and countless social welfare programs. At a time when the public has been inundated with partisan talking points so overused that they've jelled into platitudes, Paul stands out by being unapologetically iconoclastic.
While the millennial instinct to oppose banality is healthy, however, the consequent idolization of individual political figures is not. For Obama, the main result has merely been disappointment, since, like Kennedy, his luster has faded now that the abstract art of inspiration has clashed with the grubby realities of governing (Kennedy's brand didn't recover until it was sanctified by assassination). The Paul boom, on the other hand, could lead to something much worse.
Because millennials have been ill-served by an education system that skimps on history and political theory, many mistake Paul's knack for shaking up our national conversation for a sign that his ideas are the only meaningful ones in the ideological marketplace.
What they fail to understand is that, when past presidential aspirants purveyed ideas like Paul's, they were accompanied by other statesmen intelligently advocating different perspectives. Just look back to 1952, the last year in which one of Paul's political heroes, Robert Taft, competed for the Republican presidential nomination. His chief opponent was Dwight Eisenhower, a centrist well-versed in the work of philosopher Eric Hoffer; the winner of that battle went on to face Adlai Stevenson, a cerebral progressive whose innovative policy proposals inspired the next two Democratic presidents.
While our era has an analogue to Taft in Paul, we don't have any Eisenhowers or Stevensons, and this is what Paul illuminates — not that his views are or aren't the correct ones to adopt in today's debate, but rather that a substantive debate isn't even taking place.
Millennials who fail to recognize this crucial distinction risk mistaking Paul's bold unorthodox belief for infallible truth, thus turning them into dogmatic libertarians no better than the dogmatic liberals and dogmatic conservatives they rightfully deride. While it is easy and comforting to believe that one political hero or one set of ideological assumptions will solve all of our problems, the prevalence of such mindsets is what caused our political culture to become so banal in the first place.
The lesson we should instead learn is the one President Eisenhower himself best articulated: "In a democracy debate is the breath of life."
This article originally appeared on the Lehigh Valley's The Morning Call.
Photo Credit: Jayel Aheram