Young People, Convenient Truths and a Distorted Picture
By Jon Green
Ask ten people on the street what they think of Ron Paul and you will likely get ten very different answers ranging from “I sent him my life savings” to “What a kook!” The man seemed downright wacky ten years ago, but raised some eyebrows in 2008 as the only GOP candidate against the Iraq War. Since then he has continued on a gradual rise to legitimacy in the public’s eye. Congressman Paul has gained particular traction among young people, one of President Obama’s core constituencies. This traction is in large part derived from frustrated idealism, excellent frame setting and rationalization of positive associations.
Ask ten Ron Paul fans why they support Ron Paul and one will begin rambling about stockpiled guns and Orwellian IRS agents, four will enter into a “liberty, freedom, and Constitution” mad lib and the other five will bring up foreign policy. Surprisingly few will bring up Congressman Paul’s endorsement of the Defense of Marriage Act, advocacy for bringing back the gold standard or goal of abolishing the Department of Education. None of them will bring up Congressman Paul’s opposition to the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, belief that climate change is not an issue or support for the complete deregulation of Wall Street. Few, if any, of Ron Paul’s supporters who overlap with President Obama’s 2008 coalition endorse these positions, so why the switch?
Ask ten social psychologists about the idea of “convenient truths” and half will crack a smile wider than the hole President Paul would leave in the UN after he pulled the United States out of it (a move that Congressman Paul has advocated). The other half will bury their heads in their hands. All ten will then go on to explain that once a person has “good” or “bad” associated with a given idea, their mind will seek to confirm their association. Young people associated candidate Obama with all things good in 2008, and ignored his desire to increase military efforts in Afghanistan and his caginess on the issue of same sex marriage. Now in 2012, a number of those same young people have associated Congressman Paul with all things good, and ignored his denial of the right to privacy established in Roe v. Wade, opposition to foreign aid even in humanitarian crises such as Darfur or advocacy for a health insurance policy that is essentially “pay your own way…and if you are too poor to do so then go to the nearest hospital and pray that someone is feeling charitable.”
Ask ten more people on the street if they think freedom is a good thing, if they think the government is functioning poorly and if they think dead soldiers are a bad thing all ten of them will say yes. It’s hard to argue against more freedom, better government and less death. A significant contributing factor to Ron Paul’s rise has been his ability to keep conversations surrounding him to these three principles, successfully framing himself as pro-freedom, pro-efficient government and anti-death, and his opponents as anti-freedom, anti-good government and pro-death. If the conversation does not stray past this frame it is nearly impossible not to form positive associations with Ron Paul.
Young people are by nature one of the most idealistic demographics in the electorate. We fall in and out of love with candidates fairly easily and often have unreasonable expectations for what the future can bring. Unfortunately, this idealism in elections is often incompatible with the pragmatism necessary for governance. We are frustrated because it seems that our government has been broken for the past decade and the “change” that was promised to us has not come quickly enough. But throwing our hands up and walking away, especially into the arms of Ron Paul, is not a productive way to express this frustration. We don’t have to vote for a candidate who wants to phase out Veterans’ Administration hospitals in order to get a president who opposed the Iraq War. We don’t have to vote for a candidate who opposes 14th Amendment protections for sexual harassment, saying: “[why] don’t they quit once the so-called harassment starts?” in order to get a president who thinks that the War on Drugs isn’t working. We don’t have to vote for a candidate who does not recognize a separation between Church and State in order to get a president who opposes corporate welfare. Young voters would be making a huge mistake abandoning President Obama in favor of a candidate who is anathema to the majority of their views. Ron Paul has wrapped the policies of the 1890’s in the cloak of “freedom and liberty” so as to create positive associations that play on the disappointments of the past decade. To the frustrated idealists out there: don’t be fooled.