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Sen. Rand Paul

(13 Jul 2013: The Gold Nugget — Las Vegas)

Sen. Rand Paul: 13 July 2013 - Las Vegas, NV

Regular readers of PopMatters may rightly wonder what a political review about a speech by a United States senator is doing in the events section, normally populated with reviews of concerts and other pop cultural events. It was in fact a show by Georgia jam rockers Widespread Panic at the Hard Rock Hotel on this same date that brought this reporter to Sin City in the first place. But when an attorney friend (and fellow Spreadhead) pointed out the synchronistic opportunity to also cover a speech by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) at the Gold Nugget, this award-winning investigative journalist couldn’t resist.

The whole situation recalled legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when he and his attorney infiltrated the National District Attorneys Association’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in 1971. Many of Thompson’s casual fans may only know him from “the Vegas book”, but the good doctor of journalism’s greatest impact arguably came from his next book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he savaged candidates from both major parties whenever they deserved it (which was often). Thompson’s reporting was widely hailed as the best coverage of the campaign and as a breakthrough in political journalism. Mainstream media reporters were jealous of Thompson for telling it like he saw it, without concern for future access to those in the corridors of power.

“Unlike most other correspondents, I could afford to burn all my bridges behind me—because I was only there for a year, and the last thing I cared about was establishing long-term connections on Capitol Hill,” wrote Thompson in the book’s introduction. He was only concerned with getting “as close to the bone” as he could, “and to hell with the consequences.” It’s in this spirit of using alternative journalism to seek the Truth that PopMatters endeavors to shine a light on the current era of American politics.

Some may view political matters as wholly unrelated to pop culture, but in the end, it’s all connected. The socio-cultural musical revolution of the 1960s featured a lot of great music that spoke out against the political turmoil of the era. If we’re to see any significant change in the 21st century, artists and musicians will again need to help wave the flag of social justice. In an era where American liberty appears to be slipping dangerously toward the Orwellian nightmare—what with the persecution of war crimes whistleblower Bradley Manning and NSA surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden—it would behoove music fans everywhere to start paying more attention to the American political climate.

Many readers have quite possibly (and maybe justifiably) written off American politics altogether, and the stats revealing that only about 57 percent of the eligible electorate actually voted in the 2012 presidential election is an indicator here. But the more people that tune in, the greater pressure there will be on politicians to appeal to American voters rather than just their potential corporate donors and associated greedheads.

Enter Rand Paul. The junior senator from the bluegrass state is not your typical Republican. As the son of retired Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, Rand arrives at the political table as something of a maverick. Like his father, he has some libertarian tendencies that could appeal to younger voters. He’s expressed sympathy for Snowden and Manning, which suggests a more open-minded and progressive view on the world than many Democrats, including President Obama. Rand Paul has even won praise from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange for his willingness to stand out from his fellow senators in this regard. But would Paul act any differently toward the Edward Snowdens and Bradley Mannings of the world if he occupied the Oval Office, with the full weight of the CIA, the NSA and the military and surveillance industrial complexes upon his shoulders?

Paul has also spoken out against the insane mandatory minimum sentencing of America’s failed drug war, which has ruined countless lives by filling prisons with non-violent drug offenders. He’s definitely not your typical hardline right-winger. But Paul has also been working to distance himself from some of his father’s bolder views so as not to alienate the corporate funders and lobbyists that any potential presidential candidate must appease in what passes for America’s alleged democracy here in the 21st century.

So what is Rand Paul really all about? It can be so hard to tell with American politicians, who are so frequently guilty of saying one thing and doing another (as so artfully illustrated in the classic season 7 South Park episode about America’s founding fathers, “I’m a Little Bit Country).

Paul’s speech at the Gold Nugget at a $30-a-person fundraiser for the Nevada Republican Party was a chance to get a first hand glimpse. The Kentucky senator attempted to position himself as a civil rights defender when he took President Obama to task on the matter of detaining citizens for extended periods without due process.

“I don’t care whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat,” Paul said. “Should any president have the authority to detain an American citizen without a trial?”

Whether he was referencing the nearly three years of incarceration suffered by Manning before his military court martial was unclear, but it was refreshing to hear a U.S. senator broach the topic when most have sat silent on the matter. Paul also tried to position himself as a populist by saying that his party needs to look beyond its traditional base and connect with voters of diverse ethnicities and lifestyles.

“I tell people we need to have people in our party with tattoos and without tattoos, with ties and without ties,” Paul said. “People who look like me, people who don’t look like me. We have to be a bigger, more diverse party.”

Such sentiment is a refreshing change of pace coming from a Republican politician, but an objective observer can’t help but wonder what it is that Paul thinks the Republican Party has to offer to anyone whose primary concern is not their income tax rate. He did offer one example of reaching out to those concerned with civil rights, stressing the value of internet freedom and the right to surf the interwebs without fear of government monitoring. But now that the NSA’s Orwellian surveillance horse is out of the barn, can there really be any legitimate hope of pulling it back into the stable?

Like most Republicans, Paul went on to harp about the need to trim the federal budget. He suggested that there are frivolous government projects to cut like a $325,000 project involving the use of a robotic squirrel to find out whether a rattlesnake would bite a squirrel if its tail wasn’t moving. But it’s here that progressives with a libertarian streak might be concerned about the influence of Paul’s father. In the 2012 Republican primary debates, it often seemed like the entire field was composed of lunatics who had escaped from an insane asylum and were completely over the cuckoo’s nest. Ron Paul seemed the most sane of the bunch in how he was the only candidate who would dare speak any truth to power, yet his platform still advocated the elimination of government agencies such as the EPA and Department of Education, as well as abolishing federal anti-trust legislation and the minimum wage.

Rand Paul attempted to win some pop culture points when he quoted from “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, referencing the 1988 hit song in a suggestion that he would go the extra mile for his constituents. The reference was probably lost on most of the audience, for it seemed doubtful that many in the room were familiar with the Scottish band. Pop culture brownie points may be a moot point in politics though. Barack Obama is easily one of the hippest persons to occupy the Oval Office when it comes to music appreciation, yet still appears completely beholden to the military interests that seem to have controlled the White House since November 22, 1963.

On July 22, Rand Paul quoted President Dwight Eisenhower in a tweet that read, “Eisenhower said ‘I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem—and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?’” It’s an admirable sentiment, though it leads one to wonder if Paul is also familiar with Eisenhower’s famous outgoing address to the nation in January 1961 where he presciently warned of the dangerous influence of the military-industrial complex that had arisen since World War II.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

It’s unlikely that any presidential contender would dare speak out against these powerful forces in the post-9/11 era, where blind support of a blank check for the military is generally equated with patriotism. But Paul’s tweet could potentially lead one to hope that he is aware of the threat to democracy that Eisenhower warned against, a threat that has materialized not only with the military-industrial complex but now also with the surveillance-industrial complex.

My attorney friend who came along for the ride at the Gold Nugget is a learned student of history, as well as a keen observer of socio-political trends. He’s known for his no-holds barred political analysis and was quick to offer a biting rebuttal to Paul’s speech.

“Rand Paul’s populist agenda can’t be argued with when he talks about expanding the Fourth Amendment, demands due process for everyone involved in the judicial system and acknowledges that the Grand Old Party needs to operate under a big tent so that isn’t just a bunch of crotchety, old, stingy rich people and naive white trash waving the flag at fundraisers held in relics of America’s Golden Age”, the attorney commented acerbically.

“However, as it is with all politicians, what is not said covers the most important topic”, the attorney continued. “Rand didn’t discuss his vows to get the government into every uterus in the country, nor did he explain why food stamps need to be replaced with drug tests. He seems to be cut from a different mold, yet he is like any other ideologue… What this country needs is someone like Rand Paul and someone like Dennis Kucinich working together to end the binary view of politics and put together a political platform designed to unite rather than perpetually divide the people. But now I’m sounding naive—we all know the public good took the back seat to corporate welfare and military profiteering in this system of government long ago.”

My attorney friend’s thoughts mirrored this reporter’s own from 2012, in the idealistic desire that Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich would both tell their parties to get bent and join forces on an independent ticket. They probably realized it would gain them more grief than it was worth in a system designed only to allow those who play ball with the corporatocracy to compete.

In the study of media and political theory in grad school, a political system that fields only two relevant parties was classified as a “bi-hegemonic duopoly” and that’s exactly what America has in the 21st century. Third parties and independent candidates are technically allowed to exist, but have zero chance of competing on a national level with the deck stacked against them as it is regarding finances, debate eligibility and media coverage. The novel concept of Instant Run-Off Voting could easily level the playing field, with a system where voters rank candidates to enable a true majority consensus to be gauged. But no one in either the Democratic or Republican parties wants to talk about that.

The fact of the matter is that in today’s GOP, Rand Paul is what passes for a moderate. He is therefore a person of interest to keep an eye on. Whether potential presidential candidate Rand Paul could take any significant amount of “swing voters” away from the Democrats in 2016 is questionable, especially because the concept of swing voters seems to be an increasingly endangered species. Most people have their minds made up about which way they lean and there are few who will switch parties in a presidential election. But then there’s that 43 percent of the electorate that didn’t vote at all in 2012. Any candidate who could inspire a significant portion of that crowd to head to the polls would be an instant contender.

Rand Paul does offer something that the Republican field was missing in 2012—the notion that he actually gives a damn about the rights and welfare of America’s middle and lower classes. Whether he truly does care remains a question to be answered down the line. Vegas odds would seem to be a longshot. But if fellow Kentuckian Hunter S. Thompson were still with us, it seems likely that he’d be watching Rand Paul like a hawk.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.

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