The demise of the Tea Party movement may well come when it actually has to put individual candidates before the electorate and the media to carry its message. At least, that is what the ascendancy of Rand Paul, now the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky after his primary victory this week, portends. Paul, before his first week as the nominee is up, has managed to expose himself as unacceptably challenged by the task of reconciling the deceptively simplistic philosophy of libertarians with real world ethics. Specifically, he has declared that he does not support the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s requirement that private businesses serve all members of the public, irrespective of race, nationality, religion and sexual orientation. This position Rand haltingly clung to despite withering interviews on National Public Radio and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. You can see the latter, in two parts, here and here. Ideologues often look ridiculous when they stick to abstract principles in the face of circumstances where the principles cause harm, and this is what befalls Paul. It is obvious, or should be, that allowing bigoted proprietors to refuse to serve the needs of minority groups would permanently stigmatize classes of Americans, burden them with second-class status, embolden further discriminatory practices and attitudes, and make life unconscionably difficult for law-abiding citizens simply because they are the “wrong” color, creed, or have other disfavored characteristics. Yet Paul stubbornly insisted to both NPR and Maddow that the individual’s right to serve whoever he chooses in his own business should be respected above the need for an equal, fair and just society—even though only such a society is consistent with core American values. Knowing this argument is untenable except as a statement of ideological purity, Paul keeps referring to the importance of First Amendment rights, as if the legal requirement that restaurants serve blacks and gays somehow is a slippery slope that must inexorably lead to government censorship of “hate speech.” It isn’t. Speech isn’t conduct. The Constitution very clearly protects speech, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it does not protect making citizens go to the next town if they want their hair done, just because all the hair dressers in town are bigots. Relax, Rand: they still have the right to be bigots. They just can’t hurt people by acting out their bigotry in certain ways. They can behave like mean-spirited jerks to African-Americans; they just can’t refuse to sell African-Americans bandages at the all-night CVS when their children are bleeding.
The problem with political extremists often isn’t that they are extreme, but that their adherence to rigid ideological rules too often lead them to absurd and unethical positions that have doctrinal consistency as their only virtue, leaving common sense, logic, fairness, respect, empathy and prudence behind. Rand Paul has this problem, and anyone who cannot see that allowing business owners to exclude bar potential customers on the basis of race would be a social and ethical disaster is unqualified to serve in the Senate, among other places.
No, I don’t think Rand Paul’s a racist. He’s an Ethics Dunce, an occupational hazard of being a Libertarian. But when a candidate supports discrimination that would have such devastating and unequal effects on minority groups and the fabric of American society, one is a s bad as the other.
The Tea Party has got to do better than this.