In China, where information does not come freely or easily, the banana crop suffered from a supposed "Panama virus" outbreak this past spring. People stopped buying bananas en masse, resulting in a huge fallout in the fresh-fruit market. The news, spread initially through text messages and Internet discussion, single-handedly crippled an entire crop yield. The catch? The "Panama virus" isn't real, only a rumor spread about a fungal infection that tainted some Chinese banana trees earlier in the year. By the time the Chinese government traced the rumor back to an amateur translator in Hainan who'd misread an English news story, word had spread too effectively to be discounted, even in a country with ostensibly rigid media control.
This brushfire-style spread of information is making its way into American politics during the current presidential campaign. A lot of disaffected constituents from all walks of life are looking for candidates to represent them on their push-button issues, and the most popular recipient of these voters has been Representative Ron Paul. Paul is a five-term Congressman from Texas's 14th District, a retired obstetrician/gynecologist and registered Republican who ran on the Libertarian Party's ticket for president in 1988. He's running again this year, and while he polls fairly low nationally and only has anything above a blip of support in New Hampshire and Nevada, his supporters have nevertheless built a rowdy and disjointed volunteer campaign that raised over $4 million on Nov. 5. I find that kind of grassroots support and his extremely vocal team of supporters admirable, especially in the cynical political environment where "I don't care" is the default position. Nonetheless, Paul himself is a "Panama virus" of a candidate: frenzied support and the spread of information in the absence of serious reporting has caused people to ignore the facts and put faith in a fictional ideal. Paul first made news early this year by advocating complete a complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a generally noninterventionist platform. In a country so fatigued by war coverage and embittered by candidates discussing six- or 12-month draw-down plans, it garnered a committed fan base. Add to that the various libertarian-leaning groups who have an axe to grind with the Internal Revenue Service or feel nervous about the Federal Reserve, and you've got a fairly complex network of one-or-two-issue voters who are probably overjoyed to find a candidate that speaks something close to their language.
But in throwing their support behind their candidate, and having their faith as "outsiders" only reconfirmed by the media's focus on more alluring news stories, they turn a willfully ignorant eye on just who it is they're supporting, and why. Sure, Ron Paul opposes the war in Iraq and would try to abolish the Internal Revenue Code. But he also is overwhelmingly opposed to gay rights, would like to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education, wrote articles about the War on Christmas as it relates to our fraying moral values, and has been curiously silent about a federal bill he proposed stating that life begins at conception, despite his adamant "states' rights" position. Like the "Panama virus," Paul does not entirely fit the perception as described by his supporters. Moreover, when journalists discuss only a very limited view of his positions and experience, it only amplifies the qualities that the informers want to propagate in their discourse.
Again, I find the network of support for a 72-year-old Congressman who didn't own a computer until 1997 to be profoundly heartening in many respects. People are finding the candidate themselves and spreading their ideas about that candidate in relation to their own ideas, garnering further support. They raised over $4 million for him in a single day. That says something about the immense power the voters still retain in a representative democracy that's so often skeptical of our electoral system. And no one ever said that you had to vote for either a candidate whose views you agreed with 100 percent or no candidate at all. But willful ignorance of a candidate's policy for the sake of supporting some cause over no cause is as dangerous as voter apathy. If you find it in your heart to reconcile Paul's political background with the issues that you find most important, by all means, vote for him. But don't pretend other issues aren't there.
I try to keep civil about American politics, since it's such a filthy business. Young punks on soapboxes talking trash about a particular subject or candidate are the political equivalent of scuffing your feet in the middle of a sandstorm. Yet after seeing the posters for the Ron Paul brigades that sporadically pop up around campus, I can't help but feel disheartened. If those supporters put the time and effort they're now spending on advertising into a careful understanding of what it was that made them want to vote for Ron Paul beyond a general disaffection with "politics as usual," he could wind up as a catalyst for something more than a "Panama virus" candidacy: a genuine renewal of policy discussion.