Ron Paul's Haul

What does Ron Paul’s $4 million day mean? In some ways, not all that much.

It’s certainly unexpected, but maybe less so than it seems. Anyone with some basic knowledge of the remarkable power of direct mail and a little bit of understanding of the internet could’ve told you that this sort of fund-raising success was bound to happen eventually. It’s impressive, but perhaps more in the way of a giant abstract sculpture in a public square — which is to say that you certainly want to get a look, but it may not actually mean all that much.

As it stands, Paul remains a thoroughly nonviable Republican presidential candidate. He will not and cannot win the presidency, or even make much of an impact on it it thanks to sore-loser laws that will probably prohibit him from mounting a third-party run.

He remains a fringe success, most probably because of his anti-war views. (I saw “most probably” because I have yet to see a breakdown of what issues matter to Ron Paul supporters; it’s possible, if somewhat unlikely, that a majority actually buy into his economic platform.) He remains — at least for now — largely separated, and often explicitly cast out, of the Republican party because of those anti-war views, despite the fact that the party’s unyielding support of the war is almost certainly its single biggest political weak point.

He remains a potent force on the internet, provoking a tidal wave of comments and emails where ever he is mentioned. But though his online base has proven capable of generating blog-posts and now funds, it has yet to translate its internet energy into real-world poll numbers, and thus seems unlikely to be able to gin up much in the way of votes.

In other words, not much has changed as far as the ’08 race is concerned, except that Paul’s supporters have proven to be slightly more organized and slightly more willing to pull out their checkbooks than conventional wisdom held.

But let me suggest that if Ron Paul’s success here has failed to seriously change the current political dynamic, it has opened up the possibility for American politics to splinter and fragment, turning fringe politics into the norm. Up until now, two-party, coalition politics was a necessity in America. Economies of scale gave huge advantages to the incumbent parties and made it very difficult for small, passionate political factions to make a serious impact on their own. Ron Paul’s candidacy may not make much more than a minor dent in the overall results of the 2008 election, but it suggests that, for the first time, the tools exist for fringe political movements to marshal their forces in ways that were previously impossible outside the money and machines of the major parties.

Imagine, for a moment, not one Ron Paul and two parties, but a half dozen Ron Paul-like movements, each with a small band of super-committed followers, and each with highly targeted, internet-based fund-raising. It would only bring politics in line with the trends we’re seeing in so many other venues. In the digital age, everything else has become smaller, more personalized, more fringe and fragmented.

So why not politics? It’s already happening on Facebook. The candidates are being cut down in size. Instead of vast, iconic figures, they are being shrunk, deflated; a candidate is now not a newspaper headline-maker so much as just one more contact in your digital address book. And when they get smaller, more personalized, more sculpted to your personal tastes, it becomes easier to have more of them — and that can only come at the expense of the big two.

Is the era of two-party politics in America over? No, of course not — not for a long time. But could the spawning of a handful — or more — of passionate, fringe candidacies break up the stability of the big tents? Maybe, and if so, we’ll have Ron Paul to thank and to blame.