Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster on March 6, designed to force the Obama administration to clarify its drone policy, did more than "scramble the politics of left and right," in the words of a widely discussed front-page story in The New York Times. It was also a pivotal moment in the masculinity politics of the Republican Party, with potentially significant implications for future foreign policy debates.
Paul's willingness to defy the neocons and hawks in his party threatens to corrode from within what Obama's aggressive foreign policy moves had already begun to chip away at from the outside -- the GOP's carefully cultivated image as the party of "real men" who understand the nature of our enemies and are eager to use the might of the U.S. military to defeat them.
Until recently, polls had consistently shown that voters -- especially white men -- trust the GOP more on matters of foreign policy. The perception that the Republicans are the party that will "get tough" with our adversaries has played a major role in their dramatic success with white men over the past 40 years. This success, in turn, has been so critical to GOP electoral math that it is inconceivable they could win the presidency without winning the white male vote by a wide margin.
When you consider their well-documented problem with women and the inexorable demographic shift in the electorate toward constituencies of color, the GOP can ill afford any slippage among white male voters.
Paul's challenge to Obama's executive authority to order drone killings on U.S. soil represents a threat to the Republican Party's monopoly on manliness -- and hence part of its grip on millions of white male voters -- for one simple but powerful reason: it shows that (white) men can adopt an anti-militaristic stance and not be dismissed as passive and weak. This provides a boost to Paul's libertarian supporters but resonates beyond them. Men of all political persuasions now know that it's possible to oppose aggressive foreign policy moves by the commander in chief and yet still retain your masculine street cred under certain conditions.
There are two key reasons why Rand Paul is in a position to catalyze this shift. The first is that he is a conservative Republican, a member of the party that enjoys a kind of default assumption of manliness. But something that is perhaps even more important is that he's a tea party favorite.
The "manhood" of tea party supporters is never questioned in mainstream media accounts. There, one of the dominant narratives about tea partiers -- whom progressives see as far-right (and white) mouthpieces for the wealthy and powerful -- is that they are patriotic warriors who can be considered the legitimate heirs of the brave colonists who fought the Revolutionary War against the British Empire, armed only with their muskets and a fierce determination to defend individual liberty.
Thus when Paul questions Obama's assertions of executive authority, he knows that he will be opposed by aggressive hawks in his own party, but at the same time he can be fairly certain that right-wing media and the conservative blogosphere won't try to unman him. Ironically, while drinking tea is not considered a manly pastime in 21st century America, being a member of the tea party immunizes a man from challenges to his manhood -- even when he opposes American military aggression.
It is possible that Paul's theatrics signify a new wrinkle in an old dynamic. Regardless of how he might feel about the merits of Paul's argument, Rush Limbaugh praised him for his courage and heroism for "taking on" Obama. Translation: Republicans can now be tough guys even when they take positions regarded as wimpy when taken by Democrats, if they do so while attacking the Democrats or a Democratic president. It's not the position; it's the posturing.
By contrast, when men to the left of center take anti-militarist positions, they're immediately attacked in the conservative entertainment complex as weak, naïve and unmanly. The phrase "liberal wimp" is a staple in conservative foreign policy debates, as are attacks on Democrats as "weak-kneed appeasers" who "apologize for America" and who are "soft on terror."
Right-wing demagogues like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity seize upon any hesitation by President Obama to deploy military force (e.g. Iran) as an opening to ridicule his manhood. Conservatives have been doing this to great electoral advantage since the election of 1972, when they feminized Democratic Sen. George McGovern, a decorated World War II fighter pilot, because he wanted to make dramatic cuts in military spending and grant amnesty to young American men who had evaded the Vietnam-era draft. McGovern received only twenty per cent of the white male vote as he was defeated by Richard Nixon in a 49-state landslide.
Paul's filibuster was a high-profile reminder of the radical differences in how the conservative foreign-policy establishment has viewed interventionism over time -- differences that were largely forgotten or papered over in the wake of 9/11, when the neocon idea of proving manhood via war (and unmanning Democratic, progressive, and even Republican opposition in the process) became the order of the day.
But those old debates are back with the decisive reelection of Obama, along with the rise of a new generation of Republican leadership. As a March 15 New York Times headline put it, the "G.O.P. is divided on proper role for U.S. abroad." What the accompanying article did not discuss, of course, were the underlying identity politics. In a party that is thoroughly dominated by white men, debates about "the aggressive use of American power" versus "turning inward" on matters of foreign policy and military spending reflect at their core competing ideas about white manhood.
To be sure, Paul's foreign policy isolationism is highly unlikely to become mainstream Republican ideology any time soon. But like his father before him, he has complicated the narrative that Republicans are always ready to use military force, while the Democrats wring their hands and talk about abstractions like civil liberties and international law. From now on, when left-wing anti-war activists are accused of being naïve wimps who would weaken this country's defenses, they can stand tall and point to their reverence for the Constitution, as well as their alliance with the emerging right-wing icon Rand Paul.