It's hard to tell if the idea that Ron Paul cannot win in 2012 is more ignorant, in its complete lack of historical sophistication, or more arrogant, in its claim to certainty amid all the complexity of 300 million lives and the myriad issues that affect them.
Sometimes, perhaps once in a few generations, a nation can undergo what a mathematician or physicist would call a "phase change." The classic example of such a thing is a pile of sand. Every grain you add makes the pile slightly steeper and slightly higher without moving any of the other grains inside the pile, until eventually one grain is added that causes an avalanche of sand down the sides of the pile, moving thousand of grains and changing the shape of the pile.
Such behavior can be exhibited by all complex systems, and a nation -- it should be obvious -- is much more complex than a pile of sand.
The important point for those who would presume to make such grand predictions as "Dr. Paul cannot win" is that no examination of the pile of sand before the point of avalanche would tell you that, or when, the avalanche will eventually happen.
But happen it does; indeed, happen it must.
And there are numerous examples of abrupt and dramatic phase change in the politics of great nations.
The U.K., the country of my birth, provides a compelling and closely relevant example. As every schoolboy knows, Churchill led Britain to victory in the Second World War. Indeed, he did as much as any man on Earth ever has to save civilization as we know it.
Three months after the entire nation poured into the streets to cheer this great leader (the man a few years ago voted by Britons the greatest Briton of all time), Churchill went to the country in a general election to retain his position as prime minister. There was simply no way he could lose. The best slogan the Labour party, his opposition, could come up with was, "Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour."
And amazingly, that is exactly what the nation did. Churchill was defeated. No one anywhere -- including the people of Britain who voted in the election -- had even thought about the possibility. No newspaper had considered it. After all, the election was a foregone conclusion in Churchill's favor. And yet an unseen, perhaps unconscious, will of the people caused a cultural and political phase-change in the British nation that they neither knew they wanted nor knew they had the power to cause.
Many historians now say that the unseen sentiment that produced this result that shocked not just the British but the whole world was the idea that all the blood and treasure lost to maintain the freedom of the British empire and the Western world demanded something more than continuation of the old political settlement. After a huge crisis, the people wanted a whole new system. In 1945, the Labour Party, with its vision of state-delivered cradle-to-grave security of health and basic material well-being (welfare state), in some way met that national desire for a grand political change.
Following what was in fact a landslide victory for the Labour party, the character of the nation changed massively, and more change rapidly followed in the British identity, as an empire was lost and the mantle of the world's greatest power was handed to the U.S.A.
Those who have noted that one of Ron Paul's greatest qualities is his humility might also be interested to know that Churchill had put down Clement Attlee, who defeated him, with the words, "A modest little man, with much to be modest about."
Perhaps a more fanciful comparison, but nonetheless indicative: no one in China was predicting that the Long March of Mao, which began in defeat and despair, would end in Beijing with victory and the proclamation of a whole new nation under a whole new political system.
And which newspapers were pondering the possibility of the First World War just a month before it happened?
We cannot see past a phase change. I don't know if the U.S.A. will have undergone one at the time of the 2012 election, but the necessary conditions for one are all in place, as far as I can tell.
One has to reach back a good way in American history for a time of such rapidly rising sentiment that not only are our leaders unable even to think of real solutions to the problems of greatest concern (rather than just making expedient changes at the margin), but also that the prevailing political and economic system is structurally incapable of delivering any long-term solutions in its current form.
The sheer range and interconnectedness of the problems that the nation faces are such that any permanent solution to any one of them will require profound systemic change that will necessarily upset many economic, political and cultural equilibria. And that is nothing more than a definition of a national phase change.
The average American may not know what is to be done, but she can sense when the system has exhausted all its possibilities. At that point, not only does the phase change become reasonable; it becomes desirable -- even if what lies on the other side cannot be known.
As anyone can find out just by talking to a broad cross-section of Ron Paul's supporters, his base is not uniform in its agreement on the standard issues of typical American party-political conflict. In fact, Paul supporters vary significantly even in their views of what in the old left-right paradigm were the "wedge-issues." Rather, they are united around concepts that could almost be called meta-political: whether left and right really exist, and, if they do, whether they are really opposed; whether centralized government should even be the main vehicle for political change, etc.; and whether there are some principles that should be held sacrosanct for long-term benefit, even when they will hurt in the short-run.
For those with eyes to see, such realignments and re-prioritization may even be glimpses of America after its next phase change.
If Ron Paul has committed support from 10 percent of the adult population, and most of that 10 percent support him precisely because they believe he represents a whole new political system, an entirely new political settlement, then we may be close to critical mass -- just a few grains of sand short of the avalanche.
Another piece of evidence that the nation is close to a phase change and a gestalt switch is the very fact that the prevailing paradigm (from which the mainstream media, established political class, etc., operate) has to ignore huge amounts of data about Ron Paul and the movement around him to continue to make any sense. The studied neglect of data as "irrelevant" is invariably indicative that the neglected data are hugely important. If information doesn't really matter, why go to all the effort of ignoring it?
Specifically, on all the metrics that a year ago everyone accepted as useful indicators of political standing, Ron Paul is not just a front-runner but a strong one.
First, and most directly, he does extremely well in polls. The organization of his grassroots support is not just excellent; it is remarkable, by historic and global measures. His ability to raise money from actual voters is second to none. His appeal to independents and swing voters is an order of magnitude greater than that of his competitors. Secondarily, he has more support from military personnel than all other candidates put together, if measured by donations; he has the most consistent voting record; he has the magical quality of not coming off as a politician; he oozes integrity and authenticity, and, as far as we know, he has a personal life and marriage that reflects deep stability and commitment.
To believe that Ron Paul's victory is a long shot in spite of all standard indicators that directly contradict this claim is to throw out all norms with which we follow our nation's politics -- and that is a huge thing to do. The only way it can be done honestly is to present another set of contradictory reasons or metrics that are collectively more powerful than all those that you are rejecting. I am yet to find them.
If it is true that the studied neglect of data to hold tight to a paradigm is the best evidence that the paradigm is about to collapse, then the massive and highly subjective neglect of all things Paulian is specific evidence that the country is moving in Paul's direction.
Of course, none of this means that Paul will definitely win. But it does mean that a bet against him by a politician is foolhardy and by a journalist is dishonest.
It is worth returning to Churchill's career for an even more delicious example: just days before he became the great wartime leader, his career had been written off as that of a kook, and he was being discussed as someone who had extreme ideas and whose thinking did not reflect the mood of the nation. The House of Commons was abuzz with his decline and imminent fall.
And then, rather suddenly, something he had been saying for many years -- that there was something rotten in the state of Germany -- became so obvious that it could no longer be avoided. Once the nation saw that he had been right all along, he became the leader of the free world in very short order. His career changed. Britain changed. The world changed. No one had seen that coming, either. In fact, everyone thought they knew what was coming: the kook was about to disappear into political backwaters, if not the political wilderness.
Do I even need to draw the parallel?
If Paul wins, it won't be because he is the kind of candidate Americans have always gone for. It will be precisely because Americans have collectively decided on a dramatically new way of doing business -- a new political and economic paradigm -- and then he'll not only have ceased to be a long shot; he'll be the only shot.