WASHINGTON—I was dumbfounded last week when three radio stations, one in Spain and two in Latin America, asked me to explain who American presidential hopeful Ron Paul is and why his candidacy in the Republican primaries has generated such a buzz. The congressman from Texas has hardly registered in national polls but is a political celebrity in the blogosphere and on cable TV Web sites, and has been the subject of front-page stories in The Washington Post and other major news outlets. Apparently, he is making waves around the world too.

The obvious appeal of this uncharismatic, straight-talking physician is that he opposes the U.S. military presence in Iraq. In a Republican Party in which most presidential candidates compete to claim the most “macho” foreign policy credentials, Paul—who once suggested that President Bush allow private bounty hunters to pursue Osama bin Laden rather than have the U.S. invade Afghanistan—stands out.

But Paul’s opposition to the war is probably not enough to explain the appeal of this 71-year old libertarian among many young people. It would have been simplistic to attribute the counterculture of the 1960s to the Vietnam War, even though opposition to that conflict gave impetus to the moral liberation we associate with that era. And it may be simplistic to attribute the current symptoms of rebellion against the party elites in the United States, of which the Ron Paul buzz seems to be an unlikely manifestation, to the disgust with the war in Iraq.

In an age in which technology has given young people the tools to exercise personal choice in ways previous generations could not dream of—for instance, by substituting customized information and group communication through the Internet for traditional media—one senses a growing revulsion against the intrusion of the authorities into people’s lives. The exasperation with established institutions affects both parties, but the most blatant target is the Republican Party.

The GOP, whose discourse paradoxically stresses individual responsibility, has come to be associated with two powerful forms of intrusion: the use of force abroad and of moral bullying at home. The first is a courtesy of, but is not limited to, the neoconservatives; the second is a child of the religious right. Although the Democrats have traditionally been the big-government party, the perception today even among many Republicans is that the GOP has pushed the boundaries of authority beyond reasonable limits. The younger generations of Republicans seem to have found a spokesman in Paul, who calls for limiting the reach of government on all fronts—foreign policy, moral issues, economic activity.

Paul probably comes across as more consistent than his fellow Republican candidates because his stands fall in line with the republic the Founding Fathers envisaged. His positions—including the abolition of the income tax—are on the fringe of the political debate because of how much the country has moved away from the spirit of the 18th century. But Paul’s eccentric qualities also send a stern message to the party elite.

There is no telling whether these are the initial stages of a cultural transformation or a passing fad. No one foresaw, at the end of the 18th century, the extent of the liberal reaction against theocracy in the American colonies (“liberal” in the classical, not the contemporary, sense), and yet it grew so powerful that it soon gained control of key academic institutions, including Harvard, originally founded as a training ground for orthodox Puritans. No one foresaw, two and a half centuries later, that the marginal beatniks of the 1950s would usher in the counterculture earthquake of the 1960s.

We cannot predict whether the current signs of grass-roots rebellion against the political elites will be seen a few years from now as the harbinger of something bigger. But there is enough iconoclastic sentiment out there for us to wonder if we are not in the presence of an explosion of individualism that will transform the politics of the Republican Party into something less intrusive, bringing it closer to the small-government discourse it has preached in the past.

The phrase “time will tell” is one I dislike because people often use it to evade responsibility. But culture, that Protean beast, adopts so many unpredictable forms that one can never be sure of what shape it will take next. Something, however, seems to be building—and it could be interesting.