Libertarian Democrats: The Titillating Myth

A couple of years ago, the great essayist and trash-culture authority Joe Bob Briggs told me about the heroic but–alas!–doomed search for a cinematic pot of gold that was called “couples porn.” Back in the 1970s, after the surprising mainstream success of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, makers of skin flicks tried to produce movies that would appeal not simply to their traditional audience of male Pussycat Theater patrons but the guys’ female partners as well. It was an intriguing idea that somehow never quite came to life in the cold, hard light of reality.

I thought about couples porn a lot while reading Markos Moulitsas’s “The Case for the Libertarian Democrat,” a concept every bit as titillating to me as an inveterate critic of the Bush-era Republican Party as couples porn was to X-rated movie moguls 30 years ago. “Libertarian Democrats” has a nice ring to it and I even know a few “Yellow Dog Democrats” who are undeniably libertarian in virtually all of their sensibilities. Folks such as the “Freedom Democrats” are for free trade, free speech, open borders, limited government, gun rights, the end of the drug war, and more. The former press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, Terry Michael, even has a provocative blog titled “Notes from a libertarian Democrat”. Sadly, when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.

In 2005, my former colleague, Matt Welch, now at the Los Angeles Times, anticipated the libertarian Democrat meme when he wrote about what he called “Deadwood Democrats” for Salon and Reason. Welch looked at “the interesting trend of popular Democratic governors like Brian Schweitzer, Bill Richardson, and Janet Napolitano running pro-Bush states such as Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona, as the region as a whole grows sharply in electoral votes” and reported that “this new Western breed of Democrat tends to be pro-gun, anti-tax and shruggingly tolerant of their constituents’ various political beliefs and religious affiliations.” He concluded that such characters represented a new hope for the Democrats.

There’s little doubt that the rise of libertarian Democrats would be a great thing, or at least an interesting political development. It would be especially beneficial for the Democratic Party itself, which has spent the last several decades running down its popularity and electability at the national level as its leaders either cling to an outmoded special-interest politics of years gone by (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, anyone?) or offer a lame, Republican-lite version on the other (John Kerry’s sad-sack presidential bid was a study not in flip-floppery, but in how to offer an echo, not a choice to voters). In 1970, according to the Harris Poll, fully 49 percent of U.S. adults considered themselves Democrats. By 1989, that number had shrunk to 40 percent, and, as of 2004 (the last year for which data are available), it stood at a measly 34 percent. By contrast, affiliation with the GOP has never topped 33 percent (a high point reached in ‘89 and ‘90); as of 2004, the figure was 31 percent. The Democrats plainly need new blood — and new ideas. Not at the state level, really, where politics and governance tend to be less ideological and more pragmatic (and where Democrats are doing pretty well), but at the national level, where they haven’t had an overarching, coherent ideological narrative to offer since at least before the Reagan years.

It’s true that there was a bracing moment during the first 15 minutes or so of Howard Dean’s presidential run where he looked to be the candidate of “gays and guns,” a fiscal conservative, a social liberal, and, perhaps most daringly, a forthright opponent of the Iraq war. In short, he might have been mistaken for some sort of libertarian. Yet he almost immediately started talking about “reregulating” whole swaths of the economy, even the media which had given his candidacy such a boost. And what are we to make of Ned Lamont, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, who is one of Moulitsas’s pet projects and arguably his greatest success as a Donkey Party political operative? As Reason’s David Weigel has written, Lamont has at least two stances that are attractive to most libertarians: He thought the intervention by congressional Republicans into the Terri Schiavo case was objectionable and he’s openly opposed to the Iraq War. Beyond that, though, is a litany of proposals that hardly sing to the “Free Minds and Free Markets” crowd: universal health care, increased federal spending on schools, and rolling back tax cuts “on the richest 1 percent.”

In a similar way, it’s telling that, even as Moulitsas is ostensibly trying to woo libertarians to vote for Democrats, he spends a good chunk of his essay lecturing his audience like a Hyde Park autodidact about the need for publicly financed roads and education, and railing against that great abstraction of “unaccountable corporations” that lead us into war, make us breathe dirty air, and steal our retirement savings. Who knew that the military-industrial complex only got cranked up once the Supreme Court threw the 2000 election to George W. Bush? Thank god, Moulitsas writes, that corporations are forced “to provide the kind of accountability necessary to ensure we make proper purchasing or investment decisions” (emphasis in original). Yes, thank god for Sarbanes-Oxley, a law that is more properly defined as a full employment act for accountants and government auditors, so that financial markets will once again prosper. And save us all from Wal-Mart and Microsoft, too (Moulitsas at least has the honesty to admit that the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust suit against Microsoft was misguided, as these things almost always

are).

Bruce Reed is even less engaging, unabashedly using the term “New Democrat” as if it wasn’t always the ideological equivalent of “New Coke,” a marketing ploy with about as much fizz as a day-old cup of soda pop. Reed is honest to a fault — “Unlike Markos Moulitsas, I will not try to convince you that most of our fellow Democrats are libertarians, either” — and the result is off-putting. Anytime I read a sentence along the lines of “I believe that every American owes our country a debt of service,” I reach for my imaginary revolver. One of the great — and libertarian — innovations of the American system was in fact the rejection of that European ideal of national service (which even Europe is abandoning). Reed is surely correct that many things went well during the Clinton years, yet the Man from Hope’s biggest accomplishments — pushing NAFTA through, reforming welfare, balancing the budget, and electing a Republican Congress (miracle of miracles) — are inextricably linked to divided government, not longstanding Democratic aims. Harold Meyerson, whose uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006, is even more forthright in his rejection of any meaningful overlap with libertarians on any substantive issues. The “libertarian road” for him is simply a toll road to serfdom. Best not even to set foot on it.

Meyerson’s focus on domestic issues leads him to ignore foreign policy. But when it comes to foreign policy, I’m curious where Moulitsas and Reed stand regarding Bill Clinton, who was far more promiscuous in his use of the military than he ever was with pizza-wielding interns: According to a 2000 Cato analysis, Clinton set a then-record for major troop deployments, with 25 during his eight years in office (twice the amount that occurred under Ronnie Raygun). If Iraq was a war of choice — and it was — then what about Clinton’s interventions in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere? And as awful as the Bush administration is on privacy and civil liberties, it’s not as if the last Democratic president (and his terrible attorney general) didn’t give rise for concern. The Clinton administration pushed the draconian Communications Decency Act, the “Clipper” chip, the “V” chip, and a host of other idiotic measures that have either thankfully been struck down by the courts or routed around thanks to new technology.

What speaks far louder than Moulitsas and Reed’s ritualistic, feel-good invocations of “civil liberties,” “smaller government,” “restrained government,” “ending corporate welfare,” and the like are the things they don’t even mention. Are they in favor of, say, ending the drug war? Vouchers for public schools? Social Security reform (Meyerson is clearly against this)? Where do they stand on issues related to free expression — do they support Howard Dean’s “reregulation” of the media? Hillary Clinton’s censorious aims toward the dread menace of video games or the FCC’s desire to regulate cable and satellite TV and radio; are these markets that need to be tempered by regulation? Do they agree that McCain-Feingold-style campaign-finance “reform” is nothing more than an abridgement of the First Amendment? Where are the libertarian Democrats on such things? And apart from a handful of governors and losing congressional candidates, who exactly are they?

But maybe Moulitsas and Reed haven’t made particularly compelling cases for libertarians to vote for Democrats because they don’t have to. As each of them notes, it’s President Bush and his GOP Congress who have made the best arguments for pulling the lever for any candidate that doesn’t have an “R” by his or her name. The Republicans have done this through massive spending increases, abandonment of even the slightest pretense of limited government, neo-Wilsonian adventurism abroad, and much, much more. Libertarians know these arguments well because they are the ones who have advanced them most consistently and systematically — at Cato, in the pages of Reason, and in books such as The Elephant in the Room to Impostor.

In a debatable survey released earlier this year, Pew Research said that 9 percent of the electorate is libertarian — a bloc of voters big enough to swing any election these days. Pew also reported the libertarians went heavy for Bush over Kerry, 57 percent to 40 percent (I voted for neither, I’m happy to document). Based on conversations with ideological confreres these days, the GOP won’t be getting anything like that kind of support come this November or in November 2008. But it’s far from clear that many disgruntled libertarians will — or should be — moving to the Dem column in any straight-ticket way, especially if it means signing on to Meyerson’s “New Dealish,” Scandanavian social democracy (currently being rethought by its practitioners). Until Democratic partisans such as Moulitsas and Reed make a convincing — or maybe even a half-hearted — case for laying in with the party of Robert Byrd and Henry Waxman, they’re just peddling the political equivalent of couples porn.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Case for the Libertarian Democrat by Markos Moulitsas

    Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of DailyKos.com, argues that the libertarian Democrat’s time has come. Moulitsas says that GOP dominance has been a disaster for limited government and civil liberties, and that growing corporate power poses a grave threat to individual liberty and necessitates government action. “[W]e’ve seen that [the Republican Party] is now committed to subverting individual freedoms,” writes Moulitsas, “while the [Democratic Party] is growing increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which restrained government, fiscal responsibility and—most important of all—individual freedoms are paramount.”

Response Essays

  • Governing Well Is the Best Revenge by Bruce Reed

    In his reply to Moulitsas, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, does not try to claim the libertarian mantle: “[I]f you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic,” Reed recommends. But, Reed argues, there are reasons for more moderate libertarians to support Democrats. “Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government?” Reed asks. “Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?” Reed’s answer: The Democratic Party.

  • Democrats, Liberals, and Libertarians by Harold Meyerson

    Washington Post columnist and The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson argues that Democratic overlap with libertarianism in matters of civil liberties cannot extend to the economic domain. “The central insight of 20th century liberalism,” Meyerson writes, “was that freedoms conflict, that a company’s freedom to dominate the marketplace was often in conflict with a consumer’s freedom to find a product at a fair price, or a workers’ freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process.” Today, Meyerson argues an increase in economic insecurity demands an increased role for the state. “Ultimately, the Democrats aren’t going to proceed very far down the libertarian road, for one simple reason that’s far more pragmatic than philosophic: It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

The Conversation