A New Breed of Democrats

Amidst all the debate that my “Libertarian Democrat” piece spawned, there’s one particular misconception that I feel needs to be dealt with upfront — the notion that this is all a ploy to convince libertarians to vote Democratic. That, of course, was fueled by the title of the Cato Unbound package, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?” It was a title that I hadn’t seen until my piece was up and posted.

If I had written an essay on why libertarians should vote Democratic, it would’ve been a short essay: divided government, ‘nuff said.

My piece wasn’t a play for the libertarian vote. Rather, it was a formulation for a new breed of Democrat that is finding success in the Mountain West and other parts of the country and an attempt to figure out why I — a former Republican — find the Democratic Party a comfortable place despite the fact that on an issue-by-issue analysis, I haven’t changed much politically since I was 18.

The fact is, there is a new breed of libertarian-flavored Democrats that is emerging on the scene. They are no more traditionally libertarian than I am. We don’t advocate the elimination of safety-net programs or the abolition of publicly funded education or any of the more extreme manifestations of libertarianism. We don’t think that “corporations derive their power from government,” hence less regulation will magically make corporations respect my individual liberties (a notion I find patently ridiculous). We are Democrats, after all. Yet we Democrats are also struggling to find a coherent philosophy in a world where globalization has made many of its core precepts increasingly archaic.

So this is my contribution to what is really, ultimately, an internal debate inside the Democratic Party as it seeks solid mooring in a rapidly changing world. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but there’s no doubt I find great kinship with Democrats like Montana’s John Tester, Ohio’s Paul Hackett, and Virginia’s Jim Webb. And if such Dems win and encourage others like them to successfully seek and win public office, then we’ll see an inevitable transformation in what the Democratic Party is and what it stands for.

This is really about the future of the party, rather than what it has traditionally been.

So all those libertarians seeking some pandering, too bad. This isn’t about you. It’s about us. Now libertarians have a choice — continue to be taken for granted and pandered to inside a Republican Party hostile to just about everything important to libertarians, or help fuel the libertarian left. Of course, they can vote big “L” Libertarian or sit elections out. But if they want to have a real effect on the political process, the two major parties are pretty much it. And, fact is, one party is moving closer to traditional libertarian principles while the other is moving away from them.

In the short term, libertarians should vote Democratic simply because divided government is in everyone’s interests. A good dose of gridlock will slow Bush’s insatiable appetite for ever-growing, deficit-devouring big government. Mid-term, a Democratic trifecta (White House and Congress) would help reverse many of Bush’s worst excesses. But 10 to 15 years down the road, libertarians will hopefully have better reasons to move into the “D” column.

And if that happens, it won’t be because they were pandered to and wooed, and not because Democrats have become doctrinaire traditional libertarians, but because Democrats will be clearly (in word and in deed) the party of individual liberty. Until then, I and many like me will be fighting that battle inside our own party.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.”

  • Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, likes the idea of libertarian Democrats, and notes that there are a few, but “when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.” Commenting on the previous essays, Gillespie writes 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.” Gillespie finds Reed “even less engaging,” while Meyerson’s “uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006.”