The Davids, Boaz and Kirby, have produced an important work of political scholarship in their assessment of the libertarian vote in American politics. For my part, I’d like to look at the considerable shift towards the Democrats that they document among libertarian voters between 2000 and 2004, which exists at the presidential (19 points), congressional (21 points) and senatorial (28 points) level.
This shift, it’s important to note, happened during the first time that Republicans controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue since 1954. That is, it occurred during a time when all the proposals in American politics were coming from Republicans, with the Democrats reduced entirely to a defensive role. Democrats couldn’t really advance economic ideas with which libertarians might take issue. And Republicans were giving increasing prominence at least to the rhetoric of the religious right, even while delivering the real goods — massive tax breaks — that should have warmed the cockles of economic conservatives’ hearts.
But the tilt to the religious right plainly proved too much for many libertarians, the tax cuts notwithstanding. As well, in state after state, the religious right has either taken over the party apparatus or has fiercely battled for that control. In short, modern Republicanism has been transformed, and part of this transformation is geographic. Ronald Reagan, in the memorable phrase of The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, was a “closet tolerant.” He was surely more the candidate of the libertarian west than the traditionalist south. And though he ran very well in the South, at the congressional level the South remained divided between the two parties.
In the years since Reagan, the Republicans have consolidated their control over the South at the congressional level as well, and the vast majority of Republican legislative leaders of the past decade — Gingrich, DeLay, Armey, Lott, Frist — were southerners. (In Reagan’s time, the Republican leaders were Midwesterners Bob Michael and Bob Dole, and Tennessee moderate Howard Baker.) The Republicans thus became the first party based primarily in the South and secondarily in the prarie and Mountain West. Within this coalition, the South was much the most populous region, and its religious conservatism came to dominate the party electorally. This conservatism didn’t play all that well in the non-Mormon quadrants of the Mountain West, but that region was both small and still reliably red.
Today, though, two transformations are changing all that. First, the mountain states are growing into more of an electoral force, with most of that growth coming from burgeoning Latino populations (which are culturally traditionalist but economically populist, and inclined to vote their populism rather than their traditionalism). Second, the quasi-libertarianism of such Democratic pols as Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester in Montana clearly resonates with some western libertarians who were comfortable in Ronald Reagan’s party but not in George Bush’s. The result is a region turning a little bluer with each passing election.
The libertarian-traditionalist tension is just one rift of many that make Karl Rove’s vision of an enduring Republican majority the stuff of fantasy. The rift between cultural nationalism and economic globalism, evident in the controversy surrounding the Dubai ports deal and the failure of the party to come to a common position on immigration, has taken its toll as well on the party’s fortunes in the forthcoming election. (One reason why Democrat Harold Ford may carry Tennessee is his intense exploitation of the state’s somewhat xenophobic nationalism.)
There are very real limits to the Democrats’ libertarianism. In particular, with corporations now disinclined to provide health benefits and pensions, Democrats will inevitably call for greater state provision of these necessities, though only after the public’s concern over the withdrawal of the private-sector safety net becomes both pervasive and acute. Whether the Democrats’ ability to win some libertarian support will grow or continue under those circumstances is not at all clear. What is clear is that so long as the Republicans are dominated by the white South, many libertarians will feel estranged from the GOP as well.