Southern Conservatism, Libertarian Estrangement

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of, 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.”