About this Issue
In over a half-decade of Republican political dominance, Americans have witnessed a huge expansion in the scope and cost of government, a questionably just and so-far unsuccessful war in Iraq, serious erosions of civil liberty, and a troubling tendency toward an imperial executive. Is it time for the traditional alliance between libertarians and conservatives to finally end? If Republicans in power have failed so utterly to promote libertarian ideals, would libertarians better advance their cause by supporting Democrats at the polls? Of course, the fact that libertarians have been so badly abused by conservatives doesn’t necessarily imply they will find a more welcoming home among liberals. Is the Democratic tent big enough to include small-government free marketeers. Perhaps libertarians have something to gain by supporting to Democrats, but does the Democratic party have anything to gain by courting libertarians?
Markos “Kos” Moulitsas kicks off October’s discussion with “The Case for the Libertarian Democrat.” Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed will reply from the “new Democrat” center, while Washington Post columnist and the American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson will reply from the “old Democrat” progressive left. Rounding out the field is Reason magazine editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie, who will tell us whether libertarians should be buying what the Democrats are selling.
The Case for the Libertarian Democrat
It was my fealty to the notion of personal liberty that made me a Republican when I came of age in the 1980s. It is my continued fealty to personal liberty that makes me a Democrat today.
The case against the libertarian Republican is so easy to make that I almost feel compelled to stipulate it and move on. It is the case for the libertarian Democrat that has created much discussion and not a small amount of controversy when I first introduced the notion in what was, in reality, a throwaway blog post on Daily Kos on a slow news day in early June 2006.
But that post—as coarse, raw, and incomplete as it was—touched a surprising nerve. It generated the predictable criticism from libertarian circles (Reason and several Cato scholars piled on) as well as from conservatives who perhaps recognized their own slipping grasp of libertarian principles but were unwilling to cede any ground to a liberal. But more surprising (and unexpected) to me was the positive reaction: there’s a whole swath of Americans who are uncomfortable with Republican/conservative efforts to erode our civil liberties while intruding into our bedrooms and churches; they don’t like unaccountable corporations invading their privacy, holding undue control over their economic fortunes, and despoiling our natural surroundings; yet they also don’t appreciate the nanny state, the over-regulation of small businesses, the knee-jerk distrust of the free market, or the meddlesome intrusions into mundane personal matters.
Like me, these were people who didn’t instinctively reject the ability of government to protect our personal liberties, who saw government as a good, not an evil, but didn’t necessarily see the government as the source of first resort when seeking solutions to problems facing our country. They also saw the markets as a good, not an evil, but didn’t necessarily see an unregulated market run amok as a positive thing. Some of these were reluctant Republicans, seeking an excuse to abandon a party that has failed them. Others were reluctant Democrats, looking for a reason to fully embrace their party. And still others were stuck in the middle, despairing at their options—despondent at a two-party system in which both parties were committed to Big Government principles.
That blog post on libertarian Democrats, imperfect as it was, struck a chord. But it wasn’t written in a vacuum. It stemmed not from theory or philosophy (I’m neither a theorist, political scientist, nor a philosopher), but from personal experience and from my excitement at the growing ranks of Western Democrats who aren’t just transforming the politics of the Mountain states, but will hopefully lead to the reformation of the Democratic Party and a new embrace of the politics of personal liberty.
Not Your Libertarian’s Libertarianism
The modern libertarian (and conservative) view has been that government is an evil, perhaps necessary, but still a grave threat to personal liberties requiring the utmost vigilance against its instincts for perpetual expansion. The larger government grows, the more it infringes on our personal space, inevitably placing limits on our freedoms. And given government’s police powers, that threat is grave indeed. There’s a reason libertarians view the Second Amendment as an absolute right—its abolition would limit one of the most effective ages-old tools against governmental tyranny.
Hence, there was (and is) a natural tension between liberals who see government as a benign force for good, and those who can point to plenty of history showing otherwise. And as long as government remained the greatest threat to our personal liberties, this tension was fated to remain. Republicans, out-of-power for much of the 20th century, and livid at the Democrats’ expansion of government, spoke of shrinking government and limiting its power. Libertarians, while not exactly perfect allies of the GOP, were likely to get more of what they sought by making common cause with conservatives than liberals.
But that began to change as the power of corporations grew. As the pseudonymous user “hekebolos” wrote in a Daily Kos diary:
Up until even very recently, it was still definitely possible to construe government as [the] largest threat to individual liberty. It wasn’t very long ago that “what was good for GM was good for the USA.” Government regulation of corporations was seen as interfering with the prosperity of the average American. You see, the libertarian/conservative idea behind the primacy of the free market was that there would always be an intersection between what was good for business and what was good for the consumer. But that correlation was far greater in years past than it is today.
The fundamental reason that “libertarian” has become “libertarian democrat” is that corporations are becoming more powerful than governments. This fundamental fact has created a union between those with libertarian tendencies and those who believed all along that government can be a force for good.
As hekebolos further noted, defense contractors now have greater say in what weapons systems get built (via their lobbyists, blackmailing elected officials by claiming that jobs will be lost in their states and districts if weapons system X gets axed). The energy industry dominates the executive branch and has reaped record windfall profits. Our public debt is now held increasingly by private hedge funds. Corporations foul our air and water. They plunder our treasury.
This list, I’m sure, could be added to. Oil and oil services companies can even dictate when and how the most powerful nation on earth decides to go to war. A cabal of major corporate industry is, in fact, more powerful than the government of the most powerful nation on earth–and government is the only thing that can stop them from recklessly exploiting the people and destroying their freedom.
That, in essence, is why I am a Democrat, and why my original blog post on libertarian Democrats struck a chord with so many. We cherish freedom, and will embrace any who would protect it. But that necessarily includes, in this day and age, the government.
The Conservative War on Freedom
We can fondly look back to a time when Republicans spoke a good game on libertarian issues. They professed fealty to state rights, spoke of shrinking the government, preserving individual liberty, and embracing fiscal responsibility.
A report by Cato’s director of budget studies Stephen Slivinski highlights the truth about GOP efforts .
President Bush has presided over the largest overall increase in inflation-adjusted federal spending since Lyndon B. Johnson. Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years. His 2006 budget doesn’t cut enough spending to change his place in history, either.
Total government spending grew by 33 percent during Bush’s first term. The federal budget as a share of the economy grew from 18.5 percent of GDP on Clinton’s last day in office to 20.3 percent by the end of Bush’s first term.
The Republican Congress has enthusiastically assisted the budget bloat. Inflation-adjusted spending on the combined budgets of the 101 largest programs they vowed to eliminate in 1995 has grown by 27 percent.
This spending is all the more remarkable given that Republicans control all three branches of government. We are seeing Republican conservative governance exactly how it is supposed to work.
On social issues, we are seeing a government aggressively seeking to meddle in people’s bedrooms, doctor’s offices, and churches. They want to dictate when life begins, when life ends, and which consenting adults can marry. They want to pass a new Amendment eliminating the non-existent threat posed by flag burning—a serious effort to limit the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. And the long-time Republican dodge on such issues—that it merely wanted to let the states decide such issues—was exposed as hogwash by the Schiavo fiasco. While the Washington Post had no on-the-record source for the following assertion, they didn’t need one. Actions spoke louder than words:
Republicans acknowledged that the intervention was a departure from their usual support for states’ rights. But they said their views about the sanctity of life trumped their views about federalism.
The nation’s current wars have given conservatives yet more excuses to make a mockery of the protections we supposedly enjoy under the Bill of Rights, from the PATRIOT Act, to the NSA spying on American citizens, to violations of habeas corpus. Republicans seem to have even abandoned even more fundamental Constitutional principles, such as “separation of powers.” As chief Bush legal theorist John Yoo wrote in his book, War by Other Means:
We are used to a peacetime system in which Congress enacts the laws, the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them. In wartime, the gravity shifts to the executive branch.
This isn’t a party committed to anyone’s personal freedoms.
Embracing the market
In the waning years of the Clinton Administration, the Justice Department waged a massive anti-trust battle against Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft seemed unstoppable, a monopolistic behemoth who would either swallow or crush anyone that posed even the most minute threat to its business. I cheered the Justice Department on, thinking its efforts would be the only thing to dent the prospects of a Microsoft-dominated world. I was despondent when Microsoft emerged victorious. Innovation seemed dead. But I was dead wrong.
What a difference a few years made. As the Internet came on the scene, first Yahoo then Google transformed the technological landscape leaving Microsoft in their wake. The market shifted, and Microsoft wasn’t able to make the transition. Despite being a dominant player in PCs and office software, no one fears Microsoft anymore. It is a remnant of a different era, reduced to providing commodity products as other companies blaze new trails. The market worked on its own.
My libertarian tendencies have always found a welcome home in the Silicon Valley culture (and in all of the nation’s great technology centers). It is a place where hard work and good ideas trump pedigree, money, the color of one’s skin, nationality, sex, or any of the artificial barriers to entry in most of the rest of the world. It is a techno-utopia that, while oft-criticized for a streak of self-important narcissism, still today produces the greatest innovations in technology in the world. Where else could such a motley collection of school dropouts, nerds, brown people (mostly Indian), and non-Native English speakers (mostly Chinese), not just rise to the top of their game, but dominate it? This is free market activity seemingly at its best, and it works precisely because these individuals are able to take risks and be judged by the results of their work, rather than be judged by who they are, where they’ve been, or who they know.
But there are other reasons why this outpost of libertarianism works. The government has put in an infrastructure to support the region including, among many other things, roads, the Internet, government research grants, and the most important ingredient of all: education, from the lowliest kindergarten to the highest post-doc program. Such spending, while requiring a government bureaucracy that makes a traditional libertarian shudder, actually provides the tools that individuals need to succeed in today’s world. If our goal is to promote and champion individual liberty and the free market, we need government to help provide those tools to all Americans, not just a privileged few. This isn’t a question of equality, it’s one of opportunity. Some people will take advantage of those opportunities, and others will not. That will be up to each individual. But without opportunity, there is no freedom.
There is also no individual freedom if corporations aren’t forced to provide the kind of accountability necessary to ensure we make proper purchasing or investment decisions. For example, public corporations are regulated to ensure that investors have accurate data upon which to base their trading decisions. If investors can’t trust the information given by corporations, the stock markets couldn’t function. If the stock markets couldn’t function, our current market system would collapse. Matters such as deceptive advertising, labeling, and some safety regulations are also important. Does anyone doubt that requiring food companies to label ingredients and nutritional data doesn’t enhance our liberties by giving us the information we need to make informed decisions?
On the flip side, much of what’s known as “corporate welfare” is not designed to protect personal liberties. Rather it rewards inefficiencies in the market and the politically connected. Intellectual property law protections, constantly extended at the behest of Walt Disney in service to its perpetual Mickey copyright, have created a corporate stranglehold over information in an era where information is currency. Patent law allows companies like Amazon to patent simple and obvious “business processes” like “one-click shopping,” which they protect with armies of lawyers and deep pockets. In the non-virtual sphere, cities use eminent domain to strip property owners of their rights on behalf of private developers.
So a “free” market needs rules (“regulation”) in order to function. And such rules should be welcome so long as they are designed to enhance and protect our personal liberties.
The Rise of the Libertarian Democrat
In the fierce battle in this year’s Montana Senate race, an attack ad by incumbent Republican Senator Conrad Burns against his Democratic challenger Jon Tester reminded me why I’m excited about the rise of the libertarian Democrat.
The ad accuses Jon Tester of voting against a bill limiting pornography at public libraries. Turns out that Tester voted against the bill because 1) public libraries already had solved the problem, and 2) the state law would have merely duplicated already-existing federal standards. So Tester did what any sensible person should do: vote against an unnecessary and duplicative law.
While we can discuss what the ad says about Burns—that he is politically cynical and has betrayed small-government principles—I’d prefer to focus on what it said about Tester. Casting a “yes” vote was as easy as pressing the “yes” button at his desk, but Tester wasn’t going to grow state government without a compelling reason, even if it could have scored him cheap political points. A Tester spokesperson responded to the charges, “Jon Tester believes in less government regulation, not more, and he believes in local control.” At a debate, Burns charged that Tester would “weaken the Patriot Act”. Tester fired back, ”I don’t want to weaken the Patriot Act. I want to repeal it.” This is the future face of the Democratic Party.
Mountain West Democrats are leading the charge. At the vanguard is Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who won his governorship the same day George Bush was winning Montana 58 to 38 percent. While the theme of Republican corruption played a big role in Schweitzer’s victory, he also ran on a decidedly libertarian Democrat message and is now the second most popular governor in the country according to Survey USA’s September 50 State poll. In Wyoming, Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal won in 2002 in this ridiculously conservative state by decrying policies allowing energy companies to violate landowner rights by setting up smelly, noisy, dirty machinery in their property to extract sub-surface minerals. Republicans were content to let their energy industry benefactors discard even the most basic property rights. This year, tech-industry Democrat Gary Trauner is making Republicans sweat the state’s lone House seat (once held by Dick Cheney) that should be, by all rights, a cakewalk. In eastern Washington, which has more in common with Idaho than with western Washington, Democrat Peter Goldmark is a serious threat. Not to be outdone, just across the state line in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, Democrat Larry Grant is seriously contesting a seat in which Bush won with 70 percent of the vote.
And it’s not just the Mountain West, either. In Ohio, Paul Hackett narrowly lost a 2005 special election in the Ohio 2nd Congressional District, which Bush won with 63 percent of the vote in 2004, after standing against government meddling in people’s private lives. In Virginia, impressive Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb, a “Reagan Democrat” in the literal sense—he served as Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary—is similarly pushing a message of personal liberties. Incumbent Virginia Senator George Allen thought he’d be campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. Instead, he’s in a fight for his life.
It is no coincidence that most of these transformative candidates are emerging in conservative areas. The Mountain West, in particular, has a individualistic libertarian streak that has been utterly betrayed by the governing Republicans. State legislatures in Alaska and Montana proudly voted to defy the PATRIOT Act. But even in places like Ohio and Virginia, many traditionally Republican voters simply want to live their lives in peace, without undue meddling from unaccountable multinationals or the government.
For too long, Republicans promised smaller government and less intrusion in people’s lives. Yet with a government dominated top to bottom by Republicans, we’ve seen the exact opposite. No one will ever mistake a Democrat of just about any stripe for a doctrinaire libertarian. But we’ve seen that one party is now committed to subverting individual freedoms, while the other 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.
Governing Well Is the Best Revenge
I am not a libertarian. Unlike Markos Moulitsas, I will not try to convince you that most of our fellow Democrats are libertarians, either. If you’re independent and skeptical enough to claim that label for yourself, you wouldn’t believe us, anyway. After six years of getting burned by an administration and Congress that promised to tame government, then injected it with steroids, you deserve to hear a straight answer, and a few honest pledges that will actually be kept.
So let me start by leveling about the ways in which we may disagree. I grew up in Idaho, perhaps the second most libertarian state in the Union (behind Alaska), and part of the great libertarian Mountain West that Markos Moulitsas dreams about. I spent much of my youth at county fairs asking cowboys with gun racks if they’d like Democratic bumper stickers on their pickups. Needless to say, I learned about rejection at an early age, and received an excellent, if unsolicited, tutorial in libertarian philosophy.
Growing up in the Rockies, a world away from Washington, I picked up a healthy skepticism of government, an independent streak, and a distaste for orthodoxy. But to me, living in your own private Idaho was more a privilege and a luxury than a practical formula for how a country might run.
I took other lessons from those years in a state with the slogan, “Idaho Is What America Was.” First, personal liberty and personal responsibility go hand in hand. We won’t have more of one unless we insist on more of the other. Government is not the first nor the most important agent of responsibility, but its example matters. An irresponsible, unaccountable government of any size poses a far graver threat to individual freedom than a responsible, activist one.
Second, markets can be the most effective engine of individual opportunity, but only if they are honest ones, tempered in the public interest. Third, government must be an engine of individual opportunity as well, or else it will end up imposing a crushing burden of privilege and bureaucracy.
As Rahm Emanuel and I write in our book, with its un-libertarian title, The Plan: Big Ideas for America:
Every citizen needs to understand and accept the essence of the American bargain: Each of us has to do his or her part. While the rights of citizenship are explicit in our Constitution, the implicit responsibilities are every bit as crucial. For our radical experiment in freedom to work, we must prize responsibilities as well as rights, and never presume to do for people what they can do for themselves.
These beliefs lead us to take stands that many libertarians will not agree with. For example, I believe that every American owes our country a debt of service. I believe that government is bound to fail any time it values responsibilities less than rights. From my own experience in government, I even have come to believe that my hero George Orwell’s vision no longer holds: In a country like ours, the more likely threat to freedom is not government conspiracy, but government ineptitude and bureaucracy.
So, if you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic. Unlike George Bush and the Republican Congress, we’ll give you accountable government that lives within its means. But we want government to do something useful, not just sit there.
I’ll leave it to the civil libertarians in my party to explain why our side is less likely to spy on your library books, read your e-mails, or infringe upon your constitutional rights. My case for voting Democratic rests on three simple, comparative tests: Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government? 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?
Smaller Government: Forget the sweet nothings that Republicans have whispered in your ears for decades. The last 15 years have given us a perfect laboratory experiment to measure actual results. Bill Clinton produced the first balanced budget and the first surpluses in 30 years. He cut the size of the federal workforce by 400,000, and imposed a level of spending restraint the federal government hasn’t seen before or since. As Cato bravely pointed out, George Bush did just the opposite, squandering surpluses, abandoning all restraint, and presiding over the sharpest increase in domestic spending since LBJ.
If the record isn’t enough, look at our agendas. Going forward, Democrats are the ones insisting on restoring annual spending caps and pay-as-you-go-rules to put the teeth back in fiscal discipline. The Bush White House and congressional Republicans continue to oppose it, and claim deficits don’t matter. We now have a quarter century of evidence to prove that Republican tax cuts will never shrink the size of government—on the contrary, they just delay the day of reckoning, and add interest. Republicans aren’t starving the beast; with their steady diet of annual tax “cuts,” they’ve created a bigger, hungrier beast that eats more and makes government fatter. Democrats, on the other hand, have learned that prudence is a prerequisite for progressivism.
Limited Government: Thomas Jefferson said, “That government which governs least, governs best.” After six years, we can now postulate the Bush corollary: “That government which governs worst, governs most.”
Let’s face it: If you believe in the idea of limited government, you have to take government more seriously, not less. Nations have certain irreducible needs—like protection from natural disaster, for example. Do them well, and government need not grow in size or scope. Screw them up, and you’ll have to spend, meddle, and intrude a great deal more.
Just as important, the very essence of limited government is that it must be purposeful, performance-based, and mission-driven. When the purpose is not clear and certain, the outcome and the cost will never be.
In the Clinton administration, hacks knew their place. In the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, hacks know no bounds. The Bush playbook—bribes, no-bid contracts, disdain for competence, and a penchant for botching reform—invites more government. New Democrat answers like banning earmarks, closing the revolving door, and ending the incumbent protection racket by requiring competitive congressional districts, by contrast, will keep government in check.
That is the fundamental problem with the Bush administration and Washington conservatism. The Bush White House has been a political project, not a governing one. From Katrina to Iraq to its domestic agenda, the Bush crowd didn’t take governing seriously, and never even bothered to ask whether its ideas would work. It should come as no surprise that they didn’t.
Ending Corporate Welfare: For all their talk about markets, Washington Republicans have institutionalized corporate welfare and special privilege. Corporations are not the root of all evil, as some think. But if we believe in competition, we shouldn’t be doling out taxpayer subsidies that distort the market, bloat the budget, and invite corruption all at the same time.
For years, New Democrats have been beating the same drum as the Cato Institute: It is time to end corporate welfare as we know it. We were right to reform the broken welfare system for single mothers, who responded heroically by going to work and welcoming their independence. Ending corporate welfare will have the same impact on both the political and the business world. We cannot compete in a world that is flat if we let every interest in Washington put its thumb on the scale. If we level the playing field by abolishing unnecessary subsidies, we’ll advance the general welfare and be in a much stronger position for the global competition ahead.
Democrats have a vision of liberty and responsibility that America could have used these last few years, and needs even more in the years to come. We may not be Rocky Mountain libertarians. But after the mess Bush has made, you have nowhere to go but up.
Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, is co-author of The Plan: Big Ideas for America (Public Affairs, 2006).
Democrats, Liberals, and Libertarians
Markos Moulitsas has, as usual, made an important contribution to our political discourse with his essay on Democratic libertarianism—or, more fundamentally, libertarianism for the real world. In the real world, and more particularly in 21st-century America, encroachments on privacy, personal security, and the environment are as likely, if not more likely, to come from business as they are from the state, and these are threats that require state regulation if they’re to be mitigated or dispelled. In the real world, as Markos points out, Silicon Valley is where it is in part because of the public education and university system that Democratic Governor Pat Brown built in California nearly a half-century ago, and because of the defense-aerospace industry that the federal government planted and sustained in California ever since 1941 (which is why David Packard and Bill Hewlett found a ready, in-state clientele). And in the real world, the Republican Party has become a dangerous advocate, and enforcer, of executive branch autocracy, as promulgated by George Bush and Dick Cheney, defended by John Yoo, and likely to be upheld by such ostensibly conservative jurists as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Samuel Alito.
Classic libertarians are as appalled by this last development as any Democratic congressman is. But they ignore Markos’ other cautionary notes—and ignoring Markos’ cautionary notes is part and parcel of classic libertarianism—at their own peril. Libertarianism will always be present in American politics, inasmuch as freedom in America has always meant “freedom from” as much as “freedom to.” But it will be present as an ideological tendency—one of many—to be found in both parties’ core beliefs, many of which are in conflict with libertarianism’s tenets. (No one searching for ideological consistency should look to America’s major parties. Like Whitman, they contradict themselves.) As for pure libertarianism, by denying a role for the state and dismissing the threat to liberties increasingly posed by the dominant corporate sector, it is about as germane to the American future as Trotskyism.
But, writing from the perspectives of a more New Dealish American liberal and an avowed social democrat (the latter tendency, I need not be reminded, being one that has fewer avowed adherents in America than libertarianism, though more than Trotskyism), I want to make a couple of points that Markos doesn’t touch on. First, I want to point out the areas of overlap between libertarianism—or, at least, the preservation of personal liberties—and New Deal democracy, and even social democracy. Second, I want to look again at some of the new libertarianism Markos documents within the Democratic Party—not just where it extends, but where it can’t extend, and why it can’t.
First, we need to begin by acknowledging that the defense of such individual rights as freedom of speech and sexual behavior have long been more characteristic of the left than the right. Back in the ‘60s, when I was a teenager, the conventional wisdom on social democratic Sweden was that it was a socialist society that suppressed individual liberty and that it was a libertine nation (anyone remember the film I Am Curious Yellow?) where sexual freedom ran amok. I have not trusted the conventional wisdom since.
The compatibility of social democracy and Democratic liberalism with individual freedoms extends beyond the sexual realm, of course. The European Union, for instance, has enacted stringent privacy regulations that protect consumers from having their banks, phone companies and other businesses that have data on them from sharing those data with one another. No comparably binding legislation exists on the federal level in the United States. On the state level, in our mega-state, California, a liberal Democratic state senator, Jackie Spier, got a bill protecting consumers from a number of such practices through the heavily Democratic legislature, only to see it vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose sometime libertarianism was trumped by his more-than-sometime fealty to big business. (That’s the default position, of course, of modern Republicanism.)
This is hardly to argue that all European regulation protects individual freedoms or maximizes social outcomes. It is to point out that regulation is often the only way to protect encroachments on individual freedoms. To argue, as a classic libertarian might, that a consumer is as free to switch banks as a bank is to sell its data neglects to note that a bank that doesn’t sell its data is at a competitive disadvantage with one that does, and a consumer who can’t find a privacy-protecting bank is simply out of luck. In short, the free play of markets can be a threat to individual freedom, unless individual freedom is a term that applies only to businesses and not to their consumers or employees or the people who must breathe their pollutants. This is something that New Deal liberals and social democrats have long understood and sought to redress. Indeed, the central insight of 20th century liberalism 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 worker’s freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process. And that to establish some parity of freedoms, the state had to take a hand.
Markos quotes an entry that a reader posted on his Daily Kos blog in which the reader cites his realization that “corporations are becoming more powerful than governments” as the key to his switch to a neo-libertarianism concerned with regulating corporations. But surely, concern over disproportionate corporate power has been a main concern, if not the main concern, of populism, progressivism, and liberalism dating back at least to the 1890s. Americans railed against the railroads and the oil trusts and Wall Street long before they railed against government regulations, for the simple reason that government regulations didn’t seriously begin to curtail the abuses of the rails, of oil and of Wall Street until the New Deal. If libertarians see their mission as defending freedom, liberals, seeing freedoms in conflict, have defined theirs as balancing those freedoms, and regulating their excesses, in the cause of a greater social good. The moral calculus that liberals have used in weighing one freedom against another, to be sure, has often been at odds with the moral calculus of conservatives and the conceptual calculus of libertarians. Liberals, for instance, insisted that the right of a black person to equal access exceeded that of a property owner to discriminate on racial grounds, which upset racist traditionalists, as well as libertarians such as Barry Goldwater, who privileged the property owner’s right above the black person’s.
But Markos raises a second point I want to address: that a new libertarian strain is emerging among Democrats of the Mountain West and elsewhere in the party. He’s right, and it’s a development I welcome, partly for principled and partly for pragmatic reasons. On principled grounds, I’m excited that a Montana Democrat like Jon Tester has the guts to come out against the Patriot Act, to be a tribune for Americans concerned about the unaccountability of the administration and the power grab of the executive branch. On political grounds, I’m quite comfortable with Mountain State Democrats defending the Second Amendment, just as I’m comfortable with Harold Ford, the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, affirming traditional religious values. If the Democrats are ever going to move beyond their coastal, upper-Midwest blue state base, their local candidates will have to affirm the cultural values of the states they seek to represent. If that means we need to have a crazy-quilt of laws regulating guns on a state-by-state basis—happy hunting in Montana, no handguns allowed in New York City—that’s fine by me.
But there are some basic Democratic principles that are not libertarian, and that even Markos’ Mountain State mavericks still affirm. None of them have called for privatizing Social Security. None of them have called for abolishing Medicare. They may be civil libertarians and to some degree social libertarians, but they’re not economic libertarians. And for good reason: Economic libertarianism has never been more preposterous.
For the dominant social fact in America today is this: The corporate safety net is fast disappearing. Risk has been transferred to the individual—a decision in which individuals, as such, haven’t had a say (though their apprehensions about privatizing Social Security did nip that idea in the bud). Corporate pensions are vanishing and 401(k)s don’t provide equivalent retirement security. Fewer and fewer companies are offering medical benefits, even though corporate profits are at a 50-year high as a percentage of GDP. Companies that persist in offering such benefits are placed at a disadvantage when their competitors don’t. And consumers clearly can’t afford those benefits, either. As some recent surveys have made clear, precious few Americans can afford to buy medical insurance on their own or to utilize the Health Savings Accounts that the president is peddling.
In short, as the balance of forces in capitalism shifts entirely towards investors and executives and away from employees, the need for a state that takes the burden of economic and health security off employers who won’t pick it up and employees who can’t pick it up is increasingly urgent. It’s hard to predict what exactly the tipping point will be as our private-sector welfare state continues to contract. But at some point, the Democrats will embrace a decisively larger role for the state in these matters because the public will demand it—not because the public will suddenly identify itself as liberal, but because there will be nowhere else to turn. And at that moment, I think even the Mountain State neo-libertarians will go along. After all, the New Deal didn’t arise because Americans suddenly awakened and proclaimed themselves progressive. It arose because the unchecked power and unregulated practices of major corporations and banks and the market itself led to an economic disaster.
In sum, the Democrats’ embrace of individual liberties in many spheres is actually an old story. But the new growth of selective libertarianism in the Democratic ranks is hardly going to be the main source of controversy in coming party debates. More likely, that debate will pit those who think retraining is the answer to our more layoff-prone society (that’s the Bob Rubin solution) against those who think that retraining needs to be supplemented by, for instance, publicly funded alternative energy programs that would generate millions of jobs (that’s the solution of a number of union leaders, and one that I favor as well). The latter position is clearly more in the New Deal liberal mode, but Rubin’s is hardly libertarian. 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.
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
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.
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.
If You Want Government to Screw Things Up, Vote Republican
It seems to me that how libertarians vote will be dictated by which of two maxims guides their deliberations. If they believe that the government that governs best governs least, then both parties will, of course, disappoint them, but they could go either way if they decide to vote for the lesser evil as they see it. If they believe that the government that governs worst most discredits government — that is, if all they seek from government is confirmation of their belief that governments screw things up, and hence almost everything is better performed by the private sector — then they should vote for the Republicans.
We might end up on more fertile ground if the discussion shifts from “Should libertarians vote for Democrats” to whether they will vote for Democrats in the midterms (2008 is way too far off in the distance to prognosticate about).
I think Kos’ dismissive attitude toward actual libertarian ideas — “All those libertarians seeking some pandering, too bad,” he writes. “This isn’t about you. It’s about us [the Democrats]”– makes it clear that there’s very little ideological common ground between libertarians and Democrats (I also believe there is very little in common between libertarians and Republicans, too, though that intellectual disjuncture was obscured rhetorically by conservatives). I don’t expect anything like systematic, principled stands from politicians and political parties. However, if a party is going to get my vote, they’d damn well better pander — or at least marginally reflect my sense of priorities. If the Dems at the national level would do anything to step in the libertarian direction, that’d be a real start: They might start talking up free trade, which was long a Democratic position; was Bill Clinton really the last free trade Democrat (Hillary Clinton voted against CAFTA, for god’s sakes, no doubt fearing that the mighty zombie workforce of the Dominican Republic poses a terrifying threat to the U.S. economy; in this, she was sadly joined by way too many Dems and Reps)?
Or they might actually embrace the social tolerance they are supposed to embody (and for which conservatives slag them anyway): Why won’t prominent Democrats actually stand up for, say, gay marriage? Not civil unions or some other second-rate alternative, but actual gay marriage? Or come out against the drug war? Or speak unequivocally in favor of free speech — no hemming and hawing about evil video games and all that crap? Even assuming they say nothing different on economic matters, Dems could at least move toward a cultural libertarianism that would make them more attractive to the small government crowd. I suspect they don’t do these things because they don’t really believe in them.
Whatever. I do think that many libertarians — and libertarian-leaning Republicans — will make anti-GOP protest votes this November. One longtime Republican friend of mine — no names! — is pulling a straight-ticket for the Dems to punish the GOP for failing to even come close to doing anything remotely in the small-government vein. I have no idea how many other folks will be like my friend, but there are certainly more of those folks than they’re used to be.
The Internal Democratic Struggle
Why won’t Democrats stand for those civil liberties they believe in, like gay marriage and free speech? Because they are weak. The GOP has so utterly dominated the political discourse, via their partisan media machine, their think tanks, their leadership and training institutes, and their dominance of the federal and many state governments, that it’s been tough going for Democrats to stand for anything, much less things they might perceive as being “unpopular”.
That’s one reason I say that this is an internal Democratic fight at this point. How can I and others properly sell the Democratic Party to anyone if our party looks like a bunch of beaten-down abused dogs, afraid of their own shadow? Nick thinks that Dems shy from socially libertarian issues because they don’t believe in them. The truth is they’re simply afraid. And yes, there’s no less appealing trait in a politician than fear. It’s been tough going for us rank and file Democrats for some time.
It’s pathetic that only one Democrat voted against the Patriot Act — a document almost none of them actually read before endorsing. It’s pathetic that they are afraid to stand up for gay marriage. Or to point out the ridiculousness and failures of the drug war. Trust me — Democrats of ALL stripes are furious at our own party.
That’s one reason we are so excited about the Schweitzers and Testers and Webbs of the party. These aren’t Democrats afraid of Republicans or afraid of what they believe in. They’re ready and willing to take that battle to the GOP. And as we grow our own Vast Left Wing Conspiracy, we’ll be better equipped to fight the battles of ideas on even footing.
That’s why I’m not ready to make a hard sell to liberals on the Democratic Party. It’s too easy for you guys to counter by pointing to the sorry bunch that dominate our party. But we’re working on it, internally, and I suspect that in 10 years, the Democratic Party will look much different.
At that point, we hopefully won’t need to pander. At that point, hopefully our results will speak for themselves.
How Should Libertarians Decide?
I’m not convinced the Republicans have dominated political discourse the way Kos says they have–yes, they’ve got super-slim majorities in Congress, and they’ve eked out a couple of narrow presidential wins the last two times around. But that’s not really dominance. Certainly nothing like the vast majorities Dems commanded not so long ago. So if the Dems are really a-feared of saying what they really believe–geez, that’s really sad. At this point, they’ve got very little to lose. I took Bill Clinton (and Hillary too) at face value when he not only signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law but yammered on and on about always opposing governmental recognition of same-sex marriages.
But let me segue into something else, something that pulls off a point made in passing by Harold Meyerson: What is the calculus that libertarians use to figure out if they should vote Republican or Democrat? That is, how do individual libertarians rank the importance of various issues before politicians. Let’s say you’re faced with a reliably good budget cutter like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) who is also exceptionally anti-gay (according to a story in The New Republic, Coburn has said that homosexuality is “immoral … based on perversion … based on lust”). If you’re a libertarian, you believe in smaller government and social tolerance and pluralism (indeed, you likely believe in smaller government because you believe in pluralism; a smaller state can boss around fewer people). But I’m curious among libertarians how they make decisions in particular cases. Do tax rates trump everything else? Drug policy (what do you do with a budget-cutting stalwart like Rep. Mike Pence [R-Ind.], who is terrible on the drug war)? Immigration? Education? Who are the Democrats who offer something to libertarians (maybe Rep. Barney Frank [D-Mass.], who is very good on medical marijuana and prohibition generally) and what is it about them that puts off libertarian voters?
I realize individual issues will vary, but I think it would be interesting to hear from libertarians on the calculations they perform when it comes to evaluating the various stances a candidate presents.
Should Conservatives Vote Republican?
When this forum was planned a few months ago, Cato was well ahead of the curve in asking if libertarians should vote Democrat. But the way things have been going for the GOP, it won’t be long before Heritage corrupts another Cato idea by holding an online forum, “Should conservatives vote Republican?”
That, in its own way, is yet another reason for libertarians to vote Democrat this fall. A conservative crackup will be very good for the country, but it will also be good for libertarians. Under this administration, the Republican Party stopped competing for your votes a long time ago. So long as the Republican debate is between corporate conservatives and social-issue conservatives, the only question will be which of your beliefs takes a worse beating — free enterprise or individual liberty, small government or limited government.
Matt Yglesias is right that the Democratic Party is not going libertarian anytime soon. But unlike the Bush crowd, at least we’re not offering you a choice between Dumb and Dumber. With Democrats, you’ll get a government that’s fiscally responsible and accountable, not one that divides its time beween cultural warfare and corporate welfare.
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.
Libertarians Still Wandering the Wilderness
Harold Meyerson is right, I think, that many, perhaps most, libertarians are put off by the seeming, sometimes seething, intolerance at work in today’s Southern-dominated GOP. With every gay-bashing innuendo that a Republican lobs, they surely lose more libertarian votes. For the latest instance of this (and evidence that it’s not just white, Southern Republicans who pull this pathetic trick), take a peek at the sad-sack campaign of the Republican Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, which is now suggesting that the Democratic frontrunner, Ted Strickland, is a closeted homosexual.
All the support in the world of the Second Amendment can’t erase that sort of crapola. (Which is crapola on at least two levels: First, the charge is clearly without basis. Second, who cares if Strickland were gay? The real sin of the nation’s only known gay governor, Jim McGreevey, wasn’t his sexual orientation but his idiotic tax regime.) And neither can rhetoric about limited government, lower spending, and reduced taxes–especially coming off the orgy of spending and intervention (both overseas and at home, in cases ranging from Terri Schiavo to legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California) the Republicans have orchestrated since taking full control of the federal government.
David Boaz and David Kirby are also correct that “the libertarian vote is in play” and that it is big enough to swing elections (indeed, in the next issue of Reason, we ask political operatives for the Dems, Reps, and Libertarians–including one Markos Moulitsas–why small ‘l’ libertarians should vote for their candidates). Back before the 2004 election, Reason did an admittedly unscientific and possibly unrepresentative survey of libertarian-leaning intellectuals, writers, and wonks. Titled “Who’s Getting Your Vote?”, the results were pretty striking: John Kerry did as well as, or maybe better than, George W. Bush. Unsurprisingly, the Libertarian Party candidate, Michael Badnarik, did very well as did the non-voting option. It seems clear that any longstanding libetarian leaning toward the GOP has been severely strained by, well, the GOP’s behavior as the party in power.
But what remains more striking to me is the sense of exhaustion and reluctance that pervades libertarian voters. In our 2004 survey, University of Chicago legal eagle Richard Epstein didn’t know the name of the LP candidate but said he’d vote for him — “anyone but the Big Two.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray, said, “Reluctantly — very reluctantly — George Bush,” a sentiment echoed by Reason Foundation founder Bob Poole. John Perry Barlow was pulling the lever for Kerry, “though with little enthusiasm.” The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman was mulling over a Kerry vote, though he expressed “only the dimmest hopes for a Kerry presidency.” Columnist Nat Hentoff refused to vote for anyone “at the top of the ticket.”
You get the picture. Such sentiments can only have been exacerbated over the past two years, as the Dems and Reps do everything in their power to alienate socially tolerant and fiscally conservative libertarians. These are not people without energy and enthusiasm for politics; these are people who care passionately about public policy on all levels. They are not ripe for the picking in the sense they’re looking for a team to join unthinkingly and unswervingly. But they recognize that politics is the art of the possible and they have shown a willingness to vote for candidates that, in the aggregate, promise to defend or increase cultural and economic liberty. Which raises the question for the two major parties, more or less deadlocked in terms of electoral success and desperately in need of votes either to maintain or regain power: What are you doing to win over up to 14 percent of the electorate in a political climate where many elections are decided by less than 5 percent?
What we’ve seen since the Republicans took control of Washington is appalling. What we’ve seen from the Democrats in this Cato Unbound debate (and on the campaign trail so far) is uninspiring. That suggests to me that libertarian voters will remain an underutilized resource in American politics.
Don’t Wait for Inspiration, Do Something!
Nick writes, “What we’ve seen since the Republicans took control of Washington is appalling. What we’ve seen from the Democrats in this Cato Unbound debate (and on the campaign trail so far) is uninspiring. That suggests to me that libertarian voters will remain an underutilized resource in American politics.”
Isn’t that the story of modern-day politics? Isn’t that the dilemma most voters face, having to choose between the lesser of two evils? Everyone is looking to be inspired. More often than not, we have to abandon that wish and choose the candidate that least offends, or the person we think will cause the least amount of damage.
Nick wants the perfect candidate and wants to be inspired? He can get in line. We’re all looking for the same thing.
Yet while my backyard (California) offers little to inspire, this Libertarian Democrat is truly inspired and excited with the new crop of Western libertarian-tinged Democrats. Whether they remain a regional oddity (like the southern Democrat), or whether their brand of liberty-inspired liberalism spreads remains to be seen. There will be many like me who will fight for their increased influence within the Democratic Party caucus. And yes, there will always be conflict between this wing of the Democratic Party and its other wings. It’s a big-tent party, as any two-party system necessarily is. But our brand of libertarianism is ascendant in our party, while the Republican brand of libertarianism has been squashed to a bloody pulp. And to add insult to injury, Republicans continue to pretend they’re something that they’re not (in favor of small government and liberty), assuming that their naked pandering will continue to earn the votes of libertarians they’d rather take for granted.
You aren’t inspired? Identify new leaders to take up your cause. Fight for them. Promote them. Help them win elections. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s certainly something someone like Nick — with a magazine at his disposal — can do. It’s easy to complain that no one inspires. I did that for decades before I decided to build my little soapbox of a blog to advocate for the kind of Democrats I wanted to see elected. And shockingly, I found an eager and motivated audience that sought out the same.
Ultimately, compromises have to be made. There are plenty of Democrats in the caucus that are the polar opposite of what a Libertarian Democrat is all about, that will happily vote for gay marriage bans and violations of our personal and civil liberties. But just as anti-abortion Democrats see their position marginalized in an overwhelmingly pro-choice party, so can authoritarian Democrats be marginalized in a party that grows into a potent force for protecting our personal liberties.
And if this Democratic Party is still too much in favor of a safety net, or too opposed to corporate intrusions into our personal liberties for the tastes of traditional libertarians, then so be it. They can look across the aisle and determine whether the authoritarian and war-obsessed Republicans are any better.
Don’t sit back and expect to be pandered to. Action and results will always trump empty rhetoric.
Soccer Moms and Xbox Dads
Don’t listen to Nick Gillespie: just because you’re libertarians doesn’t mean you have to think of yourselves as hopeless political nomads, consigned to spend the rest of your lives wandering the ideological wilderness.
Trust the marketplace! If David Boaz and David Kirby are right that libertarians represent 10-20% of the electorate, both parties will come calling, whether you like it or not.
The demographics are irresistible: young, male, well-educated, well-off, technologically savvy. In fact, it’s only a matter of time before some pollster in Washington discovers the Cato survey and proclaims the next new swing voter group that will take the place of soccer moms, NASCAR dads, security moms, and office-park dads: Xbox dads. From then on, the libertarian vote will be in such demand, Nick will be longing for the good old days before they came and took his political wilderness away.