The Libertarian Center?

Jonah Goldberg over at National Review Online cites David Boaz’s recent post on the Webb-Allen Senate race, agrees with its substance, but then objects to the notion of a “libertarian center.” “[S]omeone really needs to come up with a better analytical framework than the one(s) which always seem to claim the good guys are in the center,” Jonah writes. “Who says? Besides, if libertarians are in the center, everyone is and no one is.”

I understand Jonah’s distress, since centrism all too often boils down to muddled, sloppy thinking and compromise for compromise’s sake. But the fact remains that the center—i.e., where the swing voters reside—will always be prized territory in democratic politics. Accordingly, much of the action in politics consists of trying to define the relevant issues so that people in the center identify more with your side than with the other guys. That’s why the definitions of left and right change so much over time (compare the priorities of left-wingers and right-wingers a half-century ago with those of their counterparts today, and you’ll see there’s not much overlap)—ideologues in pursuit of power are chasing the ever-changing, ever-elusive center.

Another way to put this is that the location of the center depends on the alignment of the political axis. If the axis of politics at a particular time is the size and scope of government, the center consists of one group of constituencies. If the axis shifts to cultural issues, the center relocates and includes a very different set of voters.

When, from the 1930s through the 1980s, the role of government in the economy was a major, defining issue in American politics, libertarians clearly were not in the center. But how about now? In recent years, the axis has shifted to cultural “red” vs. “blue” issues. As Edward Glaeser and Bryce Ward note in an excellent recent paper entitled “Myths and Realities of American Political Geography,”

[An] important truth captured by the red state/blue state framework is that political parties and politicians have had an increasing tendency to divide on cultural and religious issues rather than on economic differences.

Glaeser and Ward are right. There is little principled difference between the R’s and D’s these days about the size and scope of government. On that score, the main disagreements now are about which favored groups get to feed at the government trough at the expense of the rest of us. By contrast, the really fundamental issues today, the issues that define ideological loyalties and drive voters to the polls, are cultural questions: abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, guns, immigration, nationalism. Church attendance is now a better predictor of voting patterns than income.

And so, whether Jonah likes it or not, libertarians are in the center of the American political debate as it is currently framed. In the red vs. blue culture wars, libertarians find themselves in the middle, along with that large, nonideological chunk of the electorate that is equally squeamish about the religious right and the countercultural left. This is a new and unaccustomed position for libertarians to be in, but I am coming to believe it represents a unique opportunity for us if we can figure out how to take advantage of it.