By the waning years of the Bush administration, the old “fusionist” alliance between libertarians and social conservatives seemed to be on its last legs. After the inglorious collapse of Social Security reform, the political agenda of the right was more or less free of any contamination by libertarian ideas. The GOP sank into ruling-party decadence marked by borrow-and-spend fiscal incontinence and K Street Project cronyism. The broader conservative movement, meanwhile, expended its energy on gay-bashing, anti-immigrant hysteria, fantasies of World War IV, meddling in the Schiavo family tragedy, and redefining patriotism as enthusiasm for mass surveillance and torture.
Now, however, opposition to Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress has sparked a resurgence of libertarian rhetoric on the right, most prominently in the “Tea Party” protests that have erupted over the past year. “Libertarian sentiment has finally gone mainstream,” wrote Chris Stirewalt, political editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, in a column this April. “After two wars, a $12 trillion debt, a financial crisis and the most politically tone-deaf president in modern history, Americans may have finally given up on big government.”
“Libertarians need to disengage from Republicans and conservatives once and for all.”
Such talk gets many libertarians excited. Could a revival of small-government conservatism really be at hand? After the long apostasy of Bush père et fils, could the right really be returning to the old-time religion of Goldwater and Reagan? Could the withered fusionist alliance of libertarians and conservatives channel today’s popular disgust with statist excess into revitalized momentum for limited-government reform?
In a word, no. Without a doubt, libertarians should be happy that the Democrats’ power grabs have met with such vociferous opposition. Anything that can stop this dash toward dirigisme, or at least slow it down, is a good thing. Seldom has there been a better time to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” So we should rejoice that at least some conservatives haven’t forgotten their signature move.
That, however, is about all the contemporary right is good for. It is capable of checking at least some of the left’s excesses, and thank goodness for that. But a clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative.
What are those impulses?
First and foremost, a raving, anti-intellectual populism, as expressed by (among many, many others) Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Next, a brutish nationalism, as expressed in anti-immigrant xenophobia (most recently on display in Arizona) and it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism. And, less obvious now but always lurking in the background, a dogmatic religiosity, as expressed in homophobia, creationism, and extremism on beginning- and end-of-life issues. The combined result is a right-wing identity politics that feeds on the red meat of us versus them, “Real America” versus the liberal-dominated coasts, faith and gut instinct versus pointy-headed elitism.
This noxious stew of reaction and ressentiment is the antithesis of libertarianism. The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions. History is full of ironies and surprises, but there is no rational basis for expecting an outlook as benighted as the contemporary right’s to produce policy results that libertarians can cheer about.
Groupthink and Fever Dreams
Modern conservatism has always had an illiberal dark side. Recall the first great populist spasms of the postwar right — McCarthyism and opposition to desegregation — and recall as well that National Review founder William F. Buckley stoutly defended both. Any ideology dedicated to defending traditional ways of doing things is of necessity going to appeal to the reactionary as well as the prudently conservative. And since, going all the way back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, the right’s adversary was the nation’s liberal intellectual elite, conservatism has always been vulnerable to the populist temptation.
But prior to the rise of the conservative counter-establishment — think tanks, talk radio, websites, and Fox News — the right’s dark side was subject to a critical constraint: To be visible at all in the nation’s public debate, conservatism was forced to rely on intellectual champions whose sheer brilliance and sophistication caused the liberal gatekeepers in mass media to deem them suitable for polite company. People such as Buckley, George Will, and Milton Friedman thus became the public face of conservative ideology, while the rabble-rousers and conspiracy theorists were consigned to the shadow world of mimeographs, pamphlets, and paperbacks that nobody ever reviewed. The handicap of elite hostility thereby conferred an unintended benefit: It gave conservatism a high-quality intellectual leadership that, to some extent at least, was able to curb the movement’s baser instincts.
Now, however, the discipline of having to fight intellectual battles on the opponent’s turf is long gone. Conservatism has turned inward, like the dog in the joke, because it can. The result is what Reason Contributing Editor Julian Sanchez has called the movement’s “epistemic closure.” The quality of the right’s intellectual leadership — the people who set the agenda, who define what “true” conservatism means at any given time — has consequently suffered a precipitous decline. What counts today isn’t engaging the other side with reasoned arguments; it’s building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience’s collective sense of outrage and victimization. And that’s a job best performed not by serious thinkers but by hacks and hucksters. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Joseph Farah, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin: they adorn the cathedral of conservatism like so many gargoyles.
Yes, there are still many bright and inquisitive minds on the right, but they are not the movement’s stars and they don’t call the shots. On the contrary, if they stray too far in challenging the conservative id, they find themselves cast out and castigated as heretics and RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Bruce Bartlett and David Frum (who are friends of mine) are only two of the more prominent victims of that intolerant groupthink; both were sacked by conservative think tanks shortly after loudly expressing heterodox opinions.
As the worst get on top, they bring out the worst in their loyal followers. Goaded by the conservative message machine’s toxic mix of intolerance and self-pity, mass opinion on the right has veered off into feverish self-delusion. Witness the “birther” phenomenon. According to Public Policy Polling, 63 percent of Republicans either believe Obama was born in a foreign country or aren’t sure one way or the other. A more recent poll by the same outfit shows that 52 percent of Republicans believe that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama with voter fraud, while another 21 percent are undecided. This polling outfit is closely tied to the Democrats, so take the exact numbers with some grains of salt if you wish. But it is beyond doubt that paranoia is rampant in right-wing circles these days.
The return of small-government rhetoric does not signal a break from the right’s illiberal commitments. Rather, those same commitments are simply being expressed in a different way to suit the changing times. We’re in the midst of a deep slump, and economic issues always come to the fore during tough times. Furthermore, Washington is now under Democratic control. When their own gang was in power, conservatives rallied “us” against a grab bag of “thems,” most notably gays, Mexicans, and “Islamofascists” and their liberal “appeasers.” Now the us-versus-them game has gotten much simpler. Barack Obama — Harvard-educated, left of center, the son of a foreigner, a suspected Muslim who (according to Palin) “pals around with terrorists” — pulls together all the hated “thems” in one convenient package. Opposing Obama and his agenda may sound libertarian, but it’s also the perfect outlet for the same old distinctly anti-libertarian mix of populism, nationalism, and dogmatism.
Let’s look in particular at the Tea Party movement, whose sudden rise is what has sparked all the talk of a fusionist revival. In April The New York Times published a detailed survey of Tea Party supporters, and the results are telling. First, this movement is definitely a right-wing phenomenon. Of those polled, 73 percent said they are somewhat or very conservative, 54 percent called themselves Republicans (compared to only 5 percent who confessed being Democrats), and 66 percent said they always or usually vote for the GOP candidate. When asked to give their opinions of various public figures, they gave favorable/unfavorable splits of 59/6 for Glenn Beck and 66/12 for Sarah Palin (though a plurality said the latter would not be an effective president). And in the single most depressing result of the whole poll, 57 percent of Tea Party supporters expressed a favorable opinion of the big-government president George W. Bush — as compared to Americans overall, 58 percent of whom gave Bush an unfavorable rating.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Tea Partiers hold distinctly unlibertarian views on a wide variety of issues. According to the Times poll, 82 percent think illegal immigration is a very serious problem, and supporters of decreasing legal immigration outnumber those who want to liberalize immigration by 42 to 14 percent. Only 16 percent favor gay marriage (compared to 39 percent of the country at large), and 40 percent call for no legal recognition of same-sex unions. Meanwhile, 77 percent support either banning abortions outright or making them more difficult to obtain.
But at least the Tea Partiers are dedicated to reining in government spending, right? After all, it’s the movement’s defining issue. Well, put me down as a skeptic. If you really care about restraining the growth of government, the number one priority has to be restructuring the budget-busting Medicare program. Yet during the health care debate the GOP sank to shameless demagoguery in defending Medicare’s sanctity. The short-term goal was to score points against ObamaCare, but the most likely long-term effect was to make needed reforms even more difficult to achieve. And how did Tea Partiers, and movement conservatives generally, respond to this irresponsible pandering? They scarcely said boo.
Authoritarian and Unpopular
Notwithstanding the return of libertarian rhetoric, the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement. It endorses the systematic use of torture. It defends unchecked presidential power over matters of national security. It excuses massive violations of Americans’ civil liberties committed in the name of fighting terrorism. It supports bloated military budgets, preventive war, and open-ended, nation-building occupations. It calls for repressive immigration policies. Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military. It opposes abortion rights. It opposes marriage equality. It panders to creationism. It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents. It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories. If you’re serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.
In any event, conservatism in its current incarnation looks like a political dead end. Its wildly overheated rhetoric, with cries of socialism and dark hints of impending dictatorship, alienates the moderate center of American public opinion even as it thrills the hardcore base. That base, meanwhile, is in long-term demographic decline. White, married, churchgoing, with kids — all those categories associated with a right-of-center orientation have been shrinking as a percent of the population, and all are expected to continue shrinking. In analyzing the impact of demographic change on the 2008 election, the journalist Ron Brownstein looked at six basic groups: whites with college degrees, whites without degrees, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other minorities. If each of those group’s share of the electorate had remained unchanged since 1992, McCain would have beaten Obama by 2 percentage points instead of losing by 7.
At the same time, younger Americans have decisively repudiated the contemporary right’s illiberal social values. The Pew Research Center’s 2007 survey of Americans aged 18–25, dubbed “Generation Next,” is illustrative. Pew’s polling reveals that young adults are dramatically less religious and less nationalist than their elders. Twenty percent say they are not religious, compared to only 11 percent of Americans 26 or older. They favor evolution over creationism by a 63 to 33 margin. Supporters of gay marriage in this age group narrowly outnumber opponents (47 to 46 percent), while among everyone older opponents carry the day by a 64–30 spread. Among young adults, 52 percent say immigrants strengthen our country, while 38 percent say they are a burden; by contrast, Americans 26 and up embrace the anti-immigrant view by a 42–39 margin. In the rising generation, only 29 percent agree that “using overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism,” while 67 percent think that “relying too much on military force leads to hatred and more terrorism.” Among Americans 26 and older, though, hawks beat doves 49 to 41. God-and-country populism may still appeal to a large number of Americans (though certainly not a majority), but its future looks bleak.
Back in the Cold War, when socialism remained a living ideal and totalitarianism was a leading force in world affairs, an anti-socialist alliance between libertarians and social conservatives may have made sense. It doesn’t anymore.
Does that mean I think that libertarians should ally with the left instead? No, that’s equally unappealing. I do believe that libertarian ideas are better expressed in the language of liberalism rather than that of conservatism. But it’s clear enough that for now and the foreseeable future, the left is no more viable a home for libertarians than is the right.
The blunt truth is that people with libertarian sympathies are politically homeless. The best thing we can do is face up to that fact and act accordingly. That means taking the libertarian movement in a new direction: attempting to claim the center of American politics. If that move were successful, ideas of a distinctly libertarian cast would define the views of a critical swing constituency that politicians on the left and right would have to compete for.
Make no mistake, though: relocating to the center would make for a very different movement than the one we’ve got now. The organized libertarian movement began with the goal of offering a radical alternative to conservatism and liberalism. But ever since the main vehicle of that aspiration, the Libertarian Party, fizzled into irrelevance in the 1980s, the movement has tilted heavily to the right. However much individual libertarians like to think they transcend the left-right divide, the actual operating strategy of organized libertarianism has been fusionism.
In particular, a great deal of libertarian talent and energy has gone into building a “free market” movement of organizations that focus more or less exclusively on economic issues. These organizations include fundraising groups such as the Club for Growth, activist outfits such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, legal shops such as the Institute for Justice, and state-level think tanks such as the Mackinac Center and the Goldwater Institute. By steering clear of social issues and foreign policy, the free-market movement has shunted aside the questions that divide libertarians from conservatives and instead institutionalized the ground they seem to share.
Expressly libertarian writers have spent much more time engaging conservative audiences than reaching out to liberals. They have written more frequently for right-wing outlets such as National Review, The Washington Times, and The Wall Street Journal than for their counterparts on the left. They have regularly identified with the Goldwater-Reagan current of conservatism, notwithstanding the profound differences between that strain and libertarian thinking on a number of fronts. And they have often couched libertarian arguments in conservative terms, venerating the timeless wisdom of America’s founding principles while conveniently ignoring the fact that another set of founding principles included the enslavement of blacks, subjugation of women, and expropriation of Indian lands.
Declaring independence from the right would require big changes. Cooperation with the right on free-market causes would need to be supplemented by an equivalent level of cooperation with the left on personal freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy issues. Funding for political candidates should be reserved for politicians whose commitment to individual freedom goes beyond economic issues. In the resources they deploy, the causes they support, the language they use, and the politicians they back, libertarians should be making the point that their differences with the right are every bit as important as their differences with the left.
The first step, though, is recognizing the problem. Right now, like it or not, the libertarian movement is a part of the vast right-wing conspiracy — a distinctive and dissident part, to be sure, but a part all the same. As a result, our ideals are being tainted and undermined through guilt by association. It’s time for libertarians to break ranks and stand on our own.