POLITICS FEBRUARY 12, 2010
One mini-saga of the past decade in American politics has been the flirtation—with talk of a deeper partnership—between progressives and libertarians. These two groups were driven together, in the main, by common hostility to huge chunks of the Bush administration's agenda: endless, pointless wars; assaults on civil liberties; cynical vote-buying with federal dollars; and statist panders to the Christian right.
This cooperation reached its height during the 2006 election, in which, according to a new study by David Kirby and David Boaz, nearly half of libertarian voters supported Democratic congressional candidates—more than doubling the support levels from the previous midterm election in 2002. (As Jonathan Chait noted after the first Kirby/Boaz study of libertarian voting, their definition is overly broad, encompassing 14 percent of the electorate.) At the time, left-wing blogger Markos Moulitsas hailed the influx of "libertarian democrats" into the Democratic coalition. Soon, even the Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey was proposing a permanent alliance of what he called "liberaltarians."
Well, you can say goodbye to all that. The new Kirby/Boaz study reports that libertarian support for Democrats collapsed in 2008, despite many early favorable assessments of Barack Obama by libertarian commentators. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has raised the salience of issues on which libertarians and Dems most disagree. And there's no question that during Obama's first year—with the rise of the Tea Party movement and national debate over bailouts, deficits, and health care—libertarian hostility to the new administration has grown adamant and virtually universal. But what progressives need to understand is that the end of this affair is actually a good thing.
The progressive-libertarian alliance may have provided tactical benefits in 2006, augmenting the Democratic “wave” election of that year. But 2008 showed that libertarian support is hardly crucial: Obama still won "libertarian" states such as Colorado and New Hampshire handily, even without their backing, and he generally performed better in the “libertarian West” than any Democratic nominee since LBJ.
In terms of a deeper bond based on philosophical congruence, it’s true that modern liberals and libertarians share common ideological roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglo-American liberalism. Both believe in a world of rational actors, and both consider the promotion of individual autonomy to be a positive good. With the emergence of the "neo-liberal" and "New Democrat" movements of the 1980s and 1990s—which lauded capitalism, technological progress, and free trade—the potential for overlap only increased.
What's more, these groups have a sociocultural affinity. Secularism, prevalent in both liberal and libertarian circles, makes them more comfortable with each other in an era of culture wars. (In my own Washington think tank years, the two camps often coexisted on panels and over lunch or drinks—the sort of professional and social interaction that rarely if ever occurred with the Christian warrior wonks of the Family Research Council.) Plus, people on both sides of the “alliance” undoubtedly enjoyed the psychic rush of breaking bread with someone from “the enemy camp” who could quote Thomas Jefferson and rage against the Iraq war and corporate welfare.
Yet this liberal-libertarian lovefest was doomed. As Jonathan Chait argued in this 2006 essay, true "liberaltarianism" would require progressives to give up their core goals of smoothing capitalism's rough edges and delivering economic security. Amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, that ain’t happening.
Moreover, with the arrival of the Tea Party movement, libertarians have acquired a kind of mass political cachet that they've never before enjoyed. As Nate Silver estimated last year, the early tea parties were “two parts Ron Paul/libertarian conservative--with its strength out West and in New Hampshire--and one part Sarah Palin/red-meat conservative--with its strength in rural areas, particularly in the South.” This phenomenon has pulled libertarianism rightward: Despite some expressed concerns about the crudeness and cultural conservatism of many Tea Party activists, it has become clear that most self-conscious libertarians are willing to participate in, and cheerlead for, the Tea Party movement as though their political futures depend on it.
That, in turn, has torn open cultural rifts between libertarians and liberals. Progressives who previously fawned over the libertarians' Jeffersonian modesty are now exposed to the unattractive aspect of libertarianism that is familiar to readers of Ayn Rand: a Nietzschean disdain for the poor and minorities that tends to dovetail with the atavistic and semi-racist habits of reactionary cultural traditionalists. After all, it is only a few steps from the Tea Party movement's founding "rant"—in which self-described Randian business commentator Rick Santelli blasted “losers” who couldn’t pay their mortgages—to populist backlash against all transfer payments of any type, complaints about people "voting for a living" instead of "working for a living," and paranoid conspiracy theories about groups like ACORN.
Certainly, few self-conscious libertarians have much tolerance for racism, but they are encouraging a point of view about “welfare” that has long been catnip to racists. And that's a problem for liberals. How can an alliance last in a climate where a progressive think tanker has to look down the rostrum at that nice Cato Institute colleague and wonder if he or she privately thinks the poor are “looter scum”; or if he's willing to get behind the Sarah Palin presidential candidacy that’s so wildly popular in Tea Party circles?
The gap is wide enough that even liberals who are frustrated with the president have trouble mustering any sympathy for the Obama-bashing of contemporary libertarians—a sign that the earlier alliance really was an ephemeral product of the Bush administration’s many sins. For example, most progressives reacted angrily to the very latest proposal for a left-libertarian convergence, in which activist and blogger Jane Hamsher touted a coalition between Tea Party activists and the left against health care reform and corporate bailouts.
So could “liberaltarianism” make a comeback in a not-too-distant future, when today’s passions have abated? You never know for sure, but the next major obstacle to cooperation may well be the Supreme Court’s decision on corporate political spending in Citizens United v. FEC, which libertarians celebrated as a victory for free speech, and most liberals denounced as a travesty if not a national disaster.
Cancel the Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers; this romance is dead.
Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.