The Republican Party seems to be losing ground. The latest and perhaps most interesting journalistic analysis of the fix the GOP is in can be found within an August 7, 2014 New York Times article by Robert Draper, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” One obvious challenge to the party is that it is a coalition, but that two legs of its proverbial “stool” — the social conservative and neoconservative/foreign policy hawk wings — are suffering from decreasing support and voter repudiation, while the third leg — the libertarian leg — remains… “problematic.”
That’s not a word from the article. It’s the favorite word of “TV’s Andy Levy,” libertarian co-host of Fox News’s gonzo late-night news chat show Red Eye, who uses it to satirize political correctness in modern times (everything, apparently, is “problematic” when seen through the progressive lens). But I’m using it literally to describe the status of libertarians within the GOP alliance.
Though “free markets” and “free enterprise” have become watchwords of the Republicans, the use of the terms from the social cons and the neocons have been mostly honorifics — honored in utterance, breached in practice. For years, libertarians felt like the most abused partner of the stool. This was especially true during the Bush era, when the GOP solidly pushed war and deficit spending to new heights, while ramping up the surveillance state and short-changing Americans on civil liberties.
But it’s worth remembering: the Republican Party has always been a coalition party. The abolitionists and former Whigs who made up the original organization were pretty good about keeping together. They had an advantage: their very existence on the political map split the federal union — or, more precisely, the success of their first presidential candidate split the union, as slave states split off — and they could seem more united as they stuck to the goal of forcing the union back into one.
Nowadays, however, things are different. The Grand Old Party can no longer rely on 19th century policies of big-business/big-government partnerships, high protective tariffs, and “internal improvements” (the old standbys) and certainly not on the politics of assimilating former slaves. Arguably, as the Democratic Party took over the mantle of Progressivism in the 20th century, they took up GOP policy initiatives. The Republicans had defended former slaves in the 19th century; by the end of the 20th, the Democrats had successfully transformed American politics of anti-slavery into a general politics of race and race-based ideology. Identity politics mattered in new ways.
Anyone who’s not a Democrat has been scratching his or her head ever since.
And important issues such as taxation also changed dramatically. In the 19th century, high tariffs and alcohol excise taxes fueled the federal government. Nowadays, the income tax and FICA dominate revenue. Republicans, once the high-tariff party, now pretend to the low-tax party.
An even greater flip-flop occurred over the management of trade. Republicans from Lincoln to Hoover were protectionist. Today, it is the Republicans who seem more rhetorically comfortable with “free trade” label (and thus a wee bit closer in spirit to “laissez faire”), though Rick Santorum and Pat Buchanan remain hold-overs from the longest of long-gone eras, still insisting on Protection.
As usual, Democrats are either solidly statist on subjects like trade (regulate it more! tax it more! prohibit! mandate! more more more!), or else waffle. Though the Democratic Party tried to reclaim the mantle of Free Trade in FDR’s time (considering the debacle of Herbert Hoover-supported Smoot-Hawley), combining it with an interventionist foreign policy in the Cold War, these days everything seems up for grabs.
And this is where the libertarians appear in the landscape as so different from all other groups. They are a tad more predictable. (Libertarians call this quality “consistent” or “principled.”) You generally know what they are going to support. Freedom. Responsibility. Limited government. The Bill of Rights. Things like that.
Which opens them up to the old charges of being “doctrinaire” and “ideological” and “closed.”
In the New York Times piece, Draper dutifully quotes Republican insider David Frum for the anti-libertarian perspective. “It’s a completely closed and airless ideological system that doesn’t respond well to reality. . . . Libertarians are like Marxists in that they have prophets like von Mises and Hayek, and they quote from their holy scripture, and they don’t have to engage.”
Well, you might understand why libertarians would have some trouble engaging with David Frum and his former boss, George W. Bush. Libertarians witnessed — as did all Americans — how Bush engaged with others during his years in office. His one good idea (reforming Social Security) got nowhere, but his bad ideas multiplied. As did the numbers in the federal debt. As did the pages in the Tax Code, and the Federal Registry. As did the numbers of people dying in foreign countries as a direct result of dubious claims to certainty on matters of foreign policy.
Bush didn’t consult Mises and Hayek as scripture. He was more spiritually attuned to first impressions. He looked into Putin’s soul.
And came up with a corker. (American policy towards Russia has since moved on to cheesy reset buttons and the president whispering his weakness to Russian underlings.)
Nowadays, grumpy conservatives blame Obama for the deterioration for the world. Libertarians hold an even more minority position. Sure, Obama may be the worst president in a long time. But the speed of his wrongheadedness traveled a path paved by eight years of presidential overreach under George W. Bush.
And it remains the case that Republican failure still dominates what passes for an American historical sense: Frum’s man screwed up America worse than anyone else before him. The neocons betrayed the country with their hubristic lust to solve all the world’s problems by killing brown people elsewhere. The social conservatives never really got what they wanted out of their heavy investments in Reagan and Bush and Bush, for abortion is still a national policy, gay marriage is now a thing, and the drug war is lurching towards the dustbin of history.
The two legs of the current Republican coalition thus not only distrust the libertarian leg, but resent it for its confident propensity to stand alone. And not accept blame for the other legs’ failures.
Can anything be done?
I don’t see how the Republicans can gain the upper hand again, without libertarians, short of an all-out war with Russia or a genocidal war with Islamic countries — which would not be a good thing for America or the world.
So it would behoove social cons and neocons to reconsider their distaste for libertarian ideas. After all, both groups do repeatedly say that they are for “liberty” and “freedom” . . . why not “engage” with the libertarians?
It cannot be because they are afraid of Mises and Hayek or appearing “closed and airless.”
Mises and Hayek were great thinkers with no small degree of subtlety. They need not be treated as inerrant prophets, however. Their works on not exactly “scripture.”
Interestingly, every libertarian I know who has read the “two vons” (as Martin Gardner nastily dubbed them) has disagreements with the two Austrian giants. Hardly exegetical worship. Maybe Frum should actually talk to libertarians and listen. They might be less cold and more open than Frum has so far considered. Maybe libertarians quote their favorite authors more out of respect and attempt to engage with others than in being standoffish.
Indeed, as I understand it, “engagement” goes both ways. “Even if libertarians willingly engage the political process,” writes Draper, “there’s little to guarantee that the process will engage them back.” Maybe the problem with the Republican coalition hasn’t been that libertarians won’t engage with social conservatives and neoconservatives, but that these latter groups have only been interested in exploiting the libertarians. And then ignoring them.
Or, just maybe, both libertarians and social conservatives have been consistently “played” by the neocons, who gave both votes and dollars, and then were betrayed over and over. The parallel in the Democratic Party would be how the Democrats treat African-Americans: take much, give nothing but lip-service.
Politics is often not nice. Nor quite what it seems to be.
Maybe it’s time for a great Republican rethink.
August 10, 2014
This column first appeared at Townhall.com.