Why I am not a libertarian populist
“You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the efforts of men who are better than you.”
-Letter from Ludwig von Mises to Ayn Rand
“We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky, and that’s why we have a Democratic party!”
-Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller
In his essay, “Chirping Sectaries,” conservative thinker Russell Kirk famously derided the idea of a libertarian alliance with conservatives as “like advocating a union between fire and ice.” While I think he was wrong as a practical matter at the time, when I hear people today talking about libertarian populism, I can’t help understanding what he meant.
Let me state something at the outset. Though there are many people in the libertarian movement who would contest this self-descriptor (some more honestly than others), I tend to identify as a libertarian when the chips are down. True, my views on foreign policy are more hawkish than your average modern libertarian (though I like to think of myself as standing in the tradition of Goldwater, Rand and erstwhile Goldwater supporter John Bolton), and yes, I tend to think Milton Friedman was absolutely right about the importance of a Federal Reserve. But when you set aside these two heresies, I can scream bloody murder about the NSA and/or the payroll tax and/or the idea of a (pointless) war with Syria with the best of them.
Moreover, whatever my opinions now, the fact is that I came into the conservative movement through the libertarian door (via scholarships from Cato and internships from the Institute for Humane Studies). So even if I’m not a pure libertarian myself, I know what the ideology stands for in its various iterations. That is to say, I know my Hayek from my Friedman and my Rothbard from my Meyer, and my Rand from everyone else. And because I know what libertarianism means, though I have great respect for the libertarian thinkers pushing this idea, I can’t help thinking that if Kirk was right and libertarian conservatism was a union between fire and ice, then “libertarian populism” is a union between napalm and liquid nitrogen.
My objections to the idea are two-fold: Firstly, as a tactical matter, I do not believe libertarian populism is politically viable, or capable of winning elections, because I believe it compounds many of the worst messaging and branding errors of the recent GOP and ignores actual data about the electorate. Secondly, as an ideological matter, I do not believe it is consistent or even desirable, in that it fundamentally ignores the most salient features of populism, and as a result elides the most attractive features of libertarianism.
Before I get into these objections, let us start with a basic definition. Jesse Walker of Reason Magazine, an adherent of the idea, has fingered this passage from Ross Douthat as the best shorthand definition of libertarian populism available, so I will start with it:
A strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of ‘bigness’ in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.
Now, there is much I agree with in this passage, especially the bit about the Bush era being an unqualified disaster (this is where I part company with my fellow critic of libertarian populism, Matt Lewis). That being said, I start my tactical critique of libertarian populism with this question: What demographic will be attracted to this message that is not already a reliable member of the GOP coalition?
Tim Carney, one of libertarian populism’s most gifted exponents, hints at an answer:
The GOP is out of power and it needs to play to the disaffected. The disaffected are not the wealthy, an obvious point that conservatives can’t seem to understand. The wealthy got wealthier under Obama, and corporations earned record profits while median family earnings fell. Obama uses these facts to defuse the charges he’s a socialist. Republicans should use them to show that Obama’s big government expands the privileges of the privileged class.
Instead of trying to convince successful people that Democrats will take away their wealth, why not explain to the middle class that big government is keeping them down?
Readers should note that the above passage comes following a lengthy denunciation of the Romney campaign for its attempt to win a new, suburban, upper-middle-class coalition of voters for the GOP. Carney also cites Sean Trende‘s work on the “Missing White Voter” elsewhere as a source to prove the electoral viability of his idea. Put this together, and you get an answer to my question: Libertarian populism is meant to bring the blue collar, white, most probably dues-paying union members back into the GOP like the Reagan Democrats of yesteryear.
So what’s wrong with this strategy, other than the obvious point that “libertarian populists” (or, as Walker called them, “LibPops”) have chosen a clumsy nickname? Well, actually, the nickname is precisely the problem, not because of its clumsiness, but because of its evasiveness. For there is a nickname that libertarian populists could have chosen for this idea that is much more catchy and instantly identifiable. Scott Galupo of the American Conservative almost hit the nail on the head when he called libertarian populism a “stepchild of McCainism.” But libertarian populism is no one’s step child. It is, in fact, a clone…of Palinism.
Don’t believe me? Compare Carney’s description of libertarian populism now to an article from Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam in December 2010, describing the ascendant coalition supporting politicians like Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin:
There is now a class divide in the Republican party. Mitt Romney, the leading establishment candidate for the party’s presidential nomination in 2012, draws support from affluent, college-educated Republicans. Voters without college degrees, on the other hand, look more favorably on Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin — the potential candidates who most consistently rail against “elites” and “country-clubbers.”[…]
The Republican split is a mirror image of the Democratic one. Upscale Republicans resemble downscale Democrats in their pragmatic pursuit of material interests, while downscale Republicans and upscale Democrats appear to be more easily swayed by gestures of ideological solidarity.
So what’s wrong with this approach? Libertarian populists might correctly point out that it did, after all, lead to a landslide in 2010.
There are multiple answers. Firstly, midterm elections work differently from presidential elections. Given lower turnout, ideologically motivated candidates can do better, and mobilization is harder for supporters of the incumbent party. Libertarian populists, I sense, want to do more than keep winning Congress.
Secondly, this is not 2010. In fact, voters have seen what 2010 produced and have, by and large, recoiled from it. A YouGov poll taken in July showed that, far from preferring “gestures of ideological solidarity,” voters today prefer compromise. Worse, they blame Republicans more than Democrats by a 22 point margin for congressional gridlock, suggesting that the “downscale” strategy ended up hurting perceptions of Republicans far more than helping them. To go back a bit further, 70 percent of voters told 2012 exit pollers that they wanted bipartisanship. That’s a far cry from the us vs them strategy preferred by Palinists and libertarian populists (if you can neatly separate the two).
Thirdly, Douthat and Salam pointed to the biggest weakness of this strategy in their 2010 essay: “Bereft of a policy agenda that appeals to lower-middle-class voters, Republicans often seek their votes using a cultural message that sounds strident and anti-intellectual to college-educated voters. If Republicans are perceived to be dividing voters into two categories, ‘real Americans’ and ‘latte-sippers,’ voters who fall in the second group understandably recoil.”
Yet cultural populism is precisely what Palinists sought to exploit, and precisely what libertarian populists seem to be hoping to trade on today. That brand of populism was solidly rejected in 2012, and given the political preferences of younger voters, will only be rejected more firmly as the years go on. Yet as Matt Lewis points out, “populist” voters are unlikely to be receptive even to a full-throated economically populist message that doesn’t cater to their social concerns. Given that the only such voters who exist, by Carney’s own telling, are the missing white voters, libertarian populism’s presumptive ideal party is a GOP that emphasizes the cultural and economic needs of a fast-shrinking white demographic over and against the increasingly diverse, socially cosmopolitan voters of the future, who look and sound more like the suburbanites Carney disdains than the salt of the earth he wants to reach. Yes, Romney’s poorly run, schizophrenic campaign failed to reach the suburbanites (mostly due to messaging concessions he had to make to win the “populist” vote in the primaries), but to write them — and people who believe what they believe — off completely is, to quote Matt Lewis again, “mathematical suicide.”
So if libertarian populism merely compounds the errors of Palinism, does this mean libertarianism is doomed? Far from it. In fact, it is precisely because I think libertarianism is the message that can win future voters more reliably than any other that I find libertarian populism to be such an unnecessary detour. This brings me to my ideological problem with the label, which is that libertarianism is not and can never be a populist ideology. And contra libertarian populism’s defenders, that is most definitely a good thing.
Critics of Mitt Romney’s campaign often blame his infamous “47 percent” remarks on libertarian ideology — specifically, Randianism — infecting his campaign. Yet this is to misread not merely libertarianism, but even Randianism itself. For Romney’s “47 percent” remarks (which observers should note, tied the capacity for virtuous citizenship purely to paying taxes) were not libertarian. Rather, they were feudal. Romney posited a theory of two static classes, inexorably opposed to each other: the virtuous, taxpaying business owners/otherwise wealthy people, and the ungrateful serfs who pay nothing into the system and leech off their largesse.
No libertarian ought to make such a mistake, for one of the ideas that libertarians have fought hardest against in politics is the idea that class is static, that one’s ending position in life is predetermined by one’s starting economic status, and that therefore those who are born wealthy need to be pulled down from their high horse by government. But ask any libertarian economist and they’ll tell you that, at any given moment, someone who was once a member of Romney’s “47 percent” could, say, learn to code and create the next “killer app,” catapulting them into the upper echelons of the 53 percent. Similarly, someone who was once part of the upper echelons of the 53 percent could utterly destroy their own fortune due to hubris and criminal behavior, thus ending up in the 47 percent.
This is how mobility works, and it’s one of the most important defenses of capitalism there is, having been made by the likes of Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman. Ayn Rand herself acknowledged this when, in Atlas Shrugged, she cast figures such as the diner employee and former professor Hugh Akston (who is not a wealthy man) as explicitly more virtuous than the wealthy but corrupt subsidized steel magnate Orren Boyle.
That being said, upward mobility is in woefully short supply in America today, and libertarian populists (especially Carney himself) are often brilliant in their exposition of the reasons why. In fact, much of their policy program would probably do a great deal to ameliorate the lack of upward mobility, and to eliminate the Orren Boyles of the world. Unfortunately, the libertarian virtues of their policy program are almost entirely voided by the utterly counterproductive decision to wed that program to populist policies, ideas and rhetoric.
Before getting into why, let us return to Rand for a moment, because she works as a particularly extreme example of what many libertarians believe (she certainly was a gateway drug for me). If her message (and, indeed, libertarianism’s) really were the feudal nightmare that Romney’s critics make it out to be, there would be no way to explain the enormous mass appeal of books like Atlas Shrugged. There are simply not enough millionaires and billionaires to inflate sales that much, nor to explain its pop cultural impact, nor to explain the fact that it appeals just as much to entirely resourceless high school and college students as it does to the independently wealthy. So why the appeal? Simple: Because Rand’s work, for all its many flaws, is not a feudal fantasy, but an aspirational one. Indeed, libertarianism is perhaps the perfect aspirational philosophy.
Populism, by contrast, is almost entirely punitive. It seeks to drag down those who have achieved more than they ought to, to get revenge on the successful and to glorify the unsuccessful. Rush Limbaugh fingered this as precisely the reason why populism is a poor fit on the right in 2008 when he used it as a reason to criticize Mike Huckabee. Whatever other problems Limbaugh might have had, this much he was dead right about.
And speaking of Huckabee, probably the most populist politician to run in recent memory, what did he think of libertarianism? Let’s refresh our memories.
The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says ‘look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and healthcare, so be it.’ Well, that might be a quote pure ‘economic conservative message,’ but it’s not an American message. It doesn’t fly.
Or, to quote a more recent populist with a background struggling with weight issues:
This strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought…I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation…I’m very nervous about the direction this is moving in.
And that’s just Republican populists. Take a look at Ted Strickland’s rant at least year’s DNC to get an idea of what real, unadulterated populism looks like. As Rich Lowry of National Review observed at the time:
If President Obama wins Ohio (and I mean ‘if’), it will be because he re-ran on a larger scale Ted Strickland’s witless populist campaign against John Kasich from 2010. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic had a shrewd post after Strickland’s narrow loss in that race on the potential political power of such a populism — and its pitfalls, namely the stupidity and crudity.
This is what libertarian populists want us to mimic? How on earth does this work with libertarianism? And what happens when the populists start going after libertarian sacred cows? “No, no, no,” libertarians presumably will say, “You can’t attack such and such. They didn’t get subsidies. They earned it.” To which the populists will presumably reply by stabbing them with pitchforks as traitors to the cause.
I am sure libertarian populists share the affection of most right-leaning people for the American revolution, but their program looks a lot more like the Whiskey Rebellion to me. And I’m sure I don’t need to remind readers that the Whiskey Rebellion failed.
And why should this fundamental confusion happen? Because in their rush to support populist opposition to “bigness” — i.e., Big Banks, Big Government, Big Business, etc — libertarian populists have forgotten that populism targets one other entity as well: the Big Individual. That is what lies at the root of the all-for-one-and-one-for-all solidarity that exists within unions, and other populist institutions: The desire to tell those who have achieved to get back in line. And on that, populism can never be squared with libertarianism.
Does this mean that libertarian populism has nothing to teach us? Hardly. Its critique of weak upward mobility, its critique of corporate welfare, and its insight into the cronyist origins of regulation are all reasonable and should be adopted by the coming GOP’s message. But these are not populist ideas — they are merely libertarian. And their natural constituency is not the fast-dying, perpetually subsidized and often rent seeking manufacturing class that Carney seeks to reach, but rather precisely the people who the Romney campaign, for all its fumbling and muddled messaging, correctly identified as the GOP voters of the future: The socially tolerant yet economically frugal aspirational middle class voters of the suburbs and the millennial generation.
Libertarian populists are free to pursue their quixotic goal of building a Hayek-quoting William Jennings Bryan. I, for one, do not intend to let them crucify the GOP upon a cross of Goldline ads.