Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.
Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear that capitalism’s relentless dynamism and wealth-creation–the institutional safeguarding of which lies at the heart of libertarian concerns–have been pushing U.S. society in a decidedly progressive direction. The civil rights movement was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture, which pushed blacks off the farm and out of the South with immense consequences. Likewise, feminism was encouraged by the mechanization of housework. Greater sexual openness, as well as heightened interest in the natural environment, are among the luxury goods that mass affluence has purchased. So, too, are secularization and the general decline in reverence for authority, as rising education levels (prompted by the economy’s growing demand for knowledge workers) have promoted increasing independence of mind. ~Brink Lindsey
If Mr. Lindsey had wanted to bring together a laundry list of all the things that conservatives have typically considered to be evidence of the decline of America (i.e., divorce, abortion, vulgar and offensive pop culture, immigration, the “progressive” fruits of capitalism’s “relentless dynamism”) and if he had wanted to come up with a list of precisely those policies that deeply, profoundly offend a broad Middle American constituency (i.e., divorce, abortion, vulgar and offensive pop culture, immigration, the “relentless dynamism” of capitalism and its “progressive” consequences), he could scarcely have come up with better. The reality that these policies have provided the fuel for the last generation of conservative populism, which shows no sign of being either less popular or less intense than it used to be, and have represented in most cases the great betes noires of traditional conservatives does not seem to cross Mr. Lindsey’s mind. To wit, he seems unconcerned that the very things libertarians have in common with the left are the things that have made the left politically radioactive in many parts of this country for 40 years. One can see why libertarians might have a lot of common ground with the left, but one is hard-pressed to see why liberals would want to embrace more strongly the image that has alienated so many Americans from them in election after election.
Instead of setting himself up for the usual knocks on libertarians for deficient understandings of community or excessive approval of individual desires, Mr. Lindsey offers up an abundance of reasons for traditional conservatives to be only too willing to help him out the door. For example, he does this when he describes as “libertarian breakthroughs” things that seem to traditional conservatives to be unmitigated disasters. He reminds us why traditional conservatives have long been skeptical of the virtues of capitalism when he correctly points out how capitalism has led to many of the social changes that strike the traditional conservative either as deeply worrisome (greater sexual openness) or downright horrifying (secularisation, decline in reverence for authority). In showing what liberals and libertarians have in common, he also shows us just how deeply at odds libertarians and traditional conservatives are and have been for a very long time over some of the more fundamental questions of the age. This is not exactly news, but it is something that fusionists have been good at keeping at the back of their minds. The more interesting question in all of this might be this: how did fusionism ever last this long? Short answer: the old New Deal-Great Society model of liberalism was uniquely hostile to libertarian economic concerns and forced them into the embrace of people whom they would, all things being equal, sooner throw into oncoming traffic–figuratively speaking, of course.
It is true that different varieties of conservative populism, be it social or economic or both, are inimical to libertarianism. It is also true that, especially in Webb’s case, an important part of the successful Democratic appeal in more conservative states this year had more to do with economic populism than with “libertarian” views on the 2nd Amendment and abortion. (The war and accountability for misrule were, of course, the transcendent issues, but Webb’s populism helped make him more competitive in parts of the state where a NoVa wine-and-cheeser would have fallen flat.) Libertarians might be able to find Democratic candidates they can support, but a crucial point in all of this is that no Democratic candidate is really winning because he is running on libertarian themes. They are winning because they are exploiting the right’s indifference to economic insecurity (Middle American people are less than thrilled about the “relentless dynamism” of capitalism than Mr. Lindsey) and because they are making at least symbolic gestures towards the social populism of the right on cultural issues and immigration. For all of the enthusiastic talk about the “libertarian” swing vote this year, nobody on either side seemed terribly interested in appealing to it. Why? Because no one believes he is likely to win elections by appealing to it. To this extent, I am willing to agree with Ross and Reihan when they rather brusquely laugh at proposals to rejuvenate small-government governing philosophy as the answer to the GOP’s woes. I am not convinced that the American people are as “meliorist” and given over to government solutions as David Brooks thinks we are, but I am certainly convinced that when Middle America tastes the bitter fruits of trade and immigration policies that the more doctrinaire libertarians cheer on it turns away from anything resembling laissez-faire attitudes with disgust. As it should. If libertarians are the red-headed stepchild of American politics, it is because they have made themselves uniquely hostile to the core values of all other major constituencies with such dedication and zeal that it seems like a deliberate campaign to achieve their own permanent marginalisation and irrelevance.
One of the most prominent examples in recent years of the general, national horror at doctrinaire free trade attitudes was the response across the spectrum to the Dubai ports deal. (Some of this almost certainly was opportunistic Democratic posturing, but for the most part the stunned disbelief of people throughout the country was, I think, quite real.) Libertarians can huff and puff about nationalism, Islamophobia and anything else they like in this case, but they will not blow down populism’s house. The party that eschews this populism, especially on national questions of immigration, trade and the economy, and pursues more of the libertarian line will come out the political loser. (That said, not all populisms are equal, and particularly fiscally reckless or redistributive populisms will go down to defeat as well.) Putting it simply, if the “progressive globalists” among today’s liberals and libertarians want to team up on the basis of their shared prog-glob outlook, they will be outnumbered and will lose repeatedly. Liberals are finding their way back to power by allying themselves with populist and nationalist appeals, which they have hitherto tended to run away from or actively attack. The libertarian approach offers them the fast-track back to their coastal ghettoes.
Arguably, in these two passages alone, Mr. Lindsey offers many excellent reasons not only for why libertarians should switch “sides” to join with their historic benefactors on the left but also why conservatives would have to be something very close to mad to keep wanting to appease and satisfy people who are fundamentally hostile to most of the things they actually wish to conserve. If fusionism were a marriage and you are playing the part of the traditionalist, the libertarian would be rather like the spouse who burns down the house, commits adultery and occasionally tries to run you down with the car, all the while continually threatening to leave you. “You’ll never find anyone else like me!” the spouse screams at you, which is fortunately true. To this the traditional traditionalist response has been, “Oh, no, please don’t go! We can work it out!”
This sick relationship has been in need of serious revision for a long time. If they are so keen to go, maybe it is high time to send the libertarians packing. On many practical policy questions, libertarians and traditionalists still have considerable common ground. But one gets the sense from all of this chatter about flirting with the left that some libertarians place a much higher priority on all those things where we differ with them and that they feel somehow oppressed by the alleged preeminence of social and religious conservatives.
To which I, as a social and religious conservative of a sort, must reply: where is this great and impressive preeminence that we are supposed to have in the movement, much less in the GOP? Name a single major policy that has actually catered to the interests of these people. And if you show me a faith-based initiative, I will show you just another big-government boondoggle that offends quite a lot of traditional and religious conservatives as much as it offends libertarians. When pressed for specifics, people lamenting the dominance of “theocons” or evangelicals or any other demonised group of religious conservatives have difficulty coming up with more than a vague sense that “they” control things which is why everything has gone wrong. We observe from all this that the Dougherty Doctrine has been proved over and over again:
At the end of the day, the arguments all seem to boil down to something similar: If it were more like me, the Republican Party would be better off. It’s failing because it’s like you.
Secular, “skeptical” and “libertarian” conservative books and articles about the alleged predominance of religious conservatives abound (Mr. Lindsey’s article makes reference to a few). Heather Mac Donald, Andrew Sullivan, and Ryan Sager, to name a few of the more prominent, have laid out their indictments in shorter or longer form in recent months. No matter which one of these interpretations you read, you find that there is a common attitude that religion and the religious have somehow taken over the movement in a big way. That the only people echoing this assessment are generally hyperbolic progressives who see American theocracy around the corner does not bode well for their case. Sager and Sullivan also go on to paint lurid pictures of galivanting religiosity somehow inducing people to engage in massive overspending and pork-barrel indulgences. How this happens is not, so far as I can tell, ever explained. It is an axiom of these critics: religion in politics leads to big government and big spending (because I, noble critic, oppose both religious politics and big spending–QED). Given the ridicule of the faithful and all things “faith-based” these criticisms usually involve, the lack of empirical proof for these charges is striking. Unbeknownst to anyone else but the insightful Defenders of the Skeptical and Doubt-ridden Libertarian Faith, the Bridge to Nowhere was actually a religious monument.
While my small-government views are usually about as reliable and often libertarian-like as one is likely to find among conservatives (you see, I have this funny respect for the Constitution), I have never put much stock in the fusionist alliance since I first came to understand what it was. The alliance has always worked something like this: libertarians or libertarian-leaning conservatives in the alliance (along with the more purely pro-business and, in the old days, anticommunist conservatives) proposed, and traditionalists disposed. Traditionalists were the shock troops filling the polling stations and making up a large part of the membership, while the others were safely ensconced, Hague-like, back at HQ, always quick to point out how the trads had failed them and betrayed their vision whenever something went wrong.
Frank Meyer’s “tradition of liberty,” the oxymoronic formulation at the heart of fusionism, always cut against whatever traditionalists sought to defend when their views clashed with the “libertarians.” (My earlier, more irenic critiques of fusionism and Meyer are available here and here.) Whenever the “libertarians” and others failed or led the alliance to political defeat, the traditionalists were nonetheless acceptable whipping boys and scapegoats. The lesson was that any rhetorical nods to tradition and community in the past were already a few too many. With the arrival of neoconservatives, traditional conservative concerns about community and social order at first ironically seemed to be taken somewhat more seriously and with a level of social scientific rigour that expressed in terms of function and structure certain virtues of adhering to traditional norms and valuing intermediary institutions. However, the traditionalists soon discovered that neoconservatives were among the biggest boosters of the state capitalist and welfarist structures in our society hostile to the traditionalist vision of local community and decentralised government. The neocons eventually secured the “reform” of these institutions as one of the main goals in the mid-’90s, and they had discovered pretty early on that when it came to the vital question of immigration neoconservatives and libertarians were squarely on the same, wrong side.
Each time the “libertarians” and others led, or tried to lead, the movement more and more away from traditionalist concerns, the traditionalists convinced themselves that they had to be prudent and stay in it for the long haul and patiently await the delivery on the small-government promises which they had originally signed on to see fulfilled. Maybe, just maybe, we told ourselves (or so it seems to me), if the GOP continues to ally itself with the moneyed interest and the forces of “creative destruction” it will gain enough power to undo all of the damage caused by the government and…the moneyed interest and the forces of “creative destruction.” For having followed them down this primrose path of creative destruction, we traditionalists have really only ourselves to blame, but it does not absolve them from the responsibility of having built the primrose path (which is, of course, paved, garishly lit by neon with conveniently located fast-food joints every couple of miles, and whose construction required the condemnation of several old historic districts, the leveling of a forest and the destruction of numerous houses).
But a funny thing happened on the way to the fulfillment. Most dedicated libertartians found themselves on the losing end as well when it came to questions of reducing government power, which is where they continued to find common ground with traditionalists and Middle Americans who still liked (and, I believe, would still respond well to) the “leave us alone” mantra. Most fusionist libertarians inside the movement, on the other hand, got into the dubious game of “market solutions” for welfarist ends. But, during the ’80s and ’90s, they found that they were the big winners in defining what it meant to be economically conservative and in making enthusiasm for corporations, free trade, free markets and, effectively, the free international flow of labour the cornerstones of that definition against which someone inside the movement dissented only if he was independently wealthy, masochistic or simply convinced that dogmatic adherence to these things was deeply mistaken. These things predictably tend to unite libertarians, whether paleolibertarian, “modal,” or other, and unite them to the classical liberals of the 19th century for whom most libertarians have such warm regard. Now that even just one of these (the free international flow of labour, i.e., mass immigration) has been attacked on the right, there is a great deal of wailing going on in libertarian circles about “nativism” and Nazis. For these folks and their comrades who call themselves conservatives, we have a simple, straightforward statement.