Chait asserts that “any new libertarian voters the Democrats attracted … would cost them support,” but here he is clearly wrong. According to data analyzed by David Boaz and David Kirby, Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2006 did 24 percentage points better with libertarian-leaning voters than they did in the midterm elections of 2002. These findings are corroborated by the strong Democratic gains in New Hampshire and the interior West–areas of the country where small-government leanings are prevalent. Yet, even as Democrats improved their standing with the “economically conservative, socially liberal” crowd, they increased their overall national vote share as well. So much for the idea that gaining ground with libertarians is doomed to be a net vote loser. ~Brink Lindsey
Proponents of the “libertarian swing vote” theory (Boaz and Kirby) and proponents of a liberal-libertarian alliance are awfully crafty in the way they use evidence. They ignore the intervening election of 2004, which would show that 2006 represented a stabilising and hardening of “libertarian” support for the GOP. There are those classed as libertarians by these Cato studies who tend to drift towards the Democrats, but their numbers are limited and they form a clear minority of the voters classified as libertarians.
Advocates for the “swing vote” or the alliance then make vague references to New Hampshire and “the interior West” without ever explaining why a party’s success in these places equals support for libertarian social or economic policies. There is an assumption that libertarian voters helped make Democratic success here possible, but I feel fairly sure without having looked terribly closely at any state-by-state vote tallies that the people voting for the new Democratic House and state legislature representatives in New Hampshire were not those Cato might define as libertarians but were instead “centrist”/”independent” voters whose mass defection from the GOP fits the national trend. In “the interior West,” it is difficult to believe that there really are as many libertarians (very broadly defined) as some seem to think. Did AZ-05 and AZ-08, for example, flip because of a great defection of libertarians, or for other reasons entirely? I suspect that the more you dig into the specifics of each Democratic victory in “the interior West” you will find very few libertarian-themed campaign pitches that brought them the win.
Going from ’04 to ’06, did libertarians defect in greater or smaller numbers from the GOP than other blocs of voters? Clearly, they defected in smaller numbers. In part, this was because no one was trying to persuade them to defect. On the other hand, no one was trying to persuade them because their policies are actually unpopular across the country (hey, everybody, let’s have mass immigration and free trade!) and the voters Democrats could most easily poach are conservative populists. The vague outline of a liberal-populist alliance at least has a slight plausibility to it when it comes to some aspects of economic policy, and if Dobbsian Democrats could drop the fetishes of cultural liberalism and cease antagonising these same voters they would win far more support than if they joined hands with libertarians in, say, selling out the country with amnesty.
This brings us back to the biggest swindle of them all: the equation of libertarian with “economically conservative and socially liberal.” This is a definition fit for the DLC or the Concord Coalition, not the Cato Institute. It is an attempt to claim the broad middle as the natural libertarian constituency. This is a clever PR move, but it has no connection to reality. Using this definition makes appealing to libertarians seem politically desirable for both parties, but this is to treat libertarian voters as some sort of floating centrist vote that, according to Cato’s own studies of their voting behaviour (even accepting Cato’s over-generous enumeration of how many “libertarian-leaning” voters there are), they simply are not.
Mr. Lindsey’s claim that populism is a loser on the national stage is a tried and true spiel favoured by the two party establishment and those who support the consensus politics on trade, immigration and foreign policy. (Note that foreign policy, the main area where a liberal-libertarian alliance is most natural and most obvious, is the one Lindsey avoids like the plague because, when it comes to the Iraq war, he is as libertarian as I am Buddhist.) Populism has been a loser on the national stage when prosperity was widespread, economic insecurity was minimal and wages were not stagnant. When economic insecurity and anxiety rise and wages do not, populism often succeeds. When government seems to be failing and out of control, populism succeeds. In 2006, minimum wage hikes succeeded in referendum after referendum–obviously, some populist measures are quite popular. Ross Perot, one of the most ridiculous presidential candidates ever, got 19% of the vote nationally. That was the fruit of sheer populist frustration, much of which he frittered away with his general battiness and poorly run campaign. If one party or the other could reliably count on those Perot voters or people like them in every cycle, it would become the virtually permanent majority party. “Libertarian-leaning” voters possess this kind of power only in their wildest dreams.
The Reagan coalition was built by very intelligently exploiting the patriotic and socially conservative impulses of the famous Reagan Democrats–the Jim Webbs of yesteryear–and diverting their economic populist frustrations into hostility against a hostile cultural liberalism that was seen (by these voters at least) to be sapping national resolve in foreign affairs and dissolving the nation’s moral integrity. Now that the GOP has gone insane on foreign policy, these people no longer feel that they belong in that party and they are remembering that they have little love for the long-time ally of the corporations. While it may discomfort some of our friends, such as Dan McCarthy, Jim Webb’s victory announcement that he had also always been concerned with “economic fairness and social justice” as well as deeply outraged by the Iraq war was a sharp reminder that a competent, patriotic foreign policy combined with some degree of economic populism together make for a tremendously powerful appeal to people like Webb. Reagan and his allies even managed to make fundamentally libertarian economic policies feel populist by casting tax reductions in terms of giving people their own money back (which also had the virtue of being true), and it is largely so long as libertarian economic policy seems to be working to the benefit of the middle class (and not principally to corporations) that its unpleasant side-effects are tolerated. Libertarians take the side of free trade and mass immigration, to name two prominent examples of egregiously pro-corporate and unpopular policies, at the cost of their own political marginalisation. The party or political coalition that can mobilise populist sentiment on both trade and immigration will frequently come out ahead.