Can Libertarian Populism Save the GOP?

As the party bosses, ideological leaders and pundits try to find something, anything to help the Republican party overcome its electoral difficulties, many of the smarter folks on the right have suggested something they are calling “libertarian populism.” Russ Douthat spells out his vision:

To the extent that there’s a Big Idea for where the G.O.P. should go from here that has any real traction within the party (as opposed to among right-of-center pundits) and that doesn’t just reflect the self-interest of the G.O.P.’s big donors, it’s probably what Ben Domenech has termed “populist libertarianism” — 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.

That actually sounds good to me, but I suspect it only works well in theory.

This is a Tea Party idea from 2010, in a sense, but it’s been given more heft by figures like Senator Paul and by potential 2016 contenders like Bobby Jindal, and its imprint is visible across a range of policy debates: The return of right-wing civil libertarianism and the re-emergence of an anti-interventionist spirit on the right, the sympathy among some grassroots conservatives for proposals like the Brown-Vitter banking overhaul, the (pre-existing but expanding) conservative interest in prison and sentencing reform, the Congressional G.O.P.’s willingness (and eagerness, in some quarters) to accept defense spending cuts, the federalist turn on issues like gay marriage and marijuana. From the design of the sequester to the emerging design of Dave Camp’s tax reform, Republicans are plainly more willing to take on right-leaning interest groups (defense contractors, Wall Street) than they were a few years ago.

But will it last? I doubt it. The Republicans always bring back right-wing civil libertarianism when a Democrat is in office, just as they suddenly discover the need for fiscal responsibility then. But the moment a Republican take the White House, those stances magically disappear. Sure, there are a few consistent voices out there; Ron Paul was one of them. But he was virtually alone. The American Freedom Agenda Act he proposed for years to put the executive branch back in its constitutional box only got one co-signer, Dennis Kucinich. And it was ignored completely.

The other problem is that this ignores the really ugly side of right-wing libertarian populism, embodied by the very people, like Rand Paul, that Douthat praises as new leaders for the GOP. Will Wilkinson nails it:

I see two problems. First, right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements. Ron Paul’s racist newsletters were not incidental to his later success, and it comes as little surprise that a man styling himself a “Southern Avenger” numbers among Rand Paul’s top aides. This is what actually-existing right-wing libertarian populism looks like, and that’s what it needs to look like if it is to remain popular, or right-wing. Second, political parties are coalitions of interests, and the Republican Party is the party of the rich, as well as the ideological champion of big business. A principled anti-corporatist, pro-working-class agenda stands as much chance in the GOP as a principled anti-public-sector-union stance in the Democratic Party. It simply makes no sense.

There’s a reason we see Republicans resort again and again to a fusion of racially-tinged American-nationalist Christian identity politics, empty libertarian rhetoric (an integral part of traditional white American identity), and the policy interests of high-tax-bracket voters. That’s what works! Well-meaning, libertarian-leaning, small-government conservatives must find this awfully frustrating. I find it frustrating. Yet it seems to me a plain fact that there is no significant electoral faction in American politics that demands the joint reduction of government and corporate power.

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