Wealth of Nations October 2006

The Neglect of Libertarians

People who are conservative on economics and liberal on social issues have a hard time identifying with either major political party.
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The vaunted ability of the Republican Party to get out the vote where it really matters is about to be tested. If the party can survive the midterm elections without heavy losses (especially if it retains control of the House) despite the current abysmal poll ratings for the Bush administration and the congressional leadership, then its strategy of attending to its loyalist base will be vindicated. If the party gets the drubbing that Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, assorted congressional scandals, and those awful poll numbers all point to, then the message for 2008 will be different: Republicans must look beyond that loyalist base and care more, as they used to, about support from uncommitted voters.

In the view of a lot of loosely attached conservatives, that would be a very good thing. The party needs a salutary shock, they say—and, aside from that, divided government is probably a good thing in its own right. But suppose this wish is about to come true. Suppose the uncommitted voters are about to assert themselves. What will they actually be saying? What kind of policies, what kind of Republican Party, would appeal to these drifting, side-switching types? Is there any kind of ideological coherence or consistency in that neglected political zone—or is it just a matter of "We're sick of this lot, so let's have a change."

One answer, so I read, is that an important part of the uncommitted vote has "liberal" values in the traditional English sense of that term. In the United States such people have to be called "libertarians" or "classical liberals"—words uncommon in current political discourse, which is revealing in itself. These are citizens who favor limited government in economic affairs (unlike the Democratic base) but also in social and cultural matters (unlike the Republican base). They are instinctively pro-market, wary of big government, and no more than moderately egalitarian, which inclines them to vote Republican—or it used to, anyway, when Republicans cared about curbing public spending. But at the same time, they are offended by what happens when politics meets evangelical religion. They take a generally permissive view of private morality, are not much devoted to tradition, and are broadly welcoming of technological and cultural innovation, rather than anxious about it. These views incline them to vote Democratic.

Two new books on what has gone wrong with the Republican Party in the past six years emphasize this neglect of the libertarians. In The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, Ryan Sager, a New York Post columnist, argues that the modern party, at its most successful, was an alliance of social conservatives from the South and libertarians from the West. During the presidency of George W. Bush, social conservatives and evangelical Christians gained control; their classical liberal partners were pushed aside, and then out. To the extent that this was a deliberate strategy, it was, in Sager's view, wrong. It is better for the party to nurture a broad base rather than a narrow base, he argues, even allowing for the fact that the narrower base is more energized. Also, it just so happens, the policies favored by a libertarian Republican government would be more to his liking than the policies supported by a socially conservative one.

Andrew Sullivan, a leading commentator and blogger, and a Catholic conservative as well, makes a related argument in The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. More concerned about the merits of the issues than with political strategy, he laments the capture of the Republican Party by religiously inspired social conservatives because it led the administration to support, in his view, bad policies—and often, as he argues, to execute good policies incompetently. Sullivan's kind of conservatives are in favor of fiscal restraint, for instance, because they support limited government. The president's kind of Republicans disagree. And, not coincidentally, Sullivan's kind of conservatives are anti-fundamentalist, as well—skeptics by temperament, therefore less inclined to undertake hubristic visionary enterprises, and more attentive to the humdrum details of execution.

The question is, how much of the moving middle (if it is a "middle") does this libertarian tendency really occupy? Are there as many libertarians as muddle-headed vacillators? Do they outnumber switchers who vote for personalities, not policies? A new study by David Boaz and David Kirby for the Cato Institute (a think tank dedicated to the classical liberal cause) says that the libertarian vote is big enough to be worth capturing. Indeed, the authors say, it is capable of swinging elections.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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