Monday, November 26, 2007

Revenge of the Comic-book nerd Libertarians?

There are two quotes from Ryan Sager's The Elephant in the Room, Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party that I want to share with you.

The first is Sager's assessment of Libertarians, who--kind of like African-Americans and Democrats--he sees as having no option but to support the Republican Party. I don't know if I believe that, but the paragraph is so well written that I can't resist it:

Libertarians ... are the comic-book nerds of the political world; if they can find an acceptable partner willing to listen to them prognosticate about who would win in a fight between F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, they should consider themselves lucky. And with the only other option around being an ass [the Democratic Party] by turns indifferent or hostile to their core beliefs, libertarians are destined--whatever their grievances--to stay put.

Makes me think of the lyrics to Brad Paisley's song: "I'm a sci-fi fanatic, a mild asthmatic, never been to second base...."

Strangely (and I'll come back to this dichotomy), even though this is what people often think of Libertarians, this is not what they necessarily think of libertarian ideas. They just don't connect the two.

Now for the second Sager quotation, from his section on the lesson that the post-Gingrich Republicans drew from their mid-1990s battles with Bill Clinton over shtting down the government:

Without a doubt, the great majority of Republicans [came to] ... believe that any attempt to shrink government is political poison. While the American people may occasionally indicate that they want smaller government, through elections or through public-opinion polling, they're simply lying. When push comes to cut, they will turn on any politician foolish enough to try to slash spending on anything but the most outlandish of pork-barrel projects--and even there it's best to trim lightly.

On the one hand, this is probably an accurate observation. On the other hand, I don't think the evangelical social conservatives were ever interested in small government once they found out they could use big government's power toward their own ends. And on the gripping hand (prize for the first to spot the reference), nobody since Reagan has actually tried to make the case for a smaller government.

So what to make of all this?

If, as I have been arguing here (strangely echoed in Delawareliberal in certain posts and even hinted at in First State Politics), the Republican Party is on the verge of a terminal national meltdown, we can assume that something will take its place. The "two-party system" requires, oh, two parties for the label to be any good. And after the Republicans nearly suicided over Watergate, they reinvented themselves under Reagan, just like the Democrats reinvented themselves under Clinton. They haven't reinvented themselves since Clinton, but that fact has been obscured by the Republican melt-down.

My first conclusion is that Libertarians cannot afford either to stay with the evangelical social conservative "fusion" within the Republican Party, and since they don't have the strength right now to throw out the Christian Right, they're going to have to leave. They are not going to end up, long term and en masse, as Democrats. Democrats share many Libertarian social beliefs, but their commitment to big government (oh, sorry, "efficient" government) will ultimately be a dealbreaker.

So where do Libertarians go? The national Libertarian Party never tires of reminding the people who visit its website that it is the third largest political party in the country. Unfortunately, far more people subscribe to Batman comics.

Second conclusion: to have anywhere to go (except home) Libertarians have to work on their "Brand Identification," and connect their ideas to real people's lives. There are all sorts of constituencies out there (as Ron Paul is proving) that are into individual freedom: bikers and gays (a not-incompatible mixture), military folks and folk singers, businessmen and college students, people who have to pay the AMT even though they can barely make their mortgage payments.

But a commitment to individual freedom is only half of what a Libertarian is all about; the other half involves smaller, open, limited government. This is where I always got frustrated with Libertarians in college. They could never see a way to get there from here, and as Sager's quotation asserts, reducing the size of government--which equates with reducing farm subsidies, student loans, the military, welfare, and so on--is a difficult sell to people who don't ever expect to have to wean themselves from the government's teat.

Difficult does not mean impossible.

There are ways to make a compelling case that with government--especially state and local government--"less can be more." The problem for Libertarians is that while you can do it in a monograph filled with graphs, scatter plots, and standard deviations, the modern world of icon-driven internet politics has given us superficial voters with sound-bite memories and pseudo-intellectuals with about a 2,000 word attention span. (I can feel you yawning already.)

Even more to the point, for Libertarians to have any credibility, they have to get into position to run some parts of the government, and do it better, more openly, and more frugally than their Demopublican opponents.

Which brings us back to re-branding and reorganizing something besides the Republican Party.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to try to lay out a case for (A) how Libertarians can successfully "re-Brand" in Delaware while sticking to their principles; and (B) why smaller government is still possible and preferrable in terms of the major social problems of the day.

Wish me luck--I'll need it.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve I am assuming this will be welcome here. I wish you would publish it all over.

a most peculiar nature said...

“Bikers and gays….”? Well, as they say, some of my best friends….

“…..the modern world of icon-driven internet politics has given us superficial voters with sound-bite memories and pseudo-intellectuals with about a 2,000 word attention span.”

This is a great point that has always frustrated me. In my “biker” life, and as a biker rights activist, my handle is “GirlGeek”. You might not think it to look at me, but I’m into the data, studies, conclusions, etc., and really get into it. I also enjoy helping to make it somewhat palatable to others. It is difficult to be sure. This is a huge obstacle.

For example, Geek though I be, I religiously read TommyWonk and Kavips and have really tried to understand the whole wind power thing so I can come to a conclusion. Both write very well on the subject. But it is tiresome, and I fear that I haven’t been able to get this old brain to wrap around all of the issues. If a Geek has problems, how do non-Geeks fare? People instead, as you say, rely on gut instincts or sound bytes to determine their position.

A thought-provoking analysis as usual, and I look forward to future installments.

Anonymous said...

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I get the points! OK, I looked it up. But I actually had read the first book and just forgot ;)

Good luck.

Sam said...

Nice! I am looking forward to the next installment. Of the Libertarians I know, tenacity, perserverence, and stubbornly putting one foot forward after the other is common among us. Whether or not we get there is not the question, but how long it will take, is.

Anonymous said...

Great, thoughtful commentary. The Libertarian Party here will forever be moribund until/unless they can really get their asses in gear and achieve an organizing critical mass.

It begins with candidates. They need to learn to be less picky and arcane about self-proclaimed but barely articulated standards for selection.

I can tell you that the DE LP was foolish, for example, not to nominate my 1st Senate Dist candidacy on supposed narrow ideological points in a process that was closed to me. After the fact, I think it became clear that for that race I was very much about open, limited, efficient government. Certainly far and away more than my opponents.

No candidate in that race better represented the LP view than I could have, plus it would have put them on the electoral "map" at least for that race.

It is one thing to be true to your principles. It is another to impose excessive often arbitrary ideological rigor on even just local candidates to the point you begin to come across as near anarchists, against ALL government.

The Libertarians need to start realizing the "half-a-loaf" principle and begin working with like-minded potential candidates. If certain individuals in their leadership continue insisting on 100% agreement with their own ideals for a candidate, they will remain with ZERO down ballot candidates in Delaware and continuingly irrelevant, even just from a purely ideological standpoint.

One of the reasons I fought so hard to preserve fusion candidacies as an option in Delaware was to permit parties like the LP to remain relevant, even when they seemingly recruit no one for any races. I would be glad to try to work with them again if they can realize they need to get real about politics and realized that being a debating society is not the way to run a successful political party that achieves the real change we libertarians (yes, small 'l') want.

They should take a lesson from the book of Ron Paul. I am certainly working my tail off for him as much as possible, here in Delaware.

But hey, these are just my observations after 25 years immersed in politics and government.

Steven H. Newton said...

Thanks for the comment. I should make clear that (A) I am not a tremendous believer in fusion; (B) don't necessarily agree that small parties should start out by concentrating on candidates; and (C) am still agnostic about Ron Paul.

That said, I agree completely that there is a distinction between a debating society and an effective political party, and I hope to see the Libertarian Party of Delaware move into the effective column over the next few years.

I will try to make my case in detail for all the above in the upcoming days (although I have already made parts of it in previous posts).

However, I also have to suggest--with all due deference to 25 years of experience in DE politics--that it is the Republican Party both nationally and within the state that is threatened by finding itself "irrelevant, even just from a purely ideological standpoint."

Anonymous said...

No argument there.

If you think I am here to stump for the GOP, you are mistaken.

Parties are, to me, an evil fact of life.

Again, it is all about candidates. Parties do nothing for public interest.

Never have.