Thu 12 Oct 2006
I don’t see any reason to believe it would be smart for a major political party to deliberately aim at the votes of some libertarian constituency. The reason is that, to a decent first approximation, about zero percent of the electorate is primarily motivated by a principled opposition to state coercion. We’re not literally talking about zero people, I know some of them, and some write blogs, but it’s genuinely a rounding error in the scheme of things. You do have some people who adhere to the Economist-style center-right politics of the American elite consensus, and this view has some similarities with libertarianism, but this genuinely is an elite consensus voting bloc rather than a libertarian one. It’s also not seriously accessible to the Democrats over the long-run because a core element of the consensus is a fairly deep-seated loathing of progressive activism and progressive activists. It’s worth understanding that, at the end of the day, there’s much less libertarianism in American society than people sometimes think.
I should start by noting the dangers of the pundit fallacy are almost overwhelming here. With that said, however, I think Matt’s being rather unfair. In the first place, he’s absolutely right that the constituency for principled libertarianism is pretty close to zero. But the same is true of principled anything. Walter Mondale went down in flames by staking out the principled position that he would raise taxes if elected. So asking how many principled libertarians there are is the wrong question.
The right question is how many voters are inclined toward rhetoric and policies that move things in a libertarian direction–i.e. they find anti-government rhetoric compelling and support things like tax cuts, civil liberties, deregulation, free trade, etc. There’s all sorts of evidence that the number isn’t zero. Let’s start with a guy named Ronald Reagan. If Matt hasn’t listened to Reagan’s 1980 Republican convention speech and his 1981 inaugural address, I suggest he do so. It’s 200 proof libertarianism, and it won him two elections (three if you count George H.W. Bush who largely ran on Reagan’s legacy). Obviously, Reagan wasn’t a perfectly principled libertarian, but libertarian themes formed the centerpiece of his governing philosophy, and it didn’t seem to hurt him in the polls.
That was 25 years ago. What about today? The Cato Institute today released a study showing that about 13 percent of the electorate has libertarian leanings. And they’ve been shifting towards Democrats lately. They split 80-20 for Bush in 2000, but only 60-40 for Bush in 2004. My guess is that this trend will continue in 2006, given that George W. Bush hasn’t done anything libertarian since getting re-elected.
Matt concedes that there’s an “elite consensus block” with libertarian leanings, but he argues that the Democrats are never going to win their support because “a core element of the consensus is a fairly deep-seated loathing of progressive activism and progressive activists.” But this is silly. It’s equally true that much of that block has a deep-seated loathing of the religious right. Yet that hasn’t stopped them from pulling the lever for Republicans. Politics, by its nature, involves compromises and trade-offs. During the second half of the 20th Century politics tended to break down over lines of economic policy, with free marketeers on one side and advocates for activist government on the other. Libertarians held their noses and voted for Republicans with views on social issues they found repugnant because they thought that economic issues were more pressing. But there’s nothing pre-ordained about this. This libertarian, at least, is most interested in voting for a party that won’t shred the Bill of Rights or start World War III, even if it means voting for a candidate whose views on economics are a bit to the left of center.
This is particularly true because a centrist Democrat could easily paint the GOP as the party of reckless over-spending without committing himself to reducing the size of government. At this point, I’ll gladly throw in my lot with a Democrat who campaigns on the Clinton legacy of balanced budgets and moderate spending growth if it’s coupled with libertarian views on social issues and opposition to preemptive war. A Democrat who campaigned as a deficit hawk could attract a significant number of libertarian votes without alienating any of the traditional Democratic constituencies. That seems to me like something that the Democratic leadership ought to seriously consider.