Since there’s a lot of interest in—and in some circles, excitement about—the convergence of many on the Left and Right in outrage about the NSA surveillance programs and appreciation for leaker (or whistleblower, or however you choose describe him) Edward Snowden, it’s probably time to reassess past hopes of a “liberaltarian” alliance that will remake American politics.
I should mention right off the bat that I’m a big skeptic of the plausibility of this sort of alliance as anything other than an occasional, tactical possibility, and said so in a TNR column back in 2010 that suggested libertarian participation in the Tea Party Movement had put an abrupt end to their Bush-era sporadic romance with liberals:
Progressives who previously fawned over the libertarians’ Jeffersonian modesty are now exposed to the unattractive aspect of libertarianism that is familiar to readers of Ayn Rand: a Nietzschean disdain for the poor and minorities that tends to dovetail with the atavistic and semi-racist habits of reactionary cultural traditionalists. After all, it is only a few steps from the Tea Party movement’s founding “rant”—in which self-described Randian business commentator Rick Santelli blasted “losers” who couldn’t pay their mortgages—to populist backlash against all transfer payments of any type, complaints about people “voting for a living” instead of “working for a living,” and paranoid conspiracy theories about groups like ACORN….
The gap is wide enough that even liberals who are frustrated with the president have trouble mustering any sympathy for the Obama-bashing of contemporary libertarians—a sign that the earlier alliance really was an ephemeral product of the Bush administration’s many sins. For example, most progressives reacted angrily to the very latest proposal for a left-libertarian convergence, in which activist and blogger Jane Hamsher touted a coalition between Tea Party activists and the left against health care reform and corporate bailouts.
I offered those observations before it became clear that the “constitutional conservative” ideology that is probably the Tea Party Movement’s enduring contribution to the American Right created a real bond between libertarians and theocrats based on the idea of an ideal, permanent governing model that included absolute property rights.
So what to make of the current liberaltarian convergence? It’s real, and has been given new life because of the Obama administration’s adoption of many of the same national security policies that led to the liberaltarian convergence of the latter Bush years. Could it spread beyond conflicts between national security and civil liberties? Maybe, so far, at least, to issues like drug legalization that involve a similar conflict between domestic security policies and civil liberties, or perhaps opposition to “corporate welfare,” where people on the Left and Right equally dislike the cooperation of public and private sectors for roughly opposite reasons.
But ultimately it’s impossible to come up with any semi-comprehensive agenda that can bind together people of such fundamentally different points of view. After all, progressives typically believe (a) inequality and corporate power are among the most important challenges to the future of the country, (b) government is an instrument for collective responses to changing economic and social needs; and (c) within limits needed to protect civil liberties, popular majorities should be able to shape public policy. Libertarians typically believe (a) inequality is natural and corporate power is harmless unless harnessed to the coercive power of the state; (b) government never has legitimate responsibilities beyond the restraint of violence, the enforcement of private contracts, and the protection of private property; and (c) popular majorities have no right to extend government beyond its eternally established limits.
So even if there are “liberaltarian” moments, there’s no real basis for a “liberaltarian” movement, which becomes fairly obvious when you try to figure out who might lead and follow in such an alliance. Do Jeff Merkley and Rand Paul really have very much in common? What would the “alliance” platform say about campaign finance reform, health care, collective bargaining, the environment, taxes, civil rights or fiscal and monetary policy?
So those who dream of a grand realignment of Left and Right should enjoy the very limited “Snowden Realignment” we’re presently seeing. It won’t last.
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