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July 12, 2013 1:34 PM Concerning “Libertarian Populism”

By Ed Kilgore

Like any political tradition associated with the defense of privilege, American conservatism has been the object of many efforts to give it a popularizing makeover. There was the “Modern Republicanism” of the Eisenhower era, which was a useful device for individual politicians but hardly a serious philosophy. There was the “Silent Majority” effort of the Nixon years, which used conjoined resentments of minorities and youth (and an aggressive flexibility on domestic policy issues) to build a temporary Big Tent on the Right. It’s been largely forgotten, but in the post-Watergate miasma of the mid-1970s, National Review editor William Rusher sought to replace the GOP entirely with a “Producer’s Party” that would more explicitly appeal to the middle class as opposed to New Class elites in the financial, professional and public sectors and their presumed underclass allies. Much later came George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which briefly competed for attention with a “national greatness conservatism” associated with John McCain. And now we have “libertarian populism,” the most audacious effort yet to claim a broader constituency for a very traditional right-wing ideology.

In a much-quoted column earlier this week, Paul Krugman sought to bury “libertarian populism” as a simple hustle:

[A]s far as anyone can tell, at this point libertarian populism — as illustrated, for example, by the policy pronouncements of Senator Rand Paul — consists of advocating the same old policies, while insisting that they’re really good for the working class. Actually, they aren’t. But, in any case, it’s hard to imagine that proclaiming, yet again, the virtues of sound money and low marginal tax rates will change anyone’s mind.
Moreover, if you look at what the modern Republican Party actually stands for in practice, it’s clearly inimical to the interests of those downscale whites the party can supposedly win back. Neither a flat tax nor a return to the gold standard are actually on the table; but cuts in unemployment benefits, food stamps and Medicaid are. (To the extent that there was any substance to the Ryan plan, it mainly involved savage cuts in aid to the poor.) And while many nonwhite Americans depend on these safety-net programs, so do many less-well-off whites — the very voters libertarian populism is supposed to reach.

A different but equally skeptical take on prospects for “libertarian populism” was offered by Krugman’s conservative colleague at the New York Times, Ross Douthat, who looks at the Farm Bill just passed on a party line vote by House Republicans and sees a stunning repudiation of anything either libertarian or populist:

Practically any conception of the common good, libertarian or communitarian or anywhere in between, would produce better policy than a factionally-driven approach of further subsidizing the rich while cutting programs for the poor.

Douthat notes this isn’t any sort of aberration, given the savage and nearly universal GOP tactic in 2009 (which was actually intensified during the Romney-Ryan campaign of 2012) of combining attacks on Medicaid and Obamacare with efforts to protect Medicare from reforms or reduced provider payments.

Now defenders of “libertarian populism” might argue that true champions of this ideology—like, say, Rand Paul—would not spare farm subsidies or high-end Medicare benefits from the libertarian knife. This doesn’t say much for the strength of this supposed new ideology in the GOP, since a grand total of 12 Republican House members voted against the Farm Bill, and only a few wonks objected to the Mediscare campaign. It is true that Paul represents something new (or, depending on how you look at it, something as old as Robert Taft) in conservative foreign policy that might well appeal to white working-class voters, but until this contemporary strain of unilateralist non-interventionism is pursued in a context other than reflexive opposition to the foreign policy of a despised Democratic president, that’s hard to say with any conviction.

I personally suspect that “libertarian populism” will dissolve in the acid test of electoral politics and constituency-tending into the class- and race- and generation-based resource scramble that has more in common with the more blatant special pleading of the Nixonian “silent majority” message and Rusher’s producerism than with anything properly called “libertarian.” And there’s a reason for that: as Krugman argues, libertarianism just isn’t popular among the white working-class voters who are ostensibly the GOP’s target in the absence of interest in or capacity for a viable appeal to nonwhite voters. And so the GOP falls back again into the kind of incoherent approach which disgusts Douthat, lacking as it does any effort to identify the “common good.” It’s important to understand that this isn’t a new problem for American conservatism and the Republican Party: it’s a perpetual challenge that keeps it a minority faction even when it wields power.


Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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