Burying the Libertarian Moment

As usual, even if he’s late to a party, Michael Lind arrives with lots of party favors.

So now, long after most of us gabbers have used the hard times of Rand Paul’s presidential candidacy to mock “the libertarian moment,” the erudite if sometimes cranky Lind has an interesting piece up a Politico Magazine that doesn’t just pile onto Paul or would-be tribunes like “libertarian moment” author Robert Draper, but attacks the very idea there’s much of a libertarian constituency in this country, and particularly in the Republican Party, for anybody to use as a successful political vehicle.

Libertarians, like neoconservatives, are overrepresented among op-ed writers and TV talking heads and think-tank wonks on the right. But neither the Club for Growth wing nor what conservative writers Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat call the Sam’s Club wing of the GOP is libertarian, except when it suits them.

Unlike ideological libertarians who fantasize about the replacement of fiat money with gold or bitcoin, most Wall Street Republicans object to regulations they dislike, such as Dodd-Frank, while remaining content with a system that gives capital-gains income preferential tax treatment and socializes the cost of bank bailouts while privatizing the benefits.

For their part, white working-class conservatives—nativist, protectionist and often religious—are to libertarians what matter is to antimatter. Over the years, Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, managed to attract a variety of right-wing extremists who were not consistent libertarians, like gold bugs and racists. Since the Nixon era, the small number of actual Republican libertarians have been fleas hitching a ride on the dog of George Wallace-style populism—and in the Time of Trump, the fleas have fled the dog.

Even on those issues where the Republican Establishment is in line with libertarians and out of step with the likes of Trump, there’s not much question where the weight of public opinion comes down:

In a recent analysis of National Election Studies data for Vox, Lee Drutman showed that 40 percent of the public agrees with a combination of two issues associated with Trump—maintain or increase Social Security spending, while decreasing immigration. In contrast, the Americans who support both higher immigration and cuts to Social Security—the libertarian position—add up to no more than 1.4 percent of the population. That’s a 28-to-1 difference.

Yes it is. And that’s not that much larger than the gap between polling for Trump and Paul among Republican voters these days.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.