I’m cautiously enthusiastic about “libertarian populism,” largely because I think its policy goals are better (Ross Douthat does a nice job discussing all that here). My reservations, however, with libertarian populism stem from my problems with populism itself. Historically (and speaking very broadly), populism has been a generally leftish phenomenon — the have-nots demanding more from the haves, regardless of the rule of law, property rights, etc. There have been complex exceptions, both here and abroad, and sometimes even though it’s been leftish, it’s also been right — in the sense that the populists had the right idea. For instance, popular uprisings against kings haven’t always ended well but they are by definition populist. “We the people” is, after all, a populist credo. The problem with populism is often that it is fueled more by passion than reason, and passion is a fire that is great when harnessed for good purposes. But fire is also always dangerous. The fire of populism has a tendency to ignore worthy distinctions and simply burn for burning’s sake.
Which brings me to this statement from FreedomWorks, a group I’ve long thought to be on the side of the angels. In its statement on the Senate deal, FreedomWorks asserts, “The line separating the Democrats and the Republican establishment is fading — it might have disappeared today. This is about Washington insiders versus the rest of America now.”
Leaving aside the fact that many real Americans outside the establishment do not see eye-to-eye with FreedomWorks, this seems like just another version of the beloved mantra of Naderites, anarchists, and other outfits on the political periphery: There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. And I think that is nonsense. It’s one thing to say that the GOP is too liberal or the Democrats are too conservative, statements that have often been not merely defensible but accurate, depending on where you sit on the political spectrum. But the notion that there is no meaningful difference between the two parties is just silly. Even if supposed RINOs John McCain or Mitt Romney had been elected, the policies we have today would be very, very different. If McCain won, we might have had less-than-ideal health-care reforms, but we wouldn’t have gotten Obamacare. If Mitt Romney had won, regardless of what was in his heart, his vows to Republican voters would have required him to undo Obamacare, perhaps not entirely but certainly very significantly.
Let’s simply agree that for the sake of argument that the deal hashed out by McConnell is awful. He was left with no good options. No fair-minded person can really argue that this predicament is where the Republican leadership wants to be. When the Japanese signed their surrender to the Americans, it would be ridiculous to say that the “line separating the Japanese and the Americans disappeared today.” The Japanese simply lost and that they tried to lose on the best terms possible. The same goes for the GOP. A Japanese nationalist would be on firmer ground criticizing the Japanese leadership for losing, and a libertarian populist — or even an establishment “RINO” — could likewise condemn failures of GOP leadership, whatever they may be. But as an analytical matter those failures simply don’t mean that we have anything like a single mono-ideological party called the “establishment.”
I’m hardly a member of the Otto von Bismarck fan club, but I always liked his line about politics being the “art of the possible.” I’m open to any serious criticism of the GOP for failing to do the possible. But it’s a hallmark of populist passion to condemn men for failing to do the impossible.