As a libertarian with conservative proclivities – or perhaps a conservative with libertarian proclivities, I’m not sure which metal came first in my fusionist alloy – I’ve been reading the debate about liberals and libertarians with interest and skepticism. I’m interested because of my own background and my 20 years of work in and for organizations that have always brought conservatives and libertarians together to pursue common objectives. And I’m skeptical because I see no real attempt by liberals to engage libertarians in a serious courtship. It’s just spin and media fodder.
There’s no point substituting wishful thinking for a sober assessment of reality. It won’t change anything. Here are the realities, as evidenced by election results and polling:
# Self-identified libertarian voters are mostly Republican in their voting behavior. They have been for many years. Yes, the percentage has shifted in recent cycles, back and forth, but without an obviously decisive effect on the election outcomes, and most libertarian voters have remained Republican-leaning. That doesn’t mean that the GOP shouldn’t worry about losing support among the libertarian element of their coalition, particularly because regaining it does not require pristine ideological adherence (libertarians were strongly pro-Bush in 2000 and 2002, despite his obvious mushiness in many areas). A mistake everyone is making here is equating libertarian significance with their vote totals. That’s only part of the picture. Libertarians are major donors to party organizations, candidates, and independent groups. They are sources of ideas and energy. The modern Republican coalition cannot be successful without them. Period.
# Though in theory there should be a role for libertarian voters within the Democratic coalition, based on shared values in the social and (for some libertarians) foreign-policy areas, in practice this is unlikely. For one thing, the social-issues correspondence is primarily in areas where the existing policy is permissive (e.g. abortion) and so the liberal-libertarian alliance would be defensive. I don’t think the prospect of defending the status quo will be compelling enough to sustain an alliance likely to be strained in so many ways. Gay marriage is different, the goal being to change current policy, but I frankly think that few libertarians see this issue as a high priority – and that Democrats aren’t going to fight for this, anyway. Basically, the neo-liberal, pro-market elements of the Clinton Democratic Party are waning, not waxing. Democrats have increasingly embraced economic populism – trade restriction, soak-the-rich rhetoric, new regulations – and see this embrace, perhaps correctly, as the key to their resurgence in competitive districts. Most libertarian voters will never be comfortable in such a coalition, nor will they be welcome (Democrats see more votes in populism than they will in liberaltarianism, and again they are sadly correct for the moment).
# The sheer hatred among the organized left for free-market ideas and institutions now rivals its prior disdain for the religious right. This is evident wherever you look, and is powered not just by the nutroots but by major shifts in leftwing philanthropy towards funding new projects and institutions to combat what they call “market fundamentalism” (George Soros popularized the term). Democrats who attempt to woo libertarian voters and donors by emphasizing the social and tacking rightward on economics will not win most party primaries, and will be savaged much as Lieberman was (though obviously he was savaged for different reasons). Trade is the immediate problem. Entitlement reform is the long-term problem. While Clinton flirted with some useful ideas in the 1990s, that sentiment appears to have evaporated as far as I can tell.
Both parties are coalitions. The Democratic coalition, if it coheres, can win without libertarian-leaning folks. The Republican coalition cannot. Thus the Democrats will make mischief, but they will not make market liberalism a reality. Too bad.