Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Limits of Libertarian Populism (Part II)

When I wrote earlier this week about the fresh conservative fantasy of "libertarian populism," I noted that attempting to define Obama and the Democrats as elites and Republicans as defenders of the middle and working classes was vastly overrated as a political opportunity. It relied on the premise that a number of middle class priorities are not being addressed by the Obama administration, ignoring the fact that GOP refusal to engage in the normal negotiations that bring policy into law is the reason why these issues are not being addressed. Having failed to engage in good faith on health care, poverty, jobs, and taxes, they are now exclaiming how they could walk back and seize these issues. It is the politics of blind amnesiacs—they've forgotten that they've walked away from the bargaining table and they can't see that Democrats are still sitting there.

There is a secondary problem with adopting "libertarian populism" as the unifying theme of a new right. There is very little that is populist about their ideas beyond the rhetoric. Now it may be that populism, as one of those widely abused terms in American history, has lost meaning beyond a rhetorical style. Historically populism never achieved coherence as political doctrine for any substantial length of time (which would make it susceptible to abuse in political discourse). But in all its various incarnations, populism has never really been libertarian. Marrying the two terms historically is just a tough sell, and the explosion of articles in the last few days makes that clear.

A lot of political writers have tried to explain what libertarian populism really is and it's the second word, and its history, that makes the term so complicated. 19th century populism, usually (and too narrowly) associated with the People's Party of the 1890s, was certainly anti-elitist and sought to defend the integrity of individual liberties secured through property ownership—so okay, that may jive with what these conservative proponents of libertarian populism. But 19th century populists stood for these things in defiance of the frightening free market forces unloosed by industrialization and the unregulated maturation of American capitalism. They feared (with good cause) that the growth of wage labor coupled with a modernizing, all-powerful, and inhumane financial edifice threatened the American ideal of the freeholder and the artisan. What's more, the political fire of the populists lasted but a cycle or two before it was folded into a burgeoning Progressive movement with very different priorities. So it is hard to conceive of how that kind of populism can be coupled with a libertarianism that deifies the free market. And it is equally difficult to imagine the appeal of populism in terms of a national electorate when its historical antecedent had virtually no success on that scale.

So what exactly is going on here? The answer, as Michael Lind pointed this out in Salon, is that libertarian populists are not actually populists at all, not in any historical sense:
What Domenech and others mean by “populist” appears to be “popular.” They want a popular libertarianism, a libertarianism that majorities of Americans might vote for, not a movement that has anything to do with actual historic populism in the United States, which has generally been, to coin a phrase, illibertarian.
Lind goes on to quote the 1892 People's Party platform before noting the response of libertarian populist Ben Domenech, who quoted another libertarian Robert Tracinski to argue the historical case for the political viability of their program.
The libertarian utopia, or the closest we've come to it, is America itself, up to about 100 years ago. It was a country with no income tax and no central bank. (It was on the gold standard, for crying out loud. You can't get more libertarian than that.) It had few economic regulations and was still in the Lochner era, when such regulations were routinely struck down by the Supreme Court. There was no federal welfare state, no Social Security, no Medicare.

You can criticize this system, but America lived under it for longer than it has lived under the modern regulatory and welfare state, so you can't say it's not "credible." And while life was nowhere near as good as it is for Americans today—after another century of progress—the country had just finished one of the greatest periods of growth and economic progress in all of human history. Life for the common man was better than it had ever been before. All of which means—to get back to Douthat and Domenech—that there are deep roots in American history for this "libertarian populist" agenda.
This is nonsense. At the risk of posing too obvious a question... if life was so idyllic for the common man in the laissez faire late 19th century, then why on earth did so many common men launch major protests in the 1880s and 1890s, pitting workers against capital, that upended the party system and effected restrictions of industrial forces and big business?

What we have in libertarian populism is a parlor trick. Some conservatives point to the late 19th century to promote libertarianism while ignoring the origins and contours of populism; others point to contemporary moments of right wing wave elections as evidence of workable right-wing populism though these elections weren't expressions of coherent libertarianism. (Ben Domenech wrote, "The elections of 1994 and 2010 were obvious expressions of conservative populism: a point where the right’s coalition presented ideas that speak to the concerns of engaged people.") Then, in a mash-up of wish fulfillment and bad history, they've combined them in what they imagine is a coherent and popular program for future GOP success. Tim Carney set forth the agenda and unifying themes of libertarian populism in the Washington Examiner with no sense of the internal contradictions:
Conservatives need to turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections. Offer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected. As I put it in June: The game is rigged against the regular guy in America today. And it’s rigged in favor of big business, the politically connected, and the wealthy.
If the history of the late 19th century tells us anything, it is that unfettered capitalism caused massive discontent and unrest among the working class. Slapping populist rhetoric on the same laissez-faire ideas like "the game is rigged against the regular guy" won't help much unless you've got policies ready to go that will convince working class voters you will un-rig the game. Carney suggests eliminating the payroll tax, which rightly or wrongly people perceive as the basis for Social Security and Medicare, and abolishing the Export-Import Bank. That's his strategy. Good luck winning an election with that platform.

Plenty of left wing pundits have pointed out these absurdities, none more compelling than Jonathan Chait at New York:
A second mistaken premise of Republican populism is a confusion over what causes inequality in the United States. Republican populists are obsessed with the role of elites using the government to reinforce their privilege. Certainly examples of this exist. But the main driver of inequality today is the marketplace, and the main bulwark against that inequality is the federal government. The federal government disproportionately taxes the rich, and it disproportionately spends on the poor. Our government redistributes less from rich to poor than do most other advanced countries, but it does redistribute.
Whatever evils libertarians attribute to the federal government, the vast majority of voters want a national bulwark against the insecurities of the market. They want social safety net programs. They probably also want a fairer shake in the market, but—and this is what none of the libertarian populists have come to grips with yet—left wing politicians can be just as adept in wielding populist rhetoric as the right.

The real question to ask is what new voters will come to the GOP because of this libertarian populist rhetoric. Are there working class voters who assign blame to an over-reaching and bloated federal government? Sure, but most of them vote Republican already. To win other voters, libertarian populism will have to compete with the populism of New Deal liberalism. Libertarians might despise the New Deal, but they can't ignore it, or its most eloquent political defenders. And few are better than Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Take a look at her campaign priorities and you'll find the same rhetoric as that deployed by the libertarian populists. Here, for instance, is her speech to the Democratic Convention last year. Compare this with what Carney wrote above:
People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs—the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs—still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them.
Thus the essential question: who will voters trust to rein in Wall St., Tim Carney and his people or Elizabeth Warren and her people? My money is still on Warren. In a battle of populists, the left has at least as much to offer as the right, and probably much more.

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