Libertarian populism has lately been generating a great deal of attention on the Right. Many believe it represents a viable reform agenda for the GOP. Dave Brat’s victory over Eric Cantor in June lent credibility to this notion. As the title of libertarian populist Conn Carroll’s post at Townhall unequivocally declared, “Dave Brat Proves Libertarian Populism Can Win."
In the rush to anoint libertarian populism as the future of the GOP, however, people have glossed over two points.
First, there is little about libertarian populism that is distinctly libertarian. Much of the libertarian populist agenda represents nothing more or less than a return to constitutional conservatism. In fact, libertarian populism is not nearly so much an endorsement of libertarianism as a repudiation of Republican departures from limited-government conservatism, particularly George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
Second, libertarian populism, in most instances, is only populist insofar as it mirrors conservatism properly understood. Meaning, there is often little popular support on issues where libertarian populists depart from conservatism and take a more libertarian stance. Herein lies the fundamental paradox of libertarian populism: the more libertarian it becomes, the less populist it is.
The Scourge of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’
So why are libertarian populists reticent to simply call themselves conservatives? Most likely because the meaning of conservatism has been distorted. For the better part of this century, Republicans, although long considered the representatives of conservatism in government, have simply not lived up to this billing. The size and scope of government, as well as the national debt, have massively increased under Republican-controlled congresses and administrations.
Bush’s self-styled brand of compassionate conservatism stands out as particularly blameworthy. It emphasized the modern liberal interpretation of compassion while often neglecting actual conservatism.
Bush openly acknowledged that his approach wasn’t rooted in traditional conservative philosophy. He defined compassionate conservatism abstrusely as “the understanding that lives can be changed and that cultures can change,” and explained that “the origins are not just logical thought and inspirations from writings.” He preferred instead to rely on his own instincts and values; he was, after all, “not a textbook player” but “a gut player.”
Eight years of this governing philosophy yielded, among other things, the largest new entitlement since the Great Society (Medicare Part D); a substantial federal incursion into education (No Child Left Behind); a foreign policy characterized by the utopian goal of “ending tyranny in our world”; and a near doubling of the national debt.
The Overlap Between Libertarian Populism and Constitutional Conservatism
In this context, it is not surprising that many on the Right decided to cut ties with conservatism and seek sanctuary within libertarianism. Such seems to be the case with libertarian populists. The primary thrust of libertarian populism is to drastically reduce the size and scope of government—a goal near and dear to libertarian and constitutional conservative hearts.
Compassionate conservatism, by contrast, claimed no such ambitions. Bush, while occasionally paying lip service to limited-government ideals, more often emphasized the positive role of government. See, for example, his well-intentioned but misguided declaration that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” Such a sentiment was no doubt an impetus for Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind.
Libertarian populism’s animus towards big government also extends to big business. It deplores the corrupt alliance between big government and big business, otherwise known as cronyism. While cronyism is certainly a bipartisan problem, the recent public backlash against it was initiated in 2008 with the Bush administration’s $700 billion Wall Street bailout package. Rather than exposing irresponsible big banks to market forces, Bush provided nearly a trillion taxpayer dollars to keep them afloat. He justified it with the incongruous statement, “I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.”
Regrettably, some conservatives are ambivalent towards cronyism because they mistakenly perceive it as an admission of free-market failure. But as Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint and Heritage Action for America CEO Mike Needham have written, “The truth of the matter is perfectly compatible with conservatism: Many of big business’s greatest advantages over small competitors stem not from scale achieved through success in the free market but from success in capturing the levers of political power.”
The libertarian populist rejection of the Bush agenda is also evident in regard to foreign policy. In fact, libertarian populism has no coherent foreign policy to speak of other than to not mimic Bush’s overly interventionist approach. But arguing for a less interventionist policy than Bush’s does not make one a de facto libertarian.
This is where the paradox of libertarian populism becomes apparent. The orthodox libertarian view on foreign policy wholly rejects the use of military force unless the United States faces a clear existential threat. However, such a disposition is not populist. Recent public opinion polls regarding the Islamic State (ISIS) bear this out. Despite ISIS presenting no apparent threat to the homeland, Americans increasingly support military action against the group. Approval of the current U.S. military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria now stands at 63 percent. More strikingly, 47 percent now favor the use of ground troops, up from 39 percent just four months ago. Even Rand Paul, the most libertarian member of the Senate, has changed his stance in the face of political reality and adopted a more aggressive stance towards ISIS, much to the dismay of libertarians.
Most conservatives not named John McCain or Lindsey Graham realize the impracticability of Bush’s utopian foreign policy agenda. But conservatives are nevertheless far more amenable to military action than libertarians, and the popular sentiment leans conservative.
The Limits of Libertarian Populism
Popular sentiment has undoubtedly been trending libertarian on issues like gay marriage and drug legalization. However, these are still not areas where libertarian populists can safely embrace libertarian positions. While public support for gay marriage has mostly been trending upward for the past two decades, it may have peaked. The latest Pew survey found public support for gay marriage had fallen from 54 percent in February to 49 percent in September.
This may just be a statistical anomaly. But there is also a possibility that conservative arguments against gay marriage are actually influencing the public debate. As the true nature of the same-sex marriage movement has emerged, with activist judges redefining marriage contrary to popular will and religious liberties routinely being trampled, people may be starting to push back.
Regardless of whether public support for gay marriage is rising or falling, the issue creates significant tension within the conservative-libertarian alliance and puts libertarian populists in a bind. No matter which position they take, they risk alienating a significant portion of the Republican voting base, thereby dooming their electoral prospects. Ben Domenech has perceptively identified this conflict as “the most significant problem and the likeliest one to derail this organic movement before it takes hold.” Also note that national legislators who are considered to be in the libertarian populist mold, such as Sen. Mike Lee, Paul, and Brat, all support traditional marriage.
Drug legalization presents libertarian populism with much the same dilemma as gay marriage: libertarians are for it, conservatives aren’t. Carroll appears to be the only libertarian populist who has directly addressed drug legalization. He includes ending the drug war as part of his vision for the libertarian populist agenda. This position will be popular with many, considering that a majority of Americans now favor marijuana legalization and easing criminal penalties associated with illegal drug use.
There is, however, little public appetite for the full-scale drug legalization libertarians promote. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll earlier this year, aside from marijuana, no other drug generated more than 17 percent support for legalization.
Despite these potential problems, libertarian populists are smart to seek a political alliance between conservatives and libertarians on common-ground issues that appeal to average Americans. Domenech has accurately noted that “this is a country no longer in the thrall of top-down elitism, and ripe for a more bottom-up, organic alternative.” The limited government, anti-cronyism agenda he advocates is just such an alternative. But if libertarian populists want to build on their recent success, they will do well to recognize that classic conservatism, not libertarianism, is their best bet.
Originally appeared in The Federalist