Brink Lindsey vs the American Right

It’s time libertarians ditched their alliance with conservatives and Republicans, writes Brink Lindsey. In a piece for Reason magazine, Lindsey argues that libertarians should stake their claim at the centre of American politics and imagines a new swing constituency animated by libertarian ideas — a constituency courted by politicians on both the left and right.

Lindsey is appalled by the conservative movement’s anti-intellectualism, its intolerance, sense of victimhood and delusional ideas. But worst of all is the movement’s disregard for freedom:

… the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement. It endorses the systematic use of torture. It defends unchecked presidential power over matters of national security. It excuses massive violations of Americans’ civil liberties committed in the name of fighting terrorism. It supports bloated military budgets, preventive war, and open-ended, nation-building occupations. It calls for repressive immigration policies. Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military. It opposes abortion rights. It opposes marriage equality. It panders to creationism. It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents. It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories. If you’re serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.

The right’s illiberalism is not a new development. "Modern conservatism has always had an illiberal dark side", writes Lindsey. "Recall the first great populist spasms of the postwar right — McCarthyism and opposition to desegregation — and recall as well that National Review founder William F. Buckley stoutly defended both."

What’s different today, says Lindsey, is that the populist ranters and conspiracy theorists are running the movement. Conservatives used to rely on intellectual champions like Milton Friedman and George Will to represent conservative ideas in the media. But today there’s no need to win over liberal gatekeepers in the mass media. Now conservatives have Fox News, talk back radio and the internet. The result is that intellectuals no longer set the agenda:

What counts today isn’t engaging the other side with reasoned arguments; it’s building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience’s collective sense of outrage and victimization. And that’s a job best performed not by serious thinkers but by hacks and hucksters. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Joseph Farah, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin: they adorn the cathedral of conservatism like so many gargoyles.

Yes, there are still many bright and inquisitive minds on the right, but they are not the movement’s stars and they don’t call the shots. On the contrary, if they stray too far in challenging the conservative id, they find themselves cast out and castigated as heretics and RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Bruce Bartlett and David Frum (who are friends of mine) are only two of the more prominent victims of that intolerant groupthink; both were sacked by conservative think tanks shortly after loudly expressing heterodox opinions.

And last week Lindsey joined the diaspora. He is leaving his job as vice president for research at the Cato Institute to take up a position at the Kauffman Foundation. Fellow ‘liberaltarian’ Will Wilkinson is also leaving Cato.

Lindsey and Wilkinson aren’t talking about their reasons for leaving Cato, but that hasn’t stopped speculation. At Slate David Weigel wonders whether it’s a purge. And there are similar questions from the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait and Salon’s Alex Pareene.

More commentary from: Arnold Kling, Ilya Somin, Clive Crook, Matt Welch, Daniel McCarthy, and Alex Massie.

Also relevant, my 2008 article for Policy: ‘Defusing the American Right‘ (responses here and here). At Menzies House, Will Church offers an alternative account of the alliance between libertarians and conservatives. He suggests that my account is slanted.

16 thoughts on “Brink Lindsey vs the American Right

  1. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the right are being increasingly fuelled by populism – the stupid party is on the way back. It’s most vigorous in the US, but we’ve had our own tame version of the same thing here. So far the UK conservatives seem to be bucking the trend, but I’m not close enough to it to know.

  2. One of the things that is surprising is how easily people fall for the populist ranters — I would have thought that part of the problem was the typical two party system, where if one of the parties gets taken over by certain ideologies, and you don’t want to vote for the other, there isn’t much choice (a bit like the elections here). However, with the strength of the Tea Party and other such organizations, I’m not sure that’s correct.

  3. I’m currently reading Krugmans “The Conscience of a Liberal”, in which he makes much of the fact that WF Buckley and the National Review supported and glorified Franco. This adds to your point about the illiberalism on the Right not being a new development.

  4. A similar Boganisation of the right has been at work in Australia too, mainly with the embracement of the conspiracy theory interpretation of AGW a la Lord Monckton. I exclude from this characterisation AGW policy sceptics and the few sensible science sceptics.

  5. In fairness to Cato and despite the vividly compelling conspiracy narrative, David Boaz, Cato’s senior policy officer, has nearly always supported exactly this position. No, he hasn’t moved on anywhere in nearly 20 years, either.

    Cato is a very libertarian outfit which supports drug legalisation and opposed both the Iraqi and (I think) Afghanistani wars. Not the typical establishment conservatives!

  6. I agree with Conrad: it is an outgrowth of the two party polarisation. This in turn is probably caused by the single-member electorate system. In the US it is compounded or complicated by the absence of a real political left and the pervasive antipathy to hierarchical power with the result that the bogan masses have nowhere to turn but to demagogues.

    Those are systemic factors. I suppose the proximate causes would be the wars, the GFC, and having an African American as president.

  7. Don, I agree that the populism of today’s Republicans is taking over in the USA, with the help of Murdoch rightwingers.

    So in the USA at least we now have five distinct schools of thought: the extreme right wing, libertarianism, classical liberalism, social liberalism – pro-market but with strong social sensitivity – and what I call the paternalistic anti-market Left.

  8. I think it’s more likely that the left is panicked. Populism is fine when it’s of the ‘Bush died, people died’ line, and hundreds of thousands duly chanted that mantra du jour. What’s happening now in the US is that Obama has tanked in the polls, the majority of people are rejecting his trademark policies, and the left is desperate for someone to blame. They’ve lost control of the agenda and they don’t know what to to about it.

    Lindsey’s just creating a cartoon conservatism that bears no resemblance to what I’ve been seeing around the right-wing blogosphere in the US. A facile and desperate – and yes, frightened – article.

  9. In my last post I refered to The Australian’s brand of no-nothing conservatism as being filled with Maoist fervour. In retrospect that was probably interpreted by many people as a reference to Christopher Pearson (and Keith Windshuttle’s) prior incarnations of inanity.

    But (with all the usual caveats about historical equivalents), the no-nothing right does remind me of Maoism, and the tea party of the red guards.

    There’s the same strange blend of sincerity and cynicism and downright crazy.
    Lke Maoism there is entrenched rhetoric against urban dwellers and fervour against “elitism” is directed mainly against those with expertise, or claims to expertise from reason – the educated, evolutionary biologists, cimatologists, economists, technocrats etc. Fortunately for Americans this hasn’t extended to doctors and agricltural scientists as it did in China. Ignorance becomes celebrated as authenticity and truthiness reigns.
    Like the cultural revolution, the tea parties are orchestrated and used by political elites as part of power struggles at the highest level.
    But also like the red guards, the tea partiers are a genuine movement, full of (albeit crazy) people who are filled with passionate and populist zeal. It isn’t astroturf.
    But also like the red guards, they’re drawn almost solely from those who are of above average income and education and cannot be thought of as a broad based movement or even as “The masses”.
    They haven’t started killing people (and I doubt they will), but they can’t be rustified either.

    But still, zealous ignorance wielded in political struggle can’t produce much good.

  10. What about George Soros’ investment in the Democratic party? Or for that matter Angelo Mozilo, or the other guy from WaMu (I think – the subject of an awesome SNL skit).

    This is starting (!) to smell like conspiracy theory…

  11. RGreen, I think your analogy fails on the fact that unlike the Red Guards and the cultural revolution, the Tea Partiers are not an instrument of state power and repression, seeking the physical and psychological intimidation, coercion and – where necessary – elimination of perceived deviation from the statist line. They are the opposite. The Maoist programs you talk about were implemented by the government against its opponents (real or imagined). The Tea Partiers are those opponents of the government, acting against a (real or imagined) statist regime..

  12. Rob – Whether for or agin the govt seems to be a quibble. The point is that the decent, hard-working, God-fearing salt of the earth have had a gutful of the insufferable, smug, know-all experts.

  13. My impressions of the debate: Aiming for the middle does not quite cut it. Nor does aiming to shoot the right as Lindsey does, nor aiming to shoot the left as Goldberg does, nor aiming at both as Kibbe does.

    From a practical perspective, asking rhetorically “where libertarians belong” is less important than understanding how they can be politically relevant.

    One key to political relevance is simple – a predictable centrist libertarian swing vote. The rub – for a swing vote to be predictable it has to be organized. And nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes referred to as the “Hot Tub Libertarian” Problem. There is an answer. There is a way to herd these cats. Paraphrasing from my post “Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction”:

    Libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional political organization. After all, it is something we will have to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

    That organizing principle exists. It is Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen et.al. to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that libertarians represent, whether it is 9% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other.

    If the libertarian “divided government vote” is shown to swing elections for two or three cycles, then libertarians will no longer be inchoate, their message no longer be diffused, and their political clout no longer flaccid. As long as the bulk of the electorate remain polarized and balanced, even a small percentage libertarian swing vote organized around divided government will be enough for libertarians to display the biggest swinging political “hammer” in town.

  14. Pingback: the sad red earth » The Closing of the Conservative Mind

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