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.
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.