In the 1950s and ’60s, libertarians, social conservatives, and anti-communists found enough common cause to create a robust new postwar conservative movement. The cobbling together of this disparate coalition, a process National Review editor Frank Meyer dubbed “fusionism,” came to reshape the Republican Party and America itself. By the height of the Reagan Revolution, the three legs of this political stool—fiscal conservatism, social traditionalism, and military strength—seemed sturdy enough to last a generation. But it would soon tip over.
The end of the Cold War removed fusionism’s strongest glue. Governing Republicans, including the revered Ronald Reagan, walked away from the project of deregulating and downsizing government. Militarism and nation building became core conservative values, even after the vanquishing of the superpower foe. Under George W. Bush and a Republican Congress, this all added up to a big-government interventionism anathema to the ideals of freedom and limited government. The predictable result: Libertarians left the big tent.
Then along came President Barack Obama and a new Democratic Congress. They quickly made George W. Bush look like a penny-pincher. As a broad backlash against big government has gathered force, the Tea Party and the Ron Paul movement have helped inject libertarianism back into conservatism. So does that mean fusionism is making a comeback?
That was the backdrop behind two debates in February between reason editors and prominent conservative commentators. At Colorado’s Independence Institute, reason.tv and reason online Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie clashed with right-wing controversialist Ann Coulter over the question, “Can fiscal and social conservatives pull together in 2012?” Meanwhile, at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch debated AEI scholar and National Review Contributing Editor Jonah Goldberg on the question, “Are libertarians part of the conservative movement?”
Below are edited transcripts of each debate, covering Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, drug policy, traditional values, and, above all, the fiscal calamity America faces if it doesn’t quickly and firmly change course.
Welch vs. Goldberg
Matt Welch: I would like to register a complaint. You got the name of the panel wrong. It [should have been] “Are Conservatives Part of the Libertarian Movement?” We keep asking ourselves this question.
Basically, the reason we’re here in 2012 with this overflow crowd at AEI talking about this is that we’re all facing an interesting paradox: At the precise moment that the GOP is becoming more recognizably libertarian, or accepting or thinking libertarian thoughts, libertarians are becoming less and less inclined to accept the GOP. That’s actually a rational outcome of a series of things.
From 1997, let’s say, to 2010, it’s been pretty rough going for libertarians who want to consider themselves part of the conservative movement. Libertarians have been singled out by name by the last several torchbearers of the Republican Party. John McCain, in his book Worth the Fighting For (which is a terrific book if you haven’t read it), talked about how he disagreed a lot with George W. Bush, but he said we both agree that it’s important to reject this leave-us-alone libertarian idea for the GOP. I would argue that under Republican leadership (and Jonah would argue this too), for most of the George W. Bush era, we saw the fruits of this explicitly anti-libertarian thought. Spending went up 60 percent in real terms. No Child Left Behind. I don’t have to bore you with all the details…but let’s mention some of them, for crying out loud.
The Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. A lot of war making and lowering of the bar for interventions going forward. These are things that libertarians have not been happy about for years. They’ve been marginalized for a long time.
But whenever a major political party loses power, libertarianism looks a lot more dreamy than it did before. Believe it or not (and I’m having a difficult time even reciting this), around 2004 or 2005, Democrats were going through a “maybe we should be libertarian Democrats” phase. Markos Moulitsas had a “libertarian Democrat” manifesto that was supposed to turn into a book that, thankfully, never got published.
We need to remind ourselves that even in this completely favorable climate—you have a lousy president, you have a lousy economy, Democrats running everything—Republicans are bleeding market share. They’ve lost 800,000 registered Republicans since 2008, specifically in swing states. Democrats have done worse, deservedly and understandably so. But Republicans are losing market share, especially among young voters.
At the same time, America is becoming more libertarian. The Tea Party might not itself be a group of libertarians hanging out—it’s not exactly the Free State Project—but a lot of the goals embraced by the Tea Party are explicitly libertarian: reducing the size and scope of government, which is a project that Republicans lost interest in.
Jonah Goldberg: I would just sort of “ditto” a lot of the different things Matt said. I thought his book was great and made a lot of great points, and I agree with a whole lot of it. In fact, I’ll go further: The parts where I think Matt is wrong, I wish he was right. But he is not.
It’s obviously true that the libertarian movement is not part of the conservative movement at all, except for four minor areas. They are: historical, philosophical, political, and practical. And other than that, they are as different as night and day.