If you read the weekend papers, you already know this much: Libertarians are the new black.
Indeed, based on the recent and ongoing coverage, there's a strong case to be made that we're smack dab in the "The Libertarian Moment" that Matt Welch and I - and others at Reason and beyond - have been trumpeting since at least 2008. As Welch's and my December 2008 essay in Reason magazine prophesied, "Despite all leading indicators to the contrary, America is poised to enter a new age of freedom."
What a silly, stupid, idea that seemed, especially when we first trumpeted it (we've kept all the emails telling us to get off the drugs - or at least to share them already). Could the timing have been worse for such a bold affirmation of the "Free Minds and Free Markets" worldview Reason touts across all its platforms? You remember the end of 2008, don't you? The Bush admin, already a record-setter when it came to spending, debt, and regulations (yes, it's all true) spent its final, desperate days in office destroying free-market capitalism in order to save it by pushing through TARP and illegal auto-company bailouts.
A new president was elected who promised an even more interventionist economic policy (and was simply playing coy about his equally interventionist foreign policy). Barack Obama was already plumping for the mother of all stimulus packages, and the only question was whether his awful, transformative healthcare entitlement would be more Canadian than British in accent. What have we learned over the past half-decade or so of hope and change? That Obama - who said he'd run the most transparent and clean-smelling White House operation ever - is even worse on civil liberties and constitutional restraints than George W. Bush (who, if memory serves, was worse than Hitler).
[Related Update 8/21: #Winning: Progressive Think Tank Demos Targets "Libertarian Right"]
Yet from listening to NPR and reading the Wash Post and The Atlantic over the past few days, you'd think the Libertarian Moment has more upside potential than the national debt (which is, at least theoretically, subject to limitation). Indeed, The Atlantic proclaims "America's Libertarian Moment" in the form of a long and insightful interview with the Cato Institute's David Boaz. Boaz sketches out some of the reasons why libertarianism - imperfectly but usefully summarized as being fiscally conservative and socially liberal - is on the upswing:
The end of the Bush years and the beginning of the Obama years really lit a fire under the always-simmering small-government attitudes in America. The TARP, the bailouts, the stimulus, Obamacare, all of that sort of inspired the Tea Party. Meanwhile, you've simultaneously got libertarian movements going on in regard to gay marriage and marijuana. And I'll tell you something else that I think is always there. The national media were convinced that we would be getting a gun-control bill this year, that surely the Newtown shooting would overcome the general American belief in the Second Amendment right to bear arms. And then they pushed on the string and it didn't go anywhere. Support for gun control is lower today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I think that's another sign of America's innate libertarianism.
This year you have a whole series of scandals that at least call into question the efficacy, competence, and trustworthiness of government. The IRS, maybe the Benghazi cover-up, and the revelations about surveillance. All of those things together, I think, have lit a fire to the smoldering libertarianism of the American electorate.
Over at NPR, Don Gonyea reports that "Amid Struggle for 'Soul' of GOP, Libertarians Take Limelight." Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) explains,
Members of Congress who are on the more libertarian side - and it's a pretty large group now - are tired of the wars that go on overseas, think that we shouldn't be in Afghanistan, want us to bring our troops home from across the globe. And young people really represent that strain of thought. They've seen these wars go on for years with no end. And they'd like to see some peace. They'd like to see us return to some normalcy...
In the Wash Post, Chris Cillizza paints the future of the Republican Part explicitly as a war between a libertarian Rand Paul wing and a mainstream, establishment Chris Christie wing. He writes,
The battle between the two men will be all the more intriguing because it is really a de facto fight for what Republicans have learned from the past two presidential elections and what they believe is the solution to their problem. Did Republicans lose to Barack Obama twice because they nominated establishment Republicans who didn’t excite the party’s base? Or did they lose because many within the party demanded absolute fealty to core principles at the detriment of winning votes from the middle of the ideological spectrum?
This is the wrong way to phrase the question for at least a couple of reasons. First, the question Republicans need to wrassle with isn't simply about the past two presidential elections but the past four. Until the GOP groks what a full-out disaster George Bush was in terms of spending, regulations, foreign policy, and entitlement expansion, there can be no learning on its part. Cillizza's framing also presumes that Rand Paul - because he is ideological and at the very least a libertarian fellow-traveler - is incapable of appealing to the "middle of the ideological spectrum." But John McCain and Mitt Romney didn't lose because they swore fealty to the retrograde conservatives that control the GOP. They lost because they were unexciting and because they had no core governing philosophy (or at least one they bothered to articulate or could show from their political lives). Did they offer a coherent or at least compelling vision of the future? Not even their family members could pretend they did.
Recall that McCain suspended his campaign to rush back to DC to vote for TARP. Given that Obama was also voting for TARP, why the rush? McCain's reflexive war-mongering is derived more from blood-sugar spikes than any thought-through foreign policy vision and, as important, it allowed Obama to passively paint himself as the anti-war candidate (despite not being one, as evidenced by his admin's desperate attempts to overstay our welcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan and unconstitutional deployment of force in Libya). McCain's great policy flip-flop came on immigration. He'd long defended an inclusive set of policies which he dumped overnight in one of the most blatant instances of panicked pandering in recent years (watch this and weep for your country). But the real damage was less about the policy topic itself and what it said about McCain: He was a man without strong convictions, except for the one about him deserving to be president. Mitt Romney was another ideological cipher for the most part who was running more for "consultant in chief" than president. Even before he wrote off 47 percent of the electorate (even there, he was no good at predictions), he was effectively toast because his signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts was exactly what Obama had accomplished. That Romney could not articulate exactly what was different about his health care reform and Obama's - or even acknowledge that we would tear up the latter's root and branch (remember, he wanted to keep the parts he liked") showed independent voters all they needed to know.
The growing libertarian wing of the Republican Party surely does have some core principles on which they will not (and should not) compromise. Chief among them is a serious commitment to reducing the size, scope, and spending of the federal government. The libertarian wing is not simply antagonistic to the surveillance state, the garrison state, and America as globo-cop; it is leading the charge against such things. The libertarian GOPers speak differently than old-school conservatives and even establishment Republicans.