Tea Party

Does My Alleged Disaffinity With OWS Help Explain a Fusionism I've Never Believed in?, and Other Pressing Questions From the Would-Be Hippie/Tea Party Divide


Classical L

I will choose Free Will

iberal big-thinker Will Wilkinson has a piece up at Big Think that detects within alleged libertarian disaffection for the Occupy Wall Street movement "the psychological linchpin" of conservative-libertarian "fusionism." He uses me as a prime example, so I wanted to respond below the excerpt:

[H]aving lived most of my adult life among them, experience tells me that when it comes to the explanation of poverty and wealth libertarians are close cousins to conservatives. It's my view that this shared sense of robust agency and individual responsibility for success and failure is the psychological linchpin of "fusionism"–that this commonality in disposition has made the long-time alliance between conservatives and libertarians possible, despite the fact that libertarians are almost identical to liberals in their unconcern for the conservative binding foundations. That's why controversial "social issues" like abortion and gay marriage are generally pushed to the side when libertarians and conservatives get together. As long as they stick to complaining about handouts for poor people sitting on their asses and praising rich people working hard to make civilization possible, libertarians and conservatives get along fine.

The critical response of Reason editor-in-chief Matt Welch to Salon's "New Declaration of Independence" is nicely illustrative of the libertarian's conservative-like attachment to individual responsibility. And this, I think, helps explain why self-described libertarians are more likely to identify with the Tea Party movement, which was launched by Rick Santelli's indignant rant about subsidizing "losers'" mortgages, than with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is founded on something like the assumption that individuals are caught in a web of socio-economic forces upon which only the collective action of organized class interests have any influence. […]

I find all of this especially interesting because my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I've come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.

I cannot speak for Wilkinson's gut, but I do have some working knowledge of the space between my (formerly hippie) ears, so let me complicate Free Will's narrative.

Wait, you guys have a book out? DRINK!

First and more generally, I reckon that "fusionism" had more to do with hating on commies during the Cold War, and as such has been on the wane for two decades now. As Nick Gillespie and I wrote in our magazine adaptation from The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America,

67 percent of libertarians [in a recent Pew survey] self-identify as independents, compared to 28 percent as Republicans and 5 percent as Democrats. "A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse," Pew concluded. "Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy."

Pew's findings track with what the Cato Institute found in its 2010 study titled "The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama," which, using American National Election Series data, estimated the bloc of "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" voters at 14 percent (while noting other methodologies that put the number as high as 59 percent). Authors David Boaz and David Kirby found that libertarians are detaching themselves from the GOP and becoming more of a swing vote. Their margin for Senate Republicans over Democrats dropped from 59 percentage points in 2002 to just 4 points in 2006, for example, then jumped back to 49 points in 2008. Boaz and Kirby also cite the work of UCLA's Sylvia Friedel, who found that libertarians voted Republican for president 69 percent of the time from 1972 to 1988, but just 46 percent of the time since the end of the Cold War. Young libertarians in particular skew independent, and (unlike older libertarians) preferred Obama to John McCain by a wide margin.

If the Nolan Chart was named after Nolan Ryan, maybe

It's only anecdotal, but our experience these past six months talking to Students For Liberty-type kids mirrors the data from Ron Paul supporters from 2008: Only 38 percent of them voted for eventual GOP nominee John McCain, and you are way more likely to get a question about Ending the Fed than one suggesting that the GOP is more receptive to libertarian ideas.

But here's the thing that non-Republican, gay-marrying, pro-immigration, pro-choice, anti-empire potheads like me (and Will) need to grapple with if we insist on talking about the relationship between ourselves and various large political blocs: The GOP has been more receptive to libertarian ideas these past couple of years. Yes, it's still not much, and a lot of it is just the skin-deep opportunism of being in opposition, but I think honesty compels the observation that among the governing classes, if you find an economic libertarian he/she is more likely to be a social con than a RINO (or DINO). The Gary Johnson crossover dream is still just that. Which makes me no more likely to join Team Red, but it does suggest that certain libertarianish traditions within the broader right have staying power, at a time when the libertianish tendencies on the broader left seem to be receiving little or no expression in the governance by Team Blue. That I wished things were different doesn't change the basic facts.

As for my own psychological linchpins, they have never had anything to do with "complaining about handouts for poor people sitting on their asses and praising rich people working hard to make civilization possible." I have always been more angry at corporate welfare than food stamps, and as a libertarian squish who edits a magazine that should be euthanized for liberty, I see policy solutions like free trade, backpack school funding and drug legalization as being preferable precisely because they disproportionally help the less fortunate.

If we can't make fun of hippies, then the terrorists are spiking the football in the endzone

And on the underlying point of why and even whether "self-described libertarians are more likely to identify with the Tea Party movement," two final points: 1) I for one (as the main example cited) probably "identify" more with OWS, if for no other reason that I have more longtime friends who are chilling with the 99 percenters rather than drinking the tea. I've lived in pretty aggresively blue-state situations for almost all of my adult life, and have some ancient affinities with the Old New Left. But also, 2) I prefer cutting government to expanding it. That leaves me in a position of hoping to talk Tea Partiers into cutting all of government (including the military and prison-industrial complex), and hoping to persuade OWS types into rejecting all bailouts and embracing non-crony capitalism. In other words, politically homeless as usual, and not too hung up about it.

I guess what I don't understand, whether it's coming from Will Wilkinson or my OWS friends, is why this almost needy sense to get everyone on the record with a 100 percent Yay or Nay, let alone ascribe alleged motives to the alleged affinity or dislike? Since when are hippies (let alone the tricorne hat crowd) above a little needling? Can't you people satisfy your team membership (and opposition) requirements through the time-honored system of following meaningless sports? Leaderless, spontaneous political movements are complicated things, as are the individuals who respond to them. Like I said after attending my first Tea Party event, "Political rallies are no place to seek the subtle truth, nor feel particularly glowing about your countrymen"; the observation holds for Occupy D.C. as well.

I don't begrudge Wilkinson's enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street–"[W]hy not get together with thousands of like-minded folks, scream about it, screw up traffic, get arrested, whip one another into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation, spit on some people, provoke the jackboots, and maybe even wreck some stuff? Why is that not a good idea?"–nor do I resent his dislike of the Tea Party ("What's a little populist paranoia, casual racism and hyperventilating rhetoric about the holy Founding Document?"). But I'm not sure we require psychological linchpins to explain the disparity.

Bonus for those who've made it this far: Me and Will on Bloggingheads talking about John McCain. Oh, how I miss those glasses.