Politics

New York Times Magazine: "Has the 'Libertarian Moment' Finally Arrived?"

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Straight outta Bowling Green! ||| New York Times Magazine
New York Times Magazine

The New York Times Magazine has just published a 6,600-word exploration of, essentially, whether, Nick Gillespie is right when he says "The libertarian moment is now." Writer Robert Draper, author of the terrific 1991 book Rolling Stone Magazine: An Uncensored History, and more recently When the Tea Party Came to Town, takes an entertaining tour through various antechambers of the libertarian movement, from Reason's gin-swilling D.C. headquarters, through the Free State Project's anarchic PorcFest, to the offices of Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), in search of ever-elusive answers about what these libertarians want, how/if they plan to use two-party system to get there, and whether 2016 will be the presidential cycle when the burgeoning libertarianism of the millennial generation will produce a political realignment.

You'll come for the Kennedy Ron Paul/Nirvana quote, stay for the Nick Gillespie/Lou Reed comparison, savor David Frum's delicious contempt, and be left rooting for a clarifying Rand Paul/Hillary Clinton showdown.

Here's how the piece begins:

Are she not men? |||

"Let's say Ron Paul is Nirvana," said Kennedy, the television personality and former MTV host, by way of explaining the sort of politician who excites libertarians like herself. "Like, the coolest, most amazing thing to come along in years, and the songs are nebulous but somehow meaningful, and the lead singer kills himself to preserve the band's legacy.

"Then Rand Paul — he's Pearl Jam. Comes from the same place, the songs are really catchy, can really pack the stadiums, though it's not quite Nirvana.

"Ted Cruz? He's Stone Temple Pilots. Tries really hard to sound like Pearl Jam, never gonna sound like Nirvana. Really good voice, great staying power — but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts."

I met Kennedy (a gabby 41-year-old whose actual name is Lisa Kennedy Montgomery) in Midtown Manhattan at Fox News headquarters, where she hosts a Fox Business Network program called "The Independents." By cable TV standards, the show, which is shown four times a week, is jarringly nonpartisan, for the simple reason that she and her co-hosts — the Reason magazine editor in chief Matt Welch and the entrepreneur Kmele Foster — are openly contemptuous of both parties.

Here's a section exploring how, as the Reason/Rupe poll has indicated, millennials are philosophically and politically up for grabs:

Funny cuz it's true! |||

Meanwhile, the age group most responsible for delivering Obama his two terms may well become a political wild card over time, in large part because of its libertarian leanings. Raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them, the millennials can no longer be regarded as faithful Democrats — and a recent poll confirmed that fully half of voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party. Obama has profoundly disappointed many of these voters by shying away from marijuana decriminalization, by leading from behind on same-sex marriage, by trumping the Bush administration on illegal-immigrant deportations and by expanding Bush's N.S.A. surveillance program. As one 30-year-old libertarian senior staff member on the Hill told me: "I think we expected this sort of thing from Bush. But Obama seemed to be hip and in touch with my generation, and then he goes and reads our emails."

Early polls show young voters favoring Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, but their support could erode as they refamiliarize themselves with her, just as it did in 2008. Clinton has been even slower than Obama to embrace progressive social causes, while in foreign policy, she associates herself more with her former Senate colleague John McCain than with noninterventionists. Nor is Clinton likely to quell millennial fears about government surveillance. Welch says: "Hillary isn't going to be any good on these issues. She has an authoritative mind-set and has no interest in Edward Snowden, who's a hero to a lot of these people."

After eight years out of the White House, Republicans would seem well positioned to cast themselves as the fresh alternative, though perhaps only if the party first reappraises stances that young voters, in particular, regard as outdated. Emily Ekins, a pollster for the Reason Foundation, says: "Unlike with previous generations, we're seeing a newer dimension emerge where they agree with Democrats on social issues, and on economic issues lean more to the right. It's possible that Democrats will have to shift to the right on economic issues. But the Republicans will definitely have to move to the left on social issues. They just don't have the numbers otherwise."

More excerpts after the jump. Later this morning, I'll put up a blog post with some supplemental reading material from the Reason archive.

Here is the best known rendering of Reason.com/Reason TV Editor Nick Gillespie:

Sympathy for the Devil's Advocate. |||

Gillespie poured me a glass and led me to a sitting area beside his office, which is festooned with vintage rock posters. Nick Gillespie is to libertarianism what Lou Reed is to rock 'n' roll, the quintessence of its outlaw spirit. He is 50, a former writer for teen and heavy-metal magazines, habitually garbed in black from head to toe, wry and mournful in expression, a tormented romantic who quotes Jack Kerouac. For the past 20 years, Gillespie has been a writer, editor and intellectual godfather for Reason, the movement's leading journal since its founding in 1968 (and which today has a circulation of about 50,000, while its website receives 3.3 million visits a month). […]

"I was never conservative," he told me as we sipped our gin. "Republicans always saw libertarians as nice to have around in case they wanted to score some weed, and we always knew where there was a party. And for a while it made sense to bunk up with them. But after a while, it would be like, 'So if we agree on limited government, how about opening the borders?' No, that's crazy. 'How about legalizing drugs? How about giving gays equal rights?' No, come on, be serious. And so I thought, There's nothing in this for me."

Gillespie likes to point out that unlike the words "Democrat" and "Republican," "libertarian" should be seen as a modifier rather than a noun — an attitude, not a fixed object. A cynic might assert that this is exactly the kind of semantic cop-out that relegates Gillespie's too-cool-for-school sect to the margins. Not surprisingly, he begged to differ. "It's wedded to an epistemological humility," he told me, "that proceeds from the assumption that we don't know as much as we think we do, and so you have to be really cautious about policies that seek to completely reshape the world. It's better to run trials and experiments, as John Stuart Mill talked about. The whole point of America — and this is an admixture of Saul Bellow and Heidegger and Jim Morrison lyrics — is that it's in a constant state of becoming, constantly changing and mongrelizing. We're doing exactly what free minds and free markets allow you to do. Part of why I'm a libertarian is that if you restrict people less, interesting stuff happens."

Continuing his riff with beatnik locomotion, he added: "It's like what happens in garages. Rock bands form in garages. Computer companies. And O.K., occasionally serial murders. But as long as you're not just parking your car there, garages are always interesting."

Did you need to taste David Frum's delicious tears? Here you go:

Nom nom nom. |||

One of the more pugnacious advocates of this across-the-board approach is Cathy Reisenwitz, a 28-year-old Washington-based journalist who has a tattoo under her right biceps that reads, "I Own Me." ("What does that mean, 'I own myself?' " David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Republican commentator, sputtered in exasperation when we spoke later. "Can I sell myself? If I can't, I don't own myself.") […]

In a 1997 Weekly Standard article titled "The Libertarian Temptation," David Frum belittled its followers as feckless hedonists who "claim that snorting cocaine is some sort of fundamental human right." When I recently asked Frum if his feelings toward libertarianism had mellowed, he assured me that they had not.

"It's a completely closed and airless ideological system that doesn't respond well to reality," he said. "Libertarians are like Marxists in that they have prophets like von Mises and Hayek, and they quote from their holy scripture, and they don't have to engage."

Finally, a clip from some of Draper's intriguing interactions with Rand Paul:

You laughed then… |||

I got to the point. Were we living in a libertarian "moment," or was that wishful thinking on the part of Nick Gillespie and others?

"I think a plurality of Americans don't consider themselves to be either Republicans or Democrats," Paul said, citing young people and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in particular. "I also think there was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when 'libertarian' was a term that scared people. Now I think it seems more like a moderate point of view. So I think the term is something that is definitely attracting, not repelling people." […]

During our conversation, Paul made a point of characterizing libertarianism as being "moderate" rather than liberal on social issues. Movement leaders would likely object, but Paul's preoccupation is with swaying the center-right.

"The party can't become the opposite of what it is," he told me. "If you tell people from Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia, 'You know what, guys, we've been wrong, and we're gonna be the pro-gay-marriage party,' they're either gonna stay home or — I mean, many of these people joined the Republican Party because of these social issues. So I don't think we can completely flip. But can we become, to use the overused term, a bigger tent? I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues. I think the party will evolve. It'll either continue to lose, or it'll become a bigger place where there's a mixture of opinions." […]

[L]ater, with an irritated edge to his voice, Paul added: "Some people are purists, and I get grief all the time — all these libertarian websites hating on me because I'm not as pure as my dad. And I'm putting restrictions on foreign aid instead of eliminating foreign aid altogether. And I'm like: 'Look, guys, I'm having trouble putting these restrictions on, much less eliminating them! So give me a break!' "

The whole article is well worth a read.