The current issue of The New York Times Magazine has a cover that reads, “Has the Libertarian Movement Finally Arrived?” It’s no accident that the author, Robert Draper, in a 10,000-word examination of the national mood, fails to mention the words “populist,” “populism,” or “1%.” That’s because this article is less an interrogation of libertarianism than a journey to it, beginning with two charismatic television hosts (one of whom was once the face of MTV), moving through an extended interview with Rand Paul, and finishing at the “annual libertarian outdoor festival held in Lancaster, N.H.”
You’d never know it from reading Draper, but amongst the major GOP candidates for 2016, there’s been quite the firestorm over “libertarian populism,” and you can get a pretty good sense of the debate here. What Draper and The Economist don’t wish to discuss is Governor Chris Christie’s frontal assault on libertarianism, where he separates it from a populism that Christie advocates. (Actually, that’s not fair. The Economist does react to Christie’s, ahem, conscious decoupling of populism and libertarianism, only to suggest that terror-mongering is populist. Cheyeah right, I’m sure William Jennings Bryan would agree. Pssst, that’s sarcasm.)
Well, you might say, so what? A long article about imgur doesn’t have to talk about instagram. Sure, but Draper isn’t talking about just any old collection of American malcontents. He’s implicitly reacting to the news that earlier this year, Gallup reported that 42% of Americans identify as independent, the highest it ever found. (31% identified with Democrats, 25% with Republicans.) As Timothy Egan put it, correctly, “The emerging majority is the most racially diverse, politically open-minded, social-media-engaged generation in history. They’re repulsed by the partisan hacks, and the lobbyist-industrial complex that controls them. You see their influence in everything but the governing institutions in Washington. It’s about time that voice is heard.”
Basically, Draper is making sure that voice is heard, and heard saying that libertarians are the swing vote for the current and future Presidents. He writes:
“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.”
What he’s not saying is that Gallup’s 42% is just as likely to consider themselves “populist” as “libertarian.” Google “Hillary Clinton” and “populis” and you’ll see that the commentariat thinks Clinton has to change her rhetoric to sound more populist than she ever did before. (As in this article.) Frankly, you can say that about any politician these days. Populism is on the rise, rise, rise, particularly because of Tea Party-identified sites’ open skepticism about previous Republican policies which tilted so much power to the wealthy. But Draper wants to make it sound like after being betrayed by both parties, the reasonable, grass-roots middle is on a highway straight to libertarianism – without noticing that there’s an equally appealing road called populism.
If you listen to Draper and ignore Chris Christie, you might assume that populism and libertarianism are the same thing. In fact, Draper’s choice of issues is rather telling, because it shows so much overlap with the populist position. Draper talks at length about libertarians supporting: isolationism in foreign affairs, same-sex marriage, marijuana decriminalization, abortion rights, Edward Snowden-style revelations, and reigning in government surveillance. Generally, populists and libertarians agree on these issues.
Draper spends conspicuously less time discussing this tiny little point: libertarians want as few taxes as possible. Populists like low taxes, but recognize that corporations and wealthy individuals should be paying their fair share. Libertarians would let the Fortune 500 create 500 tax-free islands in the Caribbean and let Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow just try to come pirate them. Populists demand that if companies are getting rich from American labor and from protection by America’s military and copyright laws, then they need to pay just like normal Americans are paying. Libertarians hear the statistic that 93% of post-recession gains have gone to the top 1% of Americans and say, “Good.” Populists say there’s something wrong with that, and we have to do something, whether it means changing the tax code, repealing wealth-friendly laws, or something else.
Most libertarians want corporations to be as free as possible to do whatever they want – that’s why Ron Paul once voted in favor of restaurants reserving the right to exclude black customers, and why his son defended this point. Since Draper begins by comparing Ron Paul to Nirvana and Rand Paul to Pearl Jam, he’s hardly going to bring up that controversy. Populists aren’t ready to give corporations such a free hand. Populists – and these include many grass-roots conservatives who Draper ignores – are against corporate welfare and secret trade agreements (like the Trans Pacific Partnership), in favor of prison time for corporate crooks, and supportive of hiring policies that recognize equality, diversity, family-friendliness, and veteran status. Populists tend to favor sustainability – as distinct from environmentalism – basically requiring corporations to behave like people raised by good mothers (since the Supreme Court says they’re now people), and leave things the way they found them – for example, by not polluting the drinking supply. Libertarians, by contrast, are a lot more laissez-faire about their eau.
Basically, Draper tells you everything about libertarians except: remember what happened the last time business was allowed to do whatever it wanted? Six years ago? How did that go, anyway?
To be fair to Draper, there’s other issues where we find fierce disagreement within groups of populists and libertarians, for example on immigration, animal rights, Christian-values legislation, and drug legalization beyond marijuana. Maybe populism is to Democrats as libertarianism is to Republicans – an indispensable aspect that ultimately can’t go anywhere else. But Draper rather cannily restricted his emphasis to issues with crossover appeal. I agree there’s crossover appeal for both movements; I just happen to think that the appeal of curbing corporate power has more chance of bringing over conservatives than any of Draper’s issues have of bringing over liberals. In any event, Draper didn’t teach these controversies. He didn’t teach much, other than to cheerlead the libertarian movement.
Toward the end of the article (you got that far? Good job!), Draper quotes Nick Gillespie, current libertarian leader, telling a sympathetic audience, “If we can have 20 different types of Pop-Tarts, maybe we can have more than two types of political identification.” Ah, but who’s going to be #3? When you’re a little comic book company looking up at Marvel and DC, you can’t afford to split customers with other little companies as well. You need every single customer who’s not loyal to the Big Two. Here Draper is combatting the populists by pretending they don’t exist, by re-appropriating populist issues as libertarian ones and more or less eliding his less pleasant pro-corporatism.
Populism and libertarianism are both on the rise inside and outside the two major parties, but one difference is that libertarians are already on the ballot in all fifty states. Populists aren’t. Another difference is libertarians have people like Draper writing loving pieces for them in the New York Times Magazine. Google “populist party” and you’re back in the 19th century. Americanpopulistparty.org tried – and is now moribund. Lp.org, in contrast, is rockin’. Gee, I wonder which of the two has the moneyed class lining up behind it, and which one is skeptical of that moneyed class? Populism is popular but no one has been able to mobilize it and unify it – in that way, it’s like organic food or travel companies. That can change – but not if people think, as Draper does, that the grass-roots and young people’s natural inclination is toward rewarding businesses for failures.
So, just remember, when you’re reading that New York Times Magazine puff piece for Rand Paul, and nodding your head that you kinda agree with their platform, remember what Draper wanted you to forget: when it comes to the 1%, libertarians want you to get out of the way. There’s still a way to agree with almost all of Draper’s issues and also get in the way of the 1%. It’s called populism.