LP #1: A New Alliance
Author: Gary Winslett
Political coalitions and the governing instincts they represent are constantly shifting but do so much like those classic tin kaleidoscope toys rather than in a smooth manner. The turning of the kaleidoscope’s wheel is constant but, for a bit, though tension is building, nothing much happens. Then, at a certain point, the frictional glue holding the pixels together gives way and everything is suddenly in a different configuration.
We are in such a moment now. Heretofore, libertarians have generally been associated with the Republican Party and the political right while progressives have been associated with the Democratic Party and the political left. But that oppositional relationship between progressives and libertarians no longer makes sense, if it ever did.
There is a rising rumble of alarming beliefs on both the left and right. While the Democratic Party has not radicalized itself to the extent that the Republican Party has, much of its base (and particularly those who are the most activated and vocal) are increasingly embracing an anti-capitalist ethos. Even at its best, that ideological lurch is poised to undermine America’s economic vitality. At its worst, such instincts yield not just red tape-induced sclerosis but also an ossified class structure, poorer families, greater zero-sum thinking between fellow citizens, and less social progress. One need only listen to an episode of Chapo Trap House to get a sampling of this mentality in its rawest form. It is mean-spirited, envious, aggressive, fanatical, economically illiterate, and socially malignant. But if the Democratic Party is dabbling in dangerous, ruinous ideas, the Republican Party is bathing in them. Even apart from the bizarre cult of personality around Donald Trump, the right now embraces an aggressive nationalism married to an all-encompassing grievance-driven populism. One need only watch an episode of Tucker Carlson to get a sense of this mentality in its most distilled form. It too is mean-spirited, envious, aggressive, fanatical, economically illiterate, and socially malignant. Meanwhile, the country’s political dysfunction and deteriorating ability to govern itself frustrates, disappoints, and disillusions huge portions of the citizenry, so even those who recognize Chapo and Tucker for what they are have little love for ‘the system’ or ‘the establishment.’ The momentum and energy seem to be, at least for now, on the side of the zealots who want to burn things down rather than the institutionalist firefighters.
There is a way out of the morass: a new coalition between progressives and libertarians. These two groups and the intellectual instincts they carry with them each improve the other, and there is already much common ground between them- more than almost anyone realizes. Across issues areas as varied as criminal justice reform, housing, trade, immigration, national security, and technology policy, a combination of progressive and libertarian ideas can deliver better results. As importantly, it offers a means of fighting back against the threats to liberty, prosperity, and justice that are gathering on the anti-capitalist left and the populist nationalist right.
This series of 85 essays is self-consciously inspired by The Federalist Papers. Those papers were written to defend the new U.S. Constitution. We are defending the wisdom of this new progressive-libertarian coalition. That may seem overly self-serious even pompous to some while it may seem insufficiently reverential to the Founding Fathers to others. Both of those criticisms are mistaken. It is no intellectual sin for contemporary citizens to aim to match, or better still surpass, our forebears. The folly is in the timid assumption that all glories lie in the past. The error is in adopting a jaded cynicism that cannot bear the sight of unrepentant earnestness. It is furthermore not altogether clear that the challenges America faces today are less demanding than they were at the start of the Republic, different certainly but not necessarily less challenging nor of less importance.
Libertarians and progressives have not been in a common political alliance in the United States in quite some time. There are of course reasons for that. During the Cold War, the character of the Soviet enemy (communist, atheist, and threatening) provided the glue that held together the three legs of the Republican intellectual stool: capitalism, Christianity, and defense-hawkishness. This led libertarians to place more emotional weight on issues that separated them from progressives and meant that they were quite welcome within the Republican coalition. At the same time, the association of libertarianism with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act and the opposition of many libertarians to social safety net programs like Medicare led progressives to view libertarians with mistrust, if not outright hostility. But times change and kaleidoscopes turn. It no longer makes sense for these now half-century old mutual suspicions to stymie what could be a fruitful partnership.
Progressives and libertarians are likely to empower the best in each other and tame the worst. Libertarians will push progressives to be more humble in their policy design, more willing to think hard about trade-offs and unintended consequences, and more comfortable using framings that have purchase outside of left-leaning circles. Progressives will push libertarians to be more ambitious in their policy design, less blasé about inequality, and more comfortable with talking in the language of “there but for the grace of God go I” empathy. Without libertarians, progressives may be too willing to sleepwalk into the lazy embrace of zero-sum distributional arguments, to throw huge sums of money at every problem rather than think more creatively, and to indulge in bilious denunciations of business so as to appease the neo-hippies on the far left. Without progressives, libertarians may be too willing to sleepwalk into the lazy repetition of the well-worn philosophical arguments that- however much they thrill Ayn Rand disciples- ring hollow, even cold, to those who are hurting or anxious or poor. This is an opportunity for progressives because libertarians have been made politically homeless. The populists and nationalists within the Republican movement have made it very clear that libertarians are no longer welcome or valued there. This is an opportunity for libertarians because, if they join with progressives, they can shape policy in ways that they favor.
In many policy areas, there is already considerable agreement between progressives and libertarians. Both shudder at the ways in which the police in America have come to resemble a militarized occupying force that casually brutalizes citizens- and especially African Americans- but then wields its union as a shield to defend reckless, abusive cops from consequences. Both recognize, or at least ought to recognize, that not-in-my-backyard activism, exclusionary zoning, and insufficient construction have created a serious housing shortage; high rents financially strangle people while simultaneously making the country poorer by impeding people’s ability to move to more economically dynamic places. Both are wary of the erosion of civil liberties that ride the coattails of national security concerns. Both recognize, or ought to recognize, the ways in which international trade helps consumers stretch their paychecks, helps American businesses be more competitive in global markets (thus generating good jobs), helps make the world a more peaceful place, and helps developing countries lift themselves out of poverty. Both believe that welcoming immigration policies make the United States a stronger, better country while also directly benefiting native-born citizens. Both contain a natural optimism about human nature; it is the Marxists and the alt-right who see exploitation and decline everywhere they look. Both progressives and libertarians, while respecting the sacrifices of America’s military servicemembers, are skeptical of military adventurism that needlessly wastes blood and treasure, to say nothing of routine and frequently prodigal defense expenditure increases. Both wonder aloud if the United States really needs a 12th aircraft carrier in a world where U.S. allies have 7 and China and Russia combined have 3. Both see the improvements in how LGBT Americans are treated as an entirely positive thing that merits celebrating. Both value tolerance and cherish the benefits of living in a more pluralist society. Both see technological innovation and the businesses doing that innovation as sources of pride and prosperity- or at least that is how they ought to see them. The two are likely to agree on at least some areas of regulatory policy such as occupational licensing and at least some areas of climate change policy such as ending fossil fuel subsidies. There will of course be areas where they disagree, but to borrow a line from Ronald Reagan, 80% friends should not see each other as 20% enemies. Whatever other disagreements progressives and libertarians have (and they surely will), they can work together on these issues and probably a number of others as well. Politics in a two-party system is by necessity coalitional. That is doubly so when the illiberal wolves are growling at the door.
The idea at the heart of modern America is grandiose in its ambitions: that we can be a large, prosperous, hyper-diverse, world-inspiring democracy. No other country is even trying to do and be all of those things simultaneously. We live in a multipolar world now, but America still occupies a special place. Because it is comprised of so much of the world’s humanity and because it allows that humanity great freedom of action, the promise and peril of the human species are constantly on full display here. If America as an idea can succeed, that says something very bright about the human soul. If it fails, that too says something very powerful. I fear that without an altered course in our politics, the cycle of extremism, populism, discontent, and zero-sum thinking are likely to only get worse. One does not need to reach for the Weimar analogy to recognize that as a scary, depressing, bleak future.
This series of essays argues though that, if this new coalition forms, that future can be avoided and America’s best days can be ahead of it. Built on the foundation of a new progressive-libertarian alliance, we can live up to our potential and take another step toward forming that more perfect union.