Can libertarian populism save the Republican Party?

July 6, 2013

The dream of the '90s is alive in the conservative movement. There’s a new name being floated around as the solution to the current electoral woes of the GOP: Ross Perot.


Reform party presidential candidate Ross Perot gives a thumbs up to supporters in 1996 in Dallas. (AP)

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics argues that conservatives should try to rebuild the group of “downscale, Northern, rural whites” known as the “Perot coalition.” This is core to a broader debate, which Tom Edsall summarizes here, over whether or not the Republican Party should mainly focus on getting out the white vote in future elections.

I want to focus on a narrower question within this debate. Would an agenda focused on “libertarian populism” be the right way to bring economically disaffected whites back into the GOP’s fold? Both Ben Domenech of the Transom and Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner have made this case. But it’s an argument that has several major problems.

The specifics of a libertarian populist agenda are often lacking, but advocates sometimes point to to things like Rand Paul’s budget plan. This is a plan that calls for flat taxes, cutting discretionary spending through a balanced budget and removing the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate to promote low inflation and high employment.

This brings to mind Eugene Mirman's joke about bears, where he notes that the common notion that you should play dead if you see a bear “is a rumor that bears spread.” Similarly, the idea that reducing the tax burden on the rich while calling for tighter money and deregulation counts as “populism” sure seems like a rumor spread by the 1 percent.

As Ross Douthat notes, this is an approach that deserves to lose given the economic realities facing the working class. From the voter’s perspective, one immediate problem is that libertarian populism looks less like a genuinely new agenda and more like a fresh marketing spin on the GOP's current platform favoring "job creators."

Since unemployment is a factor keeping many disaffected voters home, this matters. White men over 25 with only a high-school diploma had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate in 2012, compared to 4.0 percent in 2007. That calls for expansionary policy focused on jobs rather than an austerity budget focused on monetary contraction, an approach Romney seemed to consider before walking away.

And if the libertarian populist agenda calls for more “creative destruction” in the economy, the wholesale stripping of social insurance programs is a major step back in providing security and flexibility to vulnerable workers.

Given the extensive debates about inequality and stagnation over the past several years, the story that “libertarian populists” tell is rather thin. It’s basically the idea that the market would be functioning perfectly fine except for state power. Any attempts to check market failure end in corruption and self-dealing, so those ought to be off the table. Getting the government out of the way entirely will enable the U.S. economy to create a broader distribution of incomes, economic security and prosperity, regardless of underlying technological and global trends.

You see these arguments on the radical anarchist/left-libertarian side as well. But as non-left libertarians have pointed out, you have to make several leaps to think that without the existence of the corporate charter and state power we’d all be working in small cooperatives and other horizontalist labor structures. (As an aside, remember how the conservative movement went nuts over President Obama’s campaign device defending government programs, The Life of Julia? You can see this left-libertarian dream of a better economic life without a state in the equally fuming The Life of Julia Under Anarchy.)

I’m biased, but it seems liberals have the better story on the growth of inequality. The Economic Policy Institute has a fantastic Web page, inequality.is, where they walk through a more sophisticated story about how inequality was created by tax, globalization, macroeconomic and regulatory decisions and policies, and it can be fixed through the same mechanisms.

Likewise, Ezra Klein recently reviewed Dean Baker’s End of Loser Liberalism, which makes a similar argument for focusing on “the way in which the government structures the larger economy.” This draws on a long tradition, marching through Progressives and Polyani, that markets are fundamentally created by governments, which implies that there’s no way to “get out of the way” like the libertarian populists want.

For instance, if you check out the actual 1892 Populist Party agenda, it states “the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads” and thus “the government should own and operate the railroads in the interest of the people.”

Though public ownership isn’t a popular argument these days, public regulation and accountability is. So a truly “populist” agenda might call for a larger active state rather than a smaller one — particularly if the agenda is meant to energize people about how powerful, big corporations are ripping them off. People are mad about their cable and phone bills being too expensive, or their mortgage servicer screwing them, or because they have a loan from the bank that they didn’t even know about. Repealing corporate tax loopholes, while important, is a second-order concern to these voters in their day-to-day lives.

And would a libertarian populism approach really be that new? Mitt Romney arguably tried this, after all, in his 2012 presidential campaign.

Take Dodd-Frank. In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney didn’t attack Dodd-Frank from the right, arguing it was a government takeover that would hurt innovation. Instead, he attacked it as “the biggest kiss that’s been given to New York banks I’ve ever seen.” Most people were caught off guard by this. Wasn't Wall Street lobbying to weaken Dodd-Frank? Didn’t financial money go hard for Romney in 2012? What about all those finance people endlessly complaining about Obama?

But Romney was following a very esoteric (and dubious) “libertarian populist” argument that Dodd-Frank, as Romney said in the debate, “designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they're effectively guaranteed by the federal government.” Or that Dodd-Frank was a permanent bailout, permanently protecting Wall Street.

There’s more. Just as Ross Perot talked about the “giant sucking sound” of NAFTA, Romney ran explicitly on declaring China a currency manipulator. “I’ve watched year in and year out,” he said, “as companies have shut down and people have lost their jobs because China has not played by the same rules, in part by holding down artificially the value of their currency.” He even echoed Ron Paul in calling for an audit of the Federal Reserve.

None of those positions seemed to do Romney any good, as he’s not even remembered for any of it. Which is to say that libertarian posturing can be a black hole; it can never be satiated, no matter how much energy is put into filling it.

All of this brings home the last point: The arguments in favor of libertarian populism presuppose what they need to prove — that the reason these voters stayed home was because Mitt Romney wasn’t far enough to the right on economic libertarianism. Maybe. Or perhaps the voters stayed home because no one focused on straight-up jobs, which would require a more interventionist agenda. Far from turning out more white voters, a more libertarian agenda could keep them at home.

But non-voting whites might also be staying home because they are alienated in a world of increasing cultural liberalism, of gay marriage and globalization, one that doesn’t privilege their maleness and whiteness enough. A campaign that seriously addresses white working-class resentment might lose other voters (white and non-white) faster than they are gained.

Under all the theorizing on why white voters went “missing” from the GOP in 2012 is the fact that Republican agendas have no answers on inequality for the majority of citizens. This opportunity is promising. However, so far, the proposed fixes are not.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he focuses on financial regulation, inequality and unemployment. He writes a weekly column for Wonkblog. Follow him on Twitter here.

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