In his State of the Union address this month, President Trump did not mention the rising budget deficit or the swelling national debt a single time. Asked why, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney simply said, “Nobody cares.”
How far the Republican Party has come. It has abandoned its libertarian wing, which built the conservative movement from the ground up. Trump’s governing agenda displays this in stark terms. Nobody cares about libertarians. Corporatist conservatives deliver the money, while the evangelicals and white nationalists deliver the votes. Yet what choice do libertarians have but to vote Republican?
That question represents an opportunity for Democrats, who, if they were smart, would go after this alienated faction by finding common ground where possible and giving libertarians a real alternative.
Libertarians showed little interest in the Republican Party in the first half of the 20th century, when it was still a party dominated by corporatist policies. But that changed with the rise of Barry Goldwater in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Leading a band of Sun Belt libertarians, Goldwater argued that individual freedom should always prevail over social insurance programs. He thought the federal government should do only three things: provide national security, ensure well-operating courts and remove free-market obstacles. He wanted to eliminate all social welfare, education, public power, agriculture and housing programs. His historic defeat in the 1964 presidential race, however, made clear that this vision was not popular.
Conservative intellectuals had been concerned about the limited appeal of libertarianism for quite some time. In 1956, Frank Meyer, editor of the National Review, had suggested that libertarian conservatives needed to join forces with social conservatives, a fusion that would create a coalition large enough to overtake the Democrats. Meyer thought evangelicals and libertarians were natural allies, particularly because of their shared loathing of godless communism. (Libertarians were less convinced of the naturalness of this alliance.)
As Meyer suggested, the ideological glue holding these groups together initially was being against communism. The evangelical desire to foster virtue and the libertarian aim to promote freedom were linked during the Cold War because the Soviets threatened both aspirations. But it was domestic politics that ultimately triggered the realignment. By driving Southern segregationists from the Democratic Party, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided the fusionists with an opportunity to shake up national politics. In 1968, Richard Nixon used a strategy based on racial animus to link Southern social and racial conservatives with Western libertarians.
In Ronald Reagan, corporatists found the messenger they needed to retake control of the conservative movement. Reagan was an avowed neoconservative who significantly escalated military spending at the same time that he was delivering massive tax cuts and clearing away unwanted regulations. As the Cold War wound down in the mid-1980s, Reagan kept the libertarians and evangelicals in the coalition with his anti-tax rhetoric, which appealed to both groups because they favored a smaller and less intrusive government.
But Reagan wasn’t a magician. He couldn’t reduce the size of government, because Democrats controlled Congress and social insurance programs proved annoyingly popular. As a result, the budget deficit increased rapidly and the national debt ballooned by 186 percent. While his successor George H.W. Bush tried to reel in that deficit, low taxes had replaced balanced budgets as Republican economic orthodoxy. The party ultimately veered toward working-class white voters and leaned into cultural issues, thrilling social conservatives and appalling libertarians.
The next Republican president made things even worse. George W. Bush pursued tax cuts and purged regulations, which pleased corporatists. Social conservatives also got what they wanted: a GOP agenda that included same-sex marriage bans, antiabortion legislation and faith-based initiatives. But libertarians, who wanted less government, not government-imposed morality, were left out in the cold. Under Bush, military budgets soared and the size of government increased, swelling the deficit and leading to a 101 percent increase in the debt.
After the passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, libertarians thought their time had come again with the emergence of the tea party movement. But evangelicals and racial conservatives focused on issues such as immigration swiftly co-opted this crusade.
So in 2018, after years of growing irrelevance, libertarians began to abandon the Republican Party. This was most apparent in the suburbs, often home to a libertarian blend of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Orange County, Calif., the birthplace of modern libertarianism. Republicans dominated there for decades. Yet Democrats now control all seven congressional seats in the county. This is partly the result of demographic change, but it is also the result of shifting party loyalties, particularly among college-educated women.
This offers a huge opportunity for Democrats. While staying true to its fundamental progressive beliefs, the party can and should find areas where it agrees with libertarians.
There are three obvious places to wage this battle for the soul of libertarianism. First, Democrats should unapologetically fight against government interference in Americans’ private lives. On issues such as reproductive rights, freedom of the press and LGBTQ rights, there is common ground to be found.
Second, Democrats should trumpet their record of fiscal prudence. The facts are simple. When Democrats control government, deficits go down; when Republicans are in charge, they go up. Bill Clinton actually balanced the budget, while Obama successfully shrank the deficit after the Great Recession faded (the debt had increased 74 percent during the crisis). Embracing budget balancing by progressive means, such as raising taxes on the wealthy and reducing spending in areas including agriculture subsidies, would certainly appeal to libertarians.
Finally, Democrats should aggressively support some type of universal basic income. This idea was introduced by arguably the most important conservative economist of the 20th century, Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. He argued that what he called a negative income tax would allow for a significant reduction in the size of government by replacing all welfare and social insurance programs with a monthly check that would allow poor Americans to meet their basic needs in the marketplace. In recent years, progressives have come to think that this would also be a desirable approach to providing economic security. Although Democrats should not eliminate all social insurance programs, there is still room to cut specific federal programs and replace them with a universal basic income.
In these and other policy areas, there is an opening to promote a form of progressive libertarianism. Democrats should explore all of them. We are at an important turning point. If progressives hope to lead the next political cycle, they should woo libertarians and expand the Democratic Party’s governing coalition.