To libertarians and conservatives: Be patient and work together!
Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Mitt Romney and playing the long game
By Christopher Cook
Patience is a virtue in short supply when it comes to ideology and politics.
People with strong ideologies often look at the available choices and despair, finding them far too moderate, not strong enough on core issues, or too willing to compromise. This goes for both candidates and parties. I will constrain myself here just to addressing libertarians and conservatives, especially “tea party” conservatives, though this phenomenon is also in evidence on the left.
First, note that I count myself among the ideological people whom I am addressing: On the scale of classical liberal (that is, libertarian/conservative) ideologies, I currently range somewhere between Chicago School and Public Choice (though I find myself being drawn closer to supporting a night-watchman state with each passing day). I am not a RINO or a moderate, nor am I a piker when it comes to my personal belief in limited government.
What I am, however, is a realist. I am aware of how politics works. I am aware of the impediments to rapid change, not least of which is the inescapable truth of the Overton Window. I am aware that old regimes are not overthrown overnight. And, my fellow conservatives and libertarians . . . you should be as well.
Things do not change as fast as we would like them to. That is just a fact. But they do change. If you want classical liberal principles to once again govern our polity . . . great! But it is not effective to look at the current situation, deem it insufficiently ideologically pure, and then despair, or vote third-party, or call a pox on all their houses. Change takes work. Change takes a long time. Change requires taking over existing institutions and political parties.
Look at the left. The transition of the Democratic Party from being the party of slavery, segregation, and regional concerns to the party of nationalist, social-gospeler progressives took decades. Similarly, the transition from that form to today’s form—that of a hard-left, secular, internationalist, statist party—took decades. The kids protesting in the streets and reading Mao’s Little Red Book in the 1960s have been hammering away at the task for 45 years. It took a long march through the institutions . . . candidate recruitment . . . taking over precinct committees and other party organs . . . and a whole lot more, including a lot of setbacks along the way. Now, they’ve gotten the Democrats to the point where most of the prominent moderates are gone, a hard-left ideologue from Marin County rose to be the Speaker of the House, and a community organizer from ACORN is president. That took a lot of work, but they got there. And along the road, there were no doubt lefties for whom none of it was happening nearly fast enough.
The ideologies at work in the left’s example are bad ideologies, but the example itself is instructive. Most tea party conservatives have probably made their peace with Romney already, for pragmatic,I’d vote-for-bellybutton-lint-over-Barack-Obama reasons, but many libertarians still have not. So, it is to libertarians that I primarily make this case: If Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are insufficiently core conservative/libertarian, the answer is not to curse them or vote for third-party candidates. The answer is to work to take the party and the whole movement over.
This is what I so respect about Ron and Rand Paul. They are working within the movement, within the party. Yes, there is friction between long-time conservatives and newly energized, young, libertarian Paul supporters. Yes, a few of their ideas may be a bridge too far for many conservatives, especially on foreign policy. But at least the Pauls are there, in the Republican Party, making realistic efforts to engage and influence the movement and the party, rather than operating on the fringes and playing nothing more than the angry spoiler role. In the end, both sides will move closer to each other, bad ideas will be sloughed off, and the core principles will remain, and grow stronger.
The change may not be fast enough for many tastes, but it is happening. The tea party movement has transitioned from protest movement to political force. Most of the tea party’s members are probably conservatives, but most of their policy priorities are classically libertarian. The Ron Paul movement has left the fringes and is having a real impact, and with rising star Rand Paul having a foot in both worlds, the Paul phenomenon will continue moving into the mainstream of the party and movement.
Sometimes, when climbing a hill, it’s hard sometimes to see just how far one has come . . . until one stops and looks back towards the bottom of the hill. The movement is definitely changing.
These two factions—the Paul phenomenon (and the broader libertarian movement it partially represents) and the tea party—even have specific candidates in common. When discussing Ted Cruz’s victory in Texas, for example, commentators are likely to discuss the anti-establishment angle and Cruz’s strong support from tea partiers, but it must be remembered, Cruz was also the candidate supported by Rand and Ron Paul. Cruz’s victory is one more example of a tea party victory and part of an ongoing move to replace old-guard, establishment Republicans, and trend that is continuing. But it is also an example of the Pauls playing the long game, and playing to win by operating within the Rpublican Party.
The answer is not to look at Ted Cruz’s victory, and those like it, and lament that things are not happening fast enough. The answer is to look at where the Republican Party, and the movement of the right in general, were just a few years ago. Republicans in Congress were spending like crazy. Libertarians were off in a corner mumbling about natural rights. Movement conservatives were actually put in the unenviable—and ideologically dubious—position of having to defend Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” Six years later, and old-guard Republicans are being picked off in primaries, and others are coming within a hair’s breadth of losing. More and more, little by little, classical liberal/libertarian/core conservative/call-it-what-you-will principles are being espoused and represented in Congress . . . learned about and spoken of by the rank-and-file . . . and represented in resurgent, growing tea-party and libertarian movements. Now, the whole movement is shouting about natural rights from every corner, window, and rooftop. Yes, the GOP still has a lot of statism-lite types, but their numbers are decreasing, election by election. Don’t groan over how far there is to go—marvel at how far we’ve come, and how fast. At this pace, we may not even need a whole generation to effect a complete transition.
Yes, Mitt Romney is more the technocrat and get-things-done administrator type and less the rock-ribbed, ideologically driven core conservative/libertarian. Fair enough. But the choice is between him or Barack Obama. The other choice, Gary Johnson, will not win. Like nearly all third-party candidates who have come and gone, the most Gary Johnson can possibly achieve is to take enough votes from Romney in a close state—Colorado, perhaps—to give that state to Obama. He will not win; he will either create statistical noise or serve as a spoiler, and possibly a fatal one if the Electoral College vote is close.
Romney may not be ideal, but such is the way of things.* (Supreme Court nominations alone are reason enough to vote for Romney, and to vote against Obama, but that’s a subject for another day.) This is a step-by-step process. So, first we beat Obama with Romney. Then we move up to a Paul Ryan type. Then, it’s Ted Cruzes of the world who are in the lead. After a decade or so of hard work, the Republican Party will be more conservative and more libertarian, and even more of the old guard will have been replaced. And that process will continue. A few years on, the long-sighted person will look back to the first decade of the 21st century, compare the state of the movement and the party then and now, and marvel at how far it has come. We just have to stick with it.
Finally, I need you to think about a metaphor with me, on the subject of conservative-libertarian cooperation.
Imagine that conservatives and libertarians are in a cave on the shore. We both walked in there separately while combing the beach for pretty seashells. Once in there, we realize that the tide is rising and the cave is slowly filling with water. Still, each confident that we will escape, we begin to discuss—and then argue about—what kind of a celebratory beach party we’re going to have when we finally escape. Will we have tiki torches or a big bonfire? Will we let people smoke weed or not? Should there be five rules of conduct, or only three?
Meanwhile, the water is still rising and statist left have the beach all to themselves. They’re having a party with tiki torches, weed, and a list of rules of conduct that is 15,000 pages long and requires a battery of lawyers just to explain how confusing it is.
Conservatives and libertarians need to set aside our small differences, escape the cave, and drive the statists off the beach completely. Then, and only then, we can argue about tiki torches. As America’s cave slowly fills with water, it’s starting to look as though our very survival depends on setting aside our small differences and cooperating to defeat the statism that threatens to drown us all.
*NB: The open primary system has a lot to do with choices like McCain and Romney. If the GOP closes that hole, GOP nominees will be more pleasing to conservatives and libertarians.
Ardently devoted to the cause of human freedom, he has worked at the confluence of politics, activism, and public policy for more than a decade. He co-wrote a ten-part series of video shorts on economics, and has film credits as a researcher on 11 political documentaries, including Citizens United's notorious film on Hillary Clinton that became the subject of a landmark Supreme Court decision. He is the founder of several activist endeavors, including AnyStreet.org (now a part of Western Free Press) and Liberatchik.com. He is currently the managing editor of and principal contributor to WesternFreePress.com.