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The Active Fantasy Lives of Libertarians

- March 24, 2008

In this Politics magazine piece, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch of Reason magazine envision a future when a candidate like Ron Paul is President:

bq. And when that future arrives — and it will, sooner or later — we’ll all look back at the failed campaign of a guy who said he didn’t want to run our lives, the economy, or the world, and wonder what took us so long.

How does one get to such a conclusion? Follow these easy steps:

#1. Extrapolate political trends from cultural trends. Use hackneyed cultural references when possible:

bq. The key to such an optimism is recognizing that politics is a lagging indicator of American society, which has been moving with broadband-like speed [hackneyed #1] into an era of Do It Yourself culture and not-so-rugged individualism. Think of what Americans have come to expect and insist upon in their social and economic lives: increasingly individualized service, culture and consumer products at every level (“You want soy with that decaf mocha frappucino?” [hackneyed #2]); more and more control over education, healthcare and retirement; and a nearly full-throttled embrace of lifestyle tolerance and pluralism that was unimaginable in a pre-Netflix, pre-“Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” pre-iPod America [hackneyed #3, 4, and 5].

Gillespie and Welch will have to explain to me the connection between individualism and “Queer Eye” — perhaps that’s what “not so rugged” implies? — but in any case I can give them one piece of disconcerting news. Every year since 1982, the National Election Studies has asked this question:

bq. Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

The percentage who wanted government to provide many more services has increased in the past 10 years to 43%, while those who want the government to provide fewer services has decreased to 20%. The data are here. Maybe “not so rugged” just means “not.”

#2. Fetishize exotic measures of political success and downplay the ones that count.

bq. To be sure, by every conventional measure Paul’s presidential presidential campaign bid has been an abject failure — not a single primary win and only 14 delegates as of press time. Yet Paul managed to raise more than $20 million, virtually all of it online, and inspire an army of hyper-devoted and mostly youthful followers using a pitch — and a style — that will have much more to do with 21st century politics than whatever models of Buick and Oldsmobile the Democrats and Republicans eventually crank out this year.

Gillespie and Welch go on to mention that Paul had 67,000 people at MeetUp (20 times more than Obama! OMG!) and that Paul won raves from George Will, Johnny Rotten, and a group called “Strippers for Paul.” Yes, clearly the Democrats and Republicans are doomed if their candidates keep earning the support of delegates instead of aging punk rockers and strippers. Delegates are far less sexy, it’s true (although maybe not much less sexy than Johnny Rotten is now), but they actually provide political power. The question to ask is not, “How can the Democrats and Republicans be more like Ron Paul?” The question to ask is, in essence, “How can a candidate like Ron Paul learn to drive a Buick?”

#3. Fail to read political science.

bq. The major political trend of the past 40 years is the inability of the two parties to grow, much less maintain, market share.

Gillespie and Welch cite Harris Polls showing that the percentage of people identifying with the Republican and Democratic parties has declined (from 80% of the public in 1970 to 63% in 2006). But lots of people who purport to be “independent” actually lean toward one of the two parties. Only about 10% of the population, as of 2004, is purely independent (see here). Moreover, the “independent leaners” behave like closet partisans. In 2004, 90% of Democrats voted for Kerry, as did 87% of independents who lean toward the Democratic party. Similarly, 95% of Republicans voted for Bush, as did 89% of independents who lean toward the Republican party. The “myth of the independent voter” has been well-known in political science since at least 1992; see here.

#4. Fail to see the lessons of your own analysis.

Gillespie and Welch cite Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail.

bq. In terms of goods and services, Anderson argues, we are turning “from a mass market into a niche nation.”

This is because half of Amazon’s sales comes from books that are ranked outside the top 130,000 titles. Etc. And here is the contradiction for Gillespie and Welch. Even if Anderson is correct, true political power is not to be found in the niches. Yes, passionate minorities can influence politics, but fundamentally, American politics is organized and structure by the two dominant parties, who of course collude to maintain their own power, as any self-interested political actor would. And parties are composed of diverse groups; they are coalitions, not niche organizations. Libertarians are not going to matter much unless they can transform themselves from a niche catalyzed only by the occasional candidate like Paul to a key player in either the Democratic or Republican coalition (or both!). (I’ve made a similar point in a previous post.)

How boring, I know. But sometimes an Oldsmobile is all you’ve got.