Moving In A More Liberal and Libertarian Direction

Libertarianism comes in many flavors. There’s hard libertarianism which rarely allows for any government activity as well as quite a variety of people who lean towards libertarianism who hold various views as to when government action is appropriate. Libertarianism has often been associated with the right, and the Ron Paul movement has definitely shown that social conservatism (often accompanied by the racism and anti-Semitism which have often afflicted the far right) can take on a libertarian name.

With the growing authoritarianism of the Republican Party, the more interesting development of libertarianism has been increased alliance between libertarians and liberals. There has even been talk of a fusionist philosophy of liberaltarianism. This has largely come about as the issues which divide left and right have changed. Attitudes on social issues, civil liberties, and the Iraq war are for more likely to divide people between left or right. There does remain some remnants of leftist economic views among Democrats but for the most part the idea of a market economy has won. There is far less interest in big government programs, except in specific areas, and certainly little support for income redistribution among contemporary Democrats.

It is significant that of the three major Democratic candidates to run this year, the two who embraced populist economic views lost while the more pro-market Barack Obama, who has been heavily influenced by the University of Chicago, is the current nominee. Obama has even been referred to as a left-libertarian by some, and more recently Geogre Will described Obama’s philosophy as one of “libertarian paternalism.” David Friedman has recently written on why he prefers Obama to McCain.

Hard core libertarians will disagree and oppose Obama as well as the current trends in the Democratic Party. Other libertarians find reason to be enthusiastic about the direction the country is taking on both social and economic matters. In discussing The Age of Abundance,by Brink Lindsey, Tim Lee writes:

Over the last four decades, public attitudes have shifted dramatically rightward on economic issues (even with a sweeping Democratic victory this fall, it’s hard to imagine a return to the 1970s’ levels of taxes, regulations, unionization, or monetary expansion) and leftward on social issues (feminism, gay rights, and sexual openness have all made great strides). I think it’s pretty clear that the left has been gradually winning on social issues while the right has mostly won on economic issues. While neither side has been all that libertarian, the net effect has been to push things in a libertarian direction.

I also think it would be helpful if more libertarians talked about things in these terms. Too many libertarians seem to define libertarianism as a very specific and restrictive political program: as a laundry list of government programs to be abolished, or equivalently as a very short list of government programs that won’t be abolished. By that measure, libertarianism is nowhere close to successful. But if we define libertarianism more broadly as a set of general ideas and attitudes—pro-market, pro-tolerance, skeptical of authority—the last few decades look a lot better from a libertarian perspective. Few major government programs have been abolished, but the role of market in the economy has expanded dramatically, and partly as a consequence people are freer than they’ve ever been to live their lives as they seem fit without interference from those in authority.

The Age of Abundance was written from the perspective of a time when the conventional wisdom among libertarians was that Republicans were pro-market and preferable on economic issues. They also believed  Democrats were preferable on social issues but unacceptable due to being anti-market. In recent years Democrats have been far more market-oriented, even if many liberals wouldn’t use that designation (as Matthew Yglesias points out.) In contrast, the Republicans have increasingly been supporters of corporate welfare and redistribution of wealth to the top one tenth of one percent, embracing policies which have little resemblence to lasissez-faire capitalism. Defining libertarianism more broadly as Tim Lee does, there is a tremendous overlap with liberalism, with Lee being right in seeing the overal trend as moving in a more libertarian direction. While George Bush has tried going against such trends, his authoritarian big-government views have been widely repudiated, allowing the country to move in a more libertarian direction in coming years.

Moving Towards the Center Versus Leadership

When Obama announced his decision to vote for the FISA compromise, I assumed that this was primarily a politically motivated decision. I also questioned if he was making the same mistake that other Democrats made when voting on the Iraq war. Similarly I’ve noted how Obama has taken the politically more cautious route of failing to back same-sex marriages, also wondering if taking a less than consistent viewpoint is really the best course. Glenn Greenwald has written a number of excellent posts on the FISA bill and today addresses the politics of moving towards the center on such issues:

The central problem is that if Democrats embrace the GOP framework of National Security — that “Strength” means what the GOP says it means — then that framework gets enforced and perpetuated, and it’s a framework within which Democrats can’t possibly win, because Republicans will always “out-Strength” Democrats within that framework. It’s only by challenging and disputing the underlying premises can Democrats change the way that “strength” and “weakness” are understood.

The Democrats had such a smashing victory in 2006 because — for the first time in a long time, and really despite themselves — there was a perception (rightly or wrongly) that they actually stood for something different than the GOP in National Security (an end to the War in Iraq). Drawing a clear distinction with the deeply unpopular GOP is how Democrats look strong. The advice that they should “move to the center” and copy Republicans is guaranteed to make them look weak — because it is weak. It’s the definition of weakness.

The most distinctive and potent — one could even say exciting — aspect of Obama’s campaign had been his aggressive refusal to accept GOP pieties on National Security, his insistence that the GOP would lose — and should lose — debates over who is “stronger” and more “patriotic” and who will keep us more safe. The widely-celebrated foreign policy memo written by Obama’s adviser, Samantha Power, heaped scorn on Washington’s national security “conventional wisdom,” emphasizing how weak and vulnerable it has made the U.S. When Obama took that approach, he appeared to be, and in fact was, resolute and unapologetic in defending his own views — the very attributes that define “strength.”

The advice he’s getting, and apparently beginning to follow, is now the opposite: that he should shed his prior beliefs in favor of the amorphous, fuzzy, conventional GOP-leaning Center, that he should cease to insist on a re-examination of National Security premises and instead live within the GOP framework. That’s likely to lead to many things, but a perception of strength isn’t one of them. One of the very few things in the universe with a worse track record than America’s dominant Foreign Policy Community is the central religious belief of the Democratic consultant class and Beltway punditry that Democrats, to be successful, must shed their own beliefs and “move to the Center.”

Moving to the center does give the impression of “flip-flopping” and does make a candidate look weaker. The more serious problem in the long run is that if Democratic candidates run away from liberal positions, how can they expect the voters to either understand these positions or to support them? Liberal Democrats take the positions they do on national security matters not because they are weak on national security but because they believe that their views are better for the long term security of the country. They also consider civil liberties considerations to be important. However if nobody has the courage to stand up and publicly defend their views on national security and civil liberties, this leaves the Republicans as the only ones presenting a consistent viewpoint. Worse, when Democrats fail to coherently articulate their positions, they leave Republican free to define them.

While I’ve expressed my disagreement with Obama on issues such as the FISA compromise I’ve also pulled my punches out of understanding for his political predicament. It is far from clear as to which course would be the best in terms of electability. Obama can make the point that the only way he can bring about any change is if he does get elected, even if this means presenting his views in a manner more acceptable to the majority of voters.

The Anonymous Liberal does make a strong point in Obama’s defense. It would be far easier for Obama to vote against the FISA bill if more Democrats were also taking the principled positon:

I agree with Glenn that there is no reason the Democratic party should, in the current climate, feel the need to align its security policies more closely with the current administration. Indeed, if the Democrats were to stand up and run in full-throated opposition to the current policies, they’d probably do quite well in November.

I’m not sure the same thing is true of individual Democrats, however, particularly those running for national office. For instance, while I’m not going to defend Obama’s capitulation on FISA, I think it nevertheless is true that he is in a very difficult position politically and that opposing the bill might well hurt him in November. But the reason it might hurt him has nothing to do with the substantive merits of the bill or public opinion on issues like FISA reform and telecom immunity. The reason it might hurt him is because of the symbolism of the vote. With over two thirds of the members of his own party prepared to vote in favor of the bill, he had no political cover. If he opposes the bill, the question posed to him by every reporter and debate moderator would be: if the bill was so bad, why did over 2/3rds of the members of your own party think it was necessary to keep America safe?

This certainly could be a problem for Obama. Already we hear claims that Obama is the most liberal member of the Senate, often based upon a misleading survey from The National Journal. Many voters are now open to voting Democratic who have not done so in the past, but they might not vote for one who is characterized as the most extreme, along as being weak on national security.

There are strong arguments for Obama to move towards the center but we also must consider Obama’s strenghts as an orator. We now have a unique situation in which people are listening to the message from Democrats in larger numbers than we have seen for decades. This is the perfect moment for Obama to be taking the lead and use his oratory skills to convince the voters of the validity of his positions. Rather than go by the polls and by prevalent beliefs spread by Republicans which many are rejectilng, this is a time in which Obama can create a new majority by explaining his beliefs and convincing people that he is right. Voters who are overwhelmingly rejecting the Republicans are open to new ideas, but only if Democrats have the courage to express them.

Party Realignment Based Upon Education and Economic Class

I’ve often commented on the realignment between the parties, with the division now being more upon social issues and Iraq as opposed to economic issues. Republican attempts to scare people away from voting Democratic based upon claims that they would tax all their money have become less successful than claims in certain areas that Democrats would take away their guns and bibles. As a consequence, a growing number of more affluent and more educated voters are voting Democratic while Republicans seek the votes of more working class and socially conservative voters. In this respect the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination was also a battle between the party’s future and the party’s past.

The Washington Post looks at the changes in the Virginias and finds similar trends. I would suggest reading the entire article for context, but I will pull out quotes which simply describe the changes in who is voting for each party:

As the gap grows between places that are prospering and those that are not, Democrats are strengthening their hold in major metropolitan areas, particularly in places faring well in the technology-driven economy.

In 1976, Republican Gerald R. Ford won 10 of the 12 states with the highest per-capita income but lost the election; in 2004, John F. Kerry did the same for the Democrats.

Republicans, meanwhile, are consolidating their hold in rural areas and small cities, while making inroads in struggling Appalachian and Rust Belt regions that were a core of the Democratic base.

The trend generally bodes well for Democrats. Major metro areas are growing faster than the country as a whole, the party’s strength with young voters promises a lasting edge, and well-off, highly educated urban voters are valuable campaign contributors in the Internet age.

The party that fought for the little guy against the party of the wealthy has, while still representing racial minorities, increasingly become defined by the metropolitan middle and upper-middle class.

By pressing issues such as gun rights and same-sex marriage, Republicans tightened their grip on the South and snared such states as West Virginia, but lost many business-minded voters and alienated areas such as Fairfax County, where one in seven Virginians live.

The Bush presidency has widened the gap, as many suburban voters deserted the Republican Party in the 2006 congressional elections.

But the biracial senator from Illinois epitomizes the new Democratic coalition, with his years living abroad and in big cities, his intellectualism and his urbane flair, and his campaign’s lofty rhetoric and Internet savvy.

McCain, 71, lacks Bush’s ties with evangelical Christians, yet the Republican from Arizona still embodies a more traditional America, with his wartime heroism, his mantra of service over individualism and his admittedly limited technological literacy.

“Democratic areas are sopping up people with BA degrees; Republican areas are sopping up white people without degrees. Church membership is declining in Democratic areas and increasing in red counties,” said Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort.”

Overall, the most wealthy are still more likely to vote for GOP candidates, particularly in red states, where it is the rich, not the working class, who are most reliably Republican. The split is more evident in education and vocation, with professionals and voters with post-graduate degrees trending Democratic.

Affluent suburbs that were once solidly Republican have edged toward a split or turned Democratic, threatening to put big states out of the GOP’s reach for good: Bergen County, N.J., and New York’s Long Island; the “collar” counties outside Chicago; Montgomery and Bucks counties outside Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Republicans have made gains in the Democrats’ New Deal base — places such as West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, said it was simple: As national Democrats focused on a cosmopolitan constituency, her party made clear that it understood West Virginia’s culture

Keith Thompson’s father was a cabbie at the station, and his father-in-law was a train inspector, but Thompson, 52, works in Morgantown, 25 miles away, delivering uniforms to coal miners and car mechanics. He has voted Republican for years, fed up with West Virginia Democrats who he thinks have crippled the state with taxes, regulation and welfare, and national Democrats who he thinks want to take away his semiautomatic rifles.

For Whitehair, the highway worker, the turning point in 2000 was the Democrats’ fight to save the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. He will vote Republican again because McCain was a Vietnam POW. Also, he “heard Obama was a Muslim” — a false rumor.

There are common threads throughout the various quotes I’ve taken from the article. The more educated and affluent voters are voting Democratic, with the exception of the most wealthy. This is hardly surprising considering how the tax policies of both Bush and McCain primarily benefit the upper one tenth of one percent. Both Kerry and Obama have made sure their tax policies do not adversely affect those making up to $250,000 per year, recognizing that this is a growing Democratic constituency.

The Republicans are left with a strange coalition, which explains why the party is rapidly losing power. As there are very few votes among the upper one tenth of one percent economically, they are forced to turn to others for actual votes. With their policies being those of past ages, they are primarily able to attract the votes of those who are not comfortable living in the twenty-first century. They receive the votes of the uneducated and those who, for various reasons, are susceptible to their false claims. These include the religious right and those who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attack based upon fear without rational thought.

It might make sense from an economic point of view for those in the top one tenth of one percent to vote Republican. Beyond that they receive votes from those who can be deceived or suffer from a number of delusions. People who vote Republican generally believe several of these claims commonly made by the right:

  • They believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which represented a threat to the United States and was working with al Qaeda.
  • They believe going to war in Iraq was beneficial to our national security when in reality the war has strengthened al Qaeda and Iran while weakening the United States.
  • They believe Democrats will take away everyone’s guns, and bibles.
  • They believe Obama is a Muslim.
  • They deny our heritage of separation of church and state and consider legislating their religious views to be a proper role of government.
  • They both believe in creationism as a valid alternative to evolution and believe it should be taught in science classes.
  • They believe abortion is “baby killing,” failing to either understand the distinction or consider the rights of an individual to control their own body.
  • They believe science can be ignored when it contradicts their personal beliefs or preferences, from believing in creationism to denying the scientific consensus on global warming.

Many of these beliefs simply stem from limited education, or require limited education to fall for, explaining the demographic changes. Others stem from philosophical views which make even some well educated individuals receptive to Republican rhetoric. Rather than representing a coherent philosophy, conservatism as practiced by the Republican Party has become primarily a reaction against the modern era and a reaction against reality. The more they rely on such beliefs, the more the Republican Party becomes an unacceptable choice among the educated, leading to the demographic changes described in this article.

McCain Makes Gaffe on Gas Prices Which Could Affect Election

The average voter does not spend much time on the policy details of each candidate. Often a handful of events determine the image of the candidate. Michael Dukakis never recovered from the pictures in the tank and a poor answer to a question on his response if he wife were raped and murdered. George Bush never recovered from the image of him not knowing what a supermarket scanner was, even if that story turned out to be untrue.  John Kerry never recovered from the claims of the Swift Boat Liars, regardless of how many times their claims were demonstrated to be politically-motivated lies orchestrated by the right wing. John McCain has now had the moment which might determine his fate politically during this interview with the Orange County Register:

When was the last time you pumped your own gas and how much did it cost?

Oh, I don’t remember. Now there’s Secret Service protection. But I’ve done it for many, many years. I don’t recall and frankly, I don’t see how it matters.

I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of town hall meetings, many as short a time ago as yesterday. I communicate with the people and they communicate with me very effectively.

With all the attempts to paint Obama as the elitist, this demonstrates how out of touch John McCain really is. I’ve sometimes sympathized with politicians who have failed similar question as to the price of milk as I have no idea how much my wife spends on groceries. The price of gas is a different matter. As James Joyner wrote, “The price of gas is the number one issue on the minds of just about every voter these days. It’s an issue that virtually transcends class. Most of us know, to the penny, what we’re paying for gas and where the cheapest gas is in our area.”

Technically McCain was asked about the price when he last pumped as opposed to today’s price, but by saying “I don’t see how it matters” he appears oblivious to the concerns of most Americans who are very aware of the rising price.

I could understand McCain not knowing the exact price as I wouldn’t expect him to be the one actually pumping the gas while being driven during a political campaign. However it is difficult to accept him not knowing when it crossed the four dollar a gallon barrier considering how much talk there has been of this in all areas of society. An exact number was not required for this answer. If he simply responded to the question by saying it was less than four dollars when he last pumped it everyone would be satisfied that he is aware of how the price has changed. By not acknowledging the recent increases he will widely be seen as out of touch.

The four dollar a gallon number seems to be mentioned in the news and in popular culture on a daily basis. There have been numerous news stories on its impact, from companies and city governments struggling to meet the expense to its effect on the auto industry. Last weekend my wife and I had a marathon session watching the second season of Dexter .  I recall one scene where the police were looking at a photograph and one comment was on the price of gas on a sign in the background. All national politicians are to some degree in a bubble, but you have to be in a pretty thick bubble not to be aware of the price of gas. Sometimes the right answer to a question is not an answer to the exact question. While the price he paid when he last pumped gas himself is not important, it was important for McCain to acknowledge an awareness of how much the price has risen.

The mishandling of this question is primarily a problem of image. The more serious problem is that he fails to have a realistic energy policy. Think Progress writes:

McCain’s cluelessness about gas prices is compounded by the fact that he is clueless about what to do about it. He is promoting a gas tax holiday for drivers because he claims to understand “Americans are hurting.” It will provide “a little psychological boost,” McCain said of his plan.

In reality, his gas tax holiday would be worth a mere 60 cents a day for Americans and would be a boon for oil companies and foreign oil-producing nations. It would drive up the deficit. Moreover, the proposal would rob $1.4 billion from “public transportation and severely restrict the industry’s ability to add and improve transit services for a growing number of Americans.”

In fairness to John McCain I should point out that the interview wasn’t a total disaster. He did differentiate himself from Bush on some issues:

Next one from a voter: What will make you different from George W. Bush?

My vision for America.

Name a couple specific things that will distinguish you.

Climate change. Spending. The torture of prisoners. There are numerous other issues that we’ve been in disagreement on in the past. Spending is one of the fundamental one. Torture of prisoners. Addressing climate change effectively. Just to name a few.

John McCain does not deny the scientific consensus on climate change and he opposes torture. It shows how  out of touch the entire Republican Party has become when differing from them on these points make a candidate stand out.