A Libertarian Election
by Stephen Cox | Posted November 04, 2010
In emails sent on election day to prospective Democratic voters, President Obama said, “Today, the country will make a choice about the direction we take in the years ahead. " We’ll see now whether he respects that choice. I predict he won’t. Yet the Republicans have won an enormous victory.
Of the 435 seats in Congress, two-thirds are safe preserves for Democrats or Republicans. During this election, the Republicans put two-thirds of the rest of them in play. And of those seats, they won about two-thirds. If America operated with a European parliamentary system, Obama would not be president today. He lost the confidence of the majority of parliamentary districts.
Libertarians should be happy, though perhaps not ecstatic, about the Republican victory.
Because the Republicans are, on the national level, the only effective barrier to the enormous expansion of government personified by Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi.
Stereotypes? Yes. Amusing targets of ridicule? Right again. Yet until now, these ridiculous figures have been potent encroachers on the freedom of every American.
Despite the gross imperfections of the Republican Party, we have to recognize that it is a party that could not exist without essential libertarian ideas. Just as Obama’s most potent ideas come from European socialism, so the Republicans’ most potent ideas come from American concepts of individual liberty. I refer to default notions of limited government, private property, freedom from unnecessary taxation, ownership of self-protective devices (guns), and unabridged freedom of speech and association. Without these ideas, a libertarian society is impossible. Never mind the rest of it: at this moment, the Republicans are friends of these ideas; the Democrats are not — although even Obama was constrained, in his post-election press conference on Wednesday afternoon, to pay tribute to free enterprise and entrepreneurship as the source of American prosperity.
If America operated with a European parliamentary system, Obama would not be president today.
“Across the country,” says David Harsanyi of the Denver Post, “the electorate laid down a resounding angry vote against activist government. And, mind you, no one had to wrestle with any ambiguity about the objectives of the Republicans. Democrats helpfully hammered home all the finer points of libertarianism, and Republicans typically embraced them. Exit polls showed that this election was a rejection of the progressive agenda of ‘stimulus,’ of Obamacare, of cap and trade. Exit polls show that there was great anger with government — not government that didn't work, or government that didn't do enough, but government that didn't know its place.”
Yet the election wasn’t just about ideas; it was about what can be done with ideas in the electoral marketplace. With this in mind, let’s try to put the events of Nov. 2 into some kind of libertarian perspective.
Many people, such as Neil King, Jr., writing for the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 1, wonder about the volatility of American elections, about the electorate’s movement between, for instance, the 2008 and the 2010 elections. How, King wonders, can the country “solve its long-term problems . . . when voters seem so uncertain which party should lead the charge.” I agree with King’s list of specific problems — deficits, Social Security, healthcare costs: yes, those are real issues. But I disagree with his analysis of the situation.
Even Obama was constrained, in his post-election press conference on Wednesday afternoon, to pay tribute to free enterprise and entrepreneurship as the source of American prosperity.
For one thing, “voters” are not quite “so uncertain.” In American politics, huge results can follow from the shift of only 4.6% of the voters, which was the difference between the returns for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 and the returns for the same party’s nominee in 2008. As I’ve often pointed out in Liberty, the two big American parties live by getting as many marginal votes as they can, wherever they can get them. If one party falls beneath its normal margin, it will try to find a group of issues that will allow it to annex some new group of voters, or bring some new inspiration to the formerly faithful. That’s why the Republicans (or the Democrats) can stand for one thing in certain years, and nearly the opposite in others, and why individual candidates within each party can stand for both at the same time.
This year, the Republicans put new life into their dormant libertarian principles, and they won decisively. It is not inconceivable that the Democrats will create some simulacrum to those principles, for use in the next election. But the important thing is to reduce the power of politics to “solve” our problems.
When government is perceived as the source of solutions, the problems ordinarily get worse — because, as many voters saw this year, the fundamental problem isn’t the deficit or healthcare or old-fashioned entitlements programs. The fundamental problem is the reach of government. The libertarian idea — originally, the American idea — is to conserve the power of the individual to decide what his indebtedness shall be, what his investments shall be, and what steps he should take to provide for himself in sickness and old age. The problems that King enumerates would not be political if the friends of government hadn’t “led the charge” to extend government’s power and purview.
The two big American parties live by getting as many marginal votes as they can, wherever they can get them.
That’s why the victory of the Republicans is important and interesting, even exciting. In 2010, the Republicans responded to the repudiation of Bush in 2008 by seeking voters everywhere outside the Democratic base. They largely abandoned their appeals to “social issues,” which hadn’t been getting them any crucial amounts of votes, and they appealed instead to the people’s resentment of the Obama regime as arrogant, spendthrift, anti-property, and anti-individual — in short, fanatically expansive and power-seeking. They saw the Democratic regime as the American phalanx of the European nanny state, now in retreat even in Europe.
After World War II, the two big American parties studied the complex art of gerrymandering. In most states, they perfected it. They learned how to ensure that whoever had a seat in Congress would be able to keep it. To maintain their hold on “minority” (i.e., especially, African-American) voters, the Democrats created “urban” districts in which voters would never have a real choice of parties. But often the Republicans cooperated with the Democrats in the great effort to preserve legislators’ individual seats. In this year, however, some of the most gerrymandered districts in the union changed hands: look at the map of Illinois congressional district 17, and notice what happened there, and you’ll see what I mean. The appeal of an essentially libertarian platform inundated many of the carefully fenced-off legislative fiefdoms, and swept their lords away.
Walter Shapiro of AOL’s “Politics Daily” describes the current situation clearly: “At a time when the percentage of voters who call themselves liberal (about 20 percent) has remained constant, the number of self-identified conservatives among voters has risen from 32 percent (2006) to 34 percent (2008) to a whopping 41 percent (2010). In fact, conservatives outnumbered moderates (39 percent) among 2010 voters. Since such ideological markers normally move at a glacial pace, the dramatic increase in conservatives may be the most lasting legacy of the 2010 election.”
The fundamental problem isn’t the deficit or healthcare or old-fashioned entitlements programs. The fundamental problem is the reach of government.
Consider now that conservative “social issues” were not a factor in the current contest, hence did not increase voters’ self-identification as “conservatives.” The new “conservatives” were attracted to that label largely by the libertarian idea of limited government.
In this way, the Republicans found their voters. On the scale in which elections are won and lost in America, they found them in enormous numbers. And this discovery will have enormous effects — if people who believe in the American ideal of individual liberty continue to demonstrate that they will settle for nothing less.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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