Are libertarians being purged?
By Scott Sumner
The post focuses on US politics, but first I’d like to comment on recent events in the UK. The Conservative Party recently purged 21 of its members, due to their opposition to Boris Johnson’s willingness to contemplate a no-deal Brexit. These included some of their most accomplished members, such as former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond. The ousted group held political views that were mainstream by the standards of the Conservatives circa 2010-16, when Prime Minister Cameron headed the party.
The UK Conservative Party is obviously changing, but not necessarily in what Americans would regard as a “conservative” direction. Thus Johnson has reversed the austerity policies of Cameron and May, and decided to boost government spending on social programs. It’s becoming more like an Eastern European nationalist party, although Johnson himself still has a few “liberal” instincts.
Over in America, the Republicans have traditionally been viewed as a “big tent” party, including economic conservatives, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks. President Trump doesn’t exactly represent any of those three groups, although he had to rely on their votes in 2016.
Now there are signs that the libertarian wing of the GOP is about to be purged. Here’s Reason:
“I respect what Justin has done,” said his best friend in Congress, Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.), while sitting on a FreedomFest panel with Amash and Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah). “But what I say is, if you read the Republican platform, there’s really nothing wrong with it, if you’re for smaller government and for liberty and support the Constitution. The problem is, if you follow the Republican platform as a Republican when you get to D.C., you will be reviled for it.”
Massie, a four-term libertarian-leaner, has experienced what it’s like to be reviled by your own team. In early July, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Massie will likely face a primary challenge backed by national Republican leaders who are angry at his ideological obstinance.
Utah’s an unusual state, and I believe that Lee can survive. But Massie may well be purged from the GOP. The small libertarian wing of the GOP is likely to shrink further, as this group is no longer welcome in the big tent.
And this is part of a broader shift on the right:
FreedomFest, a largely libertarian gathering in Las Vegas with a significant conservative presence, has been tacking in a noticeably Trumpian direction since the future president spoke there in 2015.
Given Trump’s opposition to free speech, free trade and immigration (both legal and illegal), as well as his support for the War on Drugs and higher spending on social programs, it’s hard to see why “FreedomFest” would want to move in a Trumpian direction. While I’ve never attended that event, I do receive an enormous amount of material (both paper and e-mail) from various free market organizations. In the past two years I’ve seen a big upswing in hard right nationalist advocacy from traditionally libertarian-leaning groups. Now I see calls for things like “industrial policy” and protectionism, which libertarians would have opposed even 5 years ago. I’m not clear as to whether this represents a turnover of personnel or a change of views of people who previously supported libertarian positions, but the change is quite pronounced.
As conservatism changes its focus from the previous free market/religious/hawkish coalition to a more nationalistic posture, there is a danger that the movement will become more intolerant of dissent. Throughout history, nationalists have favored controlling information in such a way as to impose one view. Thus history books are re-written to glorify the homeland, and are sanitized of events that make the nation look bad. (Of course the left has its own problems when it comes to writing history—PCism.)
Nationalism differs from patriotism in terms of how they think about the “nation”. For patriots, the nation is a political entity, whereas for nationalists it’s the dominant ethnic group that matters most.
It should be noted that America’s diversity does help to insulate it from more extreme forms of nationalism, and I presume that nationalists in places like India, Italy, Hungary, China, Turkey and elsewhere would regard our version as “weak tea”, not sufficiently ethnocentric. Our nationalists tend to rely on “code words”, as there is still not majority support for the more explicit European-style nationalism.
Nonetheless, increasing intolerance of dissent is a worrisome trend. In this blog and elsewhere, I’ve openly rooted for China to win the trade war with the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if my views are eventually characterized as being treasonous. Fortunately, at this stage of my career I have nothing to lose. I’d be happy to retire.
It will be worse for those within the GOP. Those who oppose the party leadership will become increasingly viewed as traitors. In fact, the President recently used similar language in reference to government officials who truthfully and legally reported on a controversial phone call.
Perhaps we will eventually reach the point where it won’t be enough for GOP members to refrain from criticizing the leadership. They will be required to affirmatively back untruthful statements made by the leadership.
Will a similar purge happen in the Democratic Party? That seems entirely possible, although it’s too soon to say. Certainly 1990s-style neoliberals are no longer popular. Yet it remains to be seen as to whether they will actually be purged by the leadership of the party. Barack Obama remains an influential figure, and is much more popular with Democrats than is George Bush among Republicans.
In the UK, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn (who likes the Venezuelan model) is much more extreme, and also more nationalistic than our Democratic Party. (Our Democrats are more like the UK’s Liberal Democrats.) But the far left does not have complete control of the Labour Party, at least in Parliament.
Do the libertarians have a home outside of the GOP? Right now the Democrats are trending sharply to the left on economic issues. On the other hand, the Democrats are moving in a more libertarian friendly direction on immigration and drugs. Trade is an interesting case, with rank and file Democratic voters moving toward free trade at a very rapid pace, while the leadership lags far behind. But don’t discount the rank and file—the GOP rank and file moved toward an anti-immigrant stance well before the party leadership. And we know where that led . . .
The next decade will be a very challenging time for libertarians.
PS. This post looks at broad trends. I’m well aware that politics is quite complicated, and that one can find similar examples from earlier periods of history. It’s a question of scale. But from my perspective, things have definitely changed. We won’t really know how much until the post-Trump period begins, probably in 2025.