The other week — just before I left #ThisTown for vacation — I penned a takedown of “libertarian populism.”
I’m not an obvious opponent. Having raised concerns over NSA snooping, the danger of perpetual war, and the use of domestic drones, I do have a libertarian streak. And my populist bona fides were on display when I wrote favorably about breaking up the big banks, argued that the repeal of Glass Steagal helped create the Great Recession, and lamented the collusion of big business with big government.
So — considering I support much of the policy positions ostensibly associated with libertarian populism — why am I worried about this new trend?
One reason is that I suspect a lot of people who want to make conservatism more libertarian primarily want to declare a truce on social issues. And while might seem smart politically, as I wrote at The Week, “[C]onservatives can’t out-libertine liberals. If it comes down to which side can be the most tolerant — the most sybaritic — I don’t see how the party of Bill Clinton can lose.”
In any event, isn’t a new impulse anyway. There have always been some people urging this. Robert Heinein’s sci-fi novels, for example, glamorized the attributes of libertarian politics and polyamory. And while we’re struggling to name this nascent trend, P.J. O’Rourke was ahead of his time when he described a coalition of libertarian conservatives he dubbed, “Republican Party Reptiles.”
Read this and tell me that this isn’t where a large portion of Americans now find themselves:
“What I’d really like is a new label. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who feel the same way. We are the Republican Party Reptiles. We look like Republicans, and think like conservatives, but we drive a lot faster and keep vibrators and baby oil and a video camera behind the stack of sweaters on the bedroom closet shelf. I think our agenda is clear. We are opposed to: government spending, Kennedy kids, seat-belt laws, being a pussy about nuclear power, busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, Gary Hart, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N., taxation without tax loopholes, and jewelry on men. We are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti), a strong military with spiffy uniforms, Nastassia Kinski, Star Wars (and anything else that scares the Russkis), and a firm stand on the Middle East (raze buildings, burn crops, plow the earth with salt, and sell the population into bondage).
There are thousands of people in America who feel this way, especially after three or four drinks. If all of us would unite and work together, we could give this country… well, a real bad hangover.”
That was written more than twenty-five years ago (the Gary Hart line and the reference to “the Russkis” were probably a dead giveaway). Back then, O’Rourke boasted that “thousands of people in America feel this way.” I suspect this individualistic streak has only increased exponentially since then.
He was on to something. But let’s not pretend this is altogether new. Or altogether positive. The most compelling argument for conservatives to become more libertarian is that it’s a fait accompli. It’s the tail wagging the dog.
A lot of the people who now support changing the conservative movement are really just responding to the fact that we have become a nation of P.J. O’Rourkes.