SCHWEPPE: Sorry, Justin Amash — Libertarianism Is Canceled

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Jon Schweppe Jon Schweppe is the Director of Policy and Government Affairs for American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe
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Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, the Republican-turned-independent who is often identified as the most libertarian member of Congress, has a problem with conservatism. In a Twitter message critical of the first National Conservatism Conference, Amash said, “‘national conservatism’ is just collectivism rebranded for the right.”

Amash’s sharp critique wasn’t surprising given the content of the conference, where hundreds of attendees issued a clarion call to the Republican Party and the conservative movement: It’s time to declare independence from libertarianism.

For years, out-of-touch libertarian-minded elitists like Amash who have urged conservatives to abandon social issues, prioritize the profit margins of corporations, and effectively ignore the needs of families and the working class have dominated the conservative movement. Conservatives believed they were our best and brightest, so we gave them the keys to America’s future and let them drive. We empowered them to write our policies and craft our rhetoric. We trusted them when they told us rubes that only they knew how to win.

But instead of winning, they positioned us in a total defensive crouch against the onslaught of progressivism, allowing the Left to run rampant in their frightening effort to turn America into Venezuela (if we’re being charitable) or even Mao’s China (if we’re being honest).

Now, the same libertarian-minded elitists, when confronted with their failures to defend even the highest of ground, assure conservatives that everything will work out fine if we just stick to an orthodoxy — presumably dictated to us from on high by St. Charles Koch himself, along with his pontifical prelates George Will and David French — that has proven to be completely ineffective or even harmful in practice.

They again demand that we trust them — this time with a nastier tone — while we watch them nod off at the wheel and drive our movement head-first into oncoming traffic.

Thanks, but no thanks. We’re taking the keys back.

At the conference last week, attendees wrestled with a number of basic questions. What should a “national conservatism” look like? What role is there for a limited government to play in addressing societal ills? How do we solve problems like broken families, falling marriage and birth rates, more than 400,000 opioid deaths in the heart of Middle America, decaying communities, a humanitarian crisis on our border, intergenerational poverty, the degradation of childhood innocence, and our cultural descent into libertinism?

Obviously these are difficult questions. But our movement’s answers in the past have been guided by what Mary Eberstadt brilliantly calls the “libertarian creed of ‘so what?’” This has resulted in out-of-touch solutions that are absurd to the point of being almost cartoonish:

Fewer people having children? Let’s bring in more immigrants! Ridiculously easy for your child to access online pornography? Be a better parent! Lost your job of 35 years when the factory left your small town and moved to Mexico? Move to a big city and learn to code!

Ultimately, the conservative movement’s “libertarian moment” didn’t fail because of poorly executed strategy. It failed because libertarianism isn’t conservative. It failed because it obsesses over utopian ideals and the atomized individual, rather than reality and community. It failed because it championed meaningless economic metrics while totally ignoring the plight of large swaths of Americans.

In truth, libertarianism isn’t very far off from progressivism — both are supposedly meritocratic orthodoxies that result in the submission of an underclass to the rule of privileged elites. The two ideologies are fellow travelers. And conservatism should have nothing to do with either.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) summed up many conservatives’ concerns with libertarianism in a speech at the conference:

All of this — the economic globalizing, the social liberationism, has worked out quite well for some — for the cosmopolitan class. It has not served the people whose labor sustains this nation. It has not helped the citizens whose sacrifices protect our republic. It has not benefited the great “American Middle,” because the truth is the cosmopolitan economy has made the cosmopolitan class an aristocracy.

In the months ahead, there will be an intramural debate — but really an ideological struggle — to determine who will control the future of the conservative movement. Will it be obtusely rigid ideologues like Justin Amash? Or will it be pragmatic statesmen like Josh Hawley? Ultimately, conservatism must be focused on addressing the problems that real workers and real families face — like the single mother of two making $10 an hour working two different jobs who can’t afford to pay her kid’s medical bills, or the middle-aged, blue-collar worker who just lost his job a few years away from retirement and now has no immediate job prospects, or the small business owner worried about keeping his store open when a Big Box Store moves in next door.

A conservatism that ignores workers and families — and essentially responds to their concerns with a callous “so what?” in pursuit of ideological purity — will continue to fail both in practice and at the ballot box. Only a worker-first, family-first version of conservatism can succeed.

Jon Schweppe (@JonSchweppe) is the director of government affairs at the American Principles Project, a nonprofit think tank and political advocacy organization committed to defending the fundamental American principle of human dignity.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.