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Libertarian populism won't save the GOP
Compassionate conservatism won Bush two elections. Embrace it!
Rand Paul and the proponents of libertarian populism may have a tough time in national elections unless they change their message.
Rand Paul and the proponents of libertarian populism may have a tough time in national elections unless they change their message. Alex Wong/Getty Images
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f you've been paying attention to the conservative movement lately, you've heard the term "libertarian populism." It's the latest buzzword being touted as the way forward for the GOP.

But what is it? At first blush, "libertarian populism" may even seem like a contradiction in terms. Libertarians, after all, are free marketers who tend to believe in open borders. Populists, conversely, like protectionist economic policies and subsidies — and tend to embrace a sort of nativism.

This is not to say it's an oxymoron. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blends libertarianism with a sort of Old Right/paleoconservative populism, and seems to have demonstrated that one can mesh these disparate ideologies together.

Conservative reformers are debating what exactly their modern incarnation of libertarian populism should entail. There seems to be general agreement on three primary tenets:

  • Libertarian populism is decidedly against bigness.
  • The GOP must shed some of its "do-gooder paternalism" tendencies and some Reagan-era reforms, which were good during their time, and replace them with reforms that address today's problems.
  • A skepticism (or outright rejection) of Bush-era foreign policy adventurism (which is consistent with the general distrust of bigness).

Let's start with the bigness argument. The DC Examiner's Tim Carney has been one of the more eloquent advocates of libertarian populism. Carney argues that big government and big businesses collude, and that this sort of crony capitalism is anything but a free market. (The theory is that big businesses actually like regulations that only they have the resources to comply with.)

Carney's solutions, such as breaking up the big banks, creating a cleaner tax code, and ending corporate welfare, are legitimate policy proposals. But here's the problem: There is already a name for these ideas. It's called "free market conservatism." (The fact that too few Republican politicians have actually embraced it isn't enough reason to completely rebrand the conservative coalition.)

I'm quite fond of Carney's free market ideas. But I'm concerned by the notion (advanced by others) that a sort of populist rhetoric be employed as a cudgel to score political points. There may be no greater instinct amongst modern conservatives than to "give them a taste of their own medicine." But reverse engineering solely for electoral success is the wrong reason to pursue policies.

To win elections, conservatives must quit employing elitist rhetoric (see Mitt Romney's comments about the "47 percent") and implying that only entrepreneurs can contribute to prosperity (see the "you didn't build that" line). To the extent that this qualifies as "populism," count me in. But while Republicans can and should reach out to the disaffected by using inclusive, optimistic, and uplifting rhetoric, they must also avoid the sort of populist victimhood rhetoric about how the game is "rigged" to favor the wealthy, etc. I'm worried that this is exactly what some of the proponents of libertarian populism have in mind.

The problem with much of what passes for populist rhetoric isn't just that it stokes division, envy, and anger (though it does that), but that it becomes habitual. And it could have the effect of actually making the GOP less cosmopolitan — less likely to win the votes of college graduates, urbanites, Hispanics, Asians, etc. (As the Economist notes, "Right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics.") In the long run, this is mathematical suicide.

What about the notion that the GOP must shed its do-gooder paternalistic image? Something else that concerns me: During a recent episode of Bloggingheads, Ben Domenech (also a proponent of libertarian populism) discussed how libertarian populism was needed because American culture has become more individualistic (and conservatism must adapt to this new reality). In the old days, getting married and having kids made middle class folks more conservative. But as our society has changed, people are delaying or simply skipping such familial arrangements, and Domenech believes the GOP must change to "meet the needs of these new, more individualist people with different priorities."

This, of course, is a confirmation of my notion that conservatives long ago lost the culture war. But assuming we agree that a political reordering is taking place — that the Reagan coalition once held together by the threat of communism is no longer tenable — there is still a debate over whether or not this is the best way to rebuild a conservative coalition capable of winning elections.

I prefer a conservative movement that is on the record in favor of encouraging a virtuous society. It just so happens that the anti-abortion issue currently polls well, so it is not likely to be on the chopping block of the things populist libertarians would wish to take off the table. But what if it didn't poll well? Well, I would say we should be on the side of the angels, no matter the cost. That this is worth the fighting for. This may make me a paternalist "do-gooder." If so, so be it. I suspect I'm not alone here. In fact, I bet a lot of populist voters would agree.

This is not to say that I want to embrace a sort of "big government," George W. Bush-era conservatism. It is often said that Republicans can't "out-give" Democrats. (This means that if voters want a socialist welfare state, the GOP can't compete — and shouldn't even try.) Similarly, conservatives 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.

Ultimately, the problem is that libertarian populism will not work at the ballot box. As I have written before (the case for compassionate conservatism), there is a reason why Bush won two national elections. (How many presidential elections have Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, or Ron Paul won?) Compassionate conservatism has gotten a bum rap, and the name may be permanently tarnished by being tied to big government, big spending, and foreign entanglements, but none of these things are inherently related to an optimistic brand of conservatism favored by men like Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan. Maybe it's time we go back to the drawing board.

Matt K. Lewis is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com, writes for The Daily Caller, and co-hosts The DMZ on Bloggingheads.tv. In 2012, the American Conservative Union honored Matt as  CPAC "Blogger of the Year." Matt lives in Alexandria, Va.

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