The GOP establishment is dying — but libertarian ideas could save the party

Imagine if Republicans leaned in on their libertarian side and got way out in front of Democrats on racism in the criminal justice system, the drug war, and immigration...

Chris Christie, the politician who built his rep beating his political opponents into rhetorical pulps, has become a human punching bag.

Indeed, the former political pugilist has been reduced to assassinating the character of a man he appointed to office. And Christie's latest "unequivocal" denial of responsibility for Bridgegate is a desperate guard that will hold only so long as no prosecutor or journalist finds something incriminating in the thousands of outstanding documents.

The general irony of the harasser become the harassed probably isn't amusing Republican Party bigwigs all that much. Christie was the Great White Hope of what's often called the Republican "establishment" or "donor class" — the down-the-line corporate conservatives uninterested in dumping tea on the RNC's front porch.

They're the kind of party bigwigs who helped Mitt Romney rocket ahead early in both donations and critically important endorsements. John Boehner is their spirit animal.

Absent Christie, there isn't a great alternative for donor class Republicans looking to beat back the Rand Pauls of the world in 2016. Jeb Bush, maybe, but he's got a touch of a last name problem. Someone like Scott Walker could emerge from the herd, but right now the establishment-friendly Republicans don't have anything like the national profile of their Tea Party peers.

Christie was the complete package — famous, talented, impeccably establishmentarian, and unencumbered by any epically incompetent siblings. His crisis, then, is the party leadership's.

Christie's relatively unique status reflects a broader crisis of establishment Republicanism. Its thin draft class betrays a deep intellectual stagnation. The GOP's renewed vitality will require grappling with two basic-right wing impulses that challenge the party's decrepit mainstream, and its ability to synthesize the two into a new party credo.

What we call "conservatism" today is the brainchild of one Frank Meyer, who developed a doctrine called "fusionism" that linked limited government economic libertarianism to social traditionalism and a hyper-aggressive foreign policy.

This tactical alliance fuelled the conservative movement's takeover of the Republican Party, but, of late, it's morphed into a straightjacket. Though any Republican with a brain recognizes that the party's ossified agenda is turning away increasingly larger swaths of Americans, radical revisions risk a fatal backlash from entrenched forces committed to at least one leg of the orthodoxy.

With a few exceptions, you end up with a Republican Party full of milquetoast party-liners or, worse, know-nothing Tea Partiers actively undermining the bland Boehner-types' attempt to govern with even the tiniest shred of responsibility.

The GOP establishment is out of ideas. The Tea Party is, if anything, worse. Is the Republican Party doomed to irrelevance?

I don't think so. As Michael Brendan Dougherty argued, parties have a way of adapting to political realities. Understanding how the GOP might adapt requires understanding the two most important impulses that run through modern conservatism.

The word "impulse" is very deliberate. Very few people, let alone whole swaths of the electorate, spend enough time thinking about politics to have well-thought out ideologies. Rather, parties harness basic beliefs lots of people share to get their people into office. Political coalitions are built from raw material, and for the GOP to reinvent itself, it'll need to figure out how to mold America's conservative impulses to its advantage.

Broadly speaking, two major conservative impulses suffuse the American population. The first is a sort of reactionary populism. These folks are conservative in the most literal sense of the word: Change is their great bugaboo.

Reactionary populists viscerally dislike gay rights, mass immigration, and the sexual revolution. They hate "welfare" benefits, frequently on deeply racial grounds. But simultaneously, they bitterly resist any changes to Social Security and Medicare.

Libertarians are, of course, the populists' polar opposite. They're indifferent to the culture war. They love drugs and immigration. They hate virtually every type of economic regulation or government program.

What unites American libertarians with the reactionary populists on the right is a shared opposition to the left's political program. Both are more skeptical of state intrusion in the economy than Democrats, and libertarians place way less emphasis on social issues than economic ones.

Various individual conservatives tend have a bit of both impulses in them, though the balance tends to vary on predictable demographic lines. Younger conservatives tend to be more libertarian, following our generation's deep shift toward tolerance, while the reactionary elderly bitterly resist any changes to Social Security or welfare. Wealthier conservatives tend to be more libertarian about gays and immigration, while poorer ones more reactionary. Those few secular conservatives tend to be significantly more libertarian than their religious peers, who are more open to welfare state benefits than most believe.

Fusionism was built on these impulses, of course, but demographic change has torpedoed the fusionist strategy for harnessing them. Hardline opposition to immigration and the social priorities of black Americans cannot be viably paired with an attempt to roll back most of the welfare state, given the shrinking pool of old white voters. Republicans need to think of a new set of policies that channel these impulses towards conservative candidates while simultaneously allowing for inroads into the Democratic coalition.

The new conservatism can't be purely libertarian. There just aren't enough libertarians and it's hard to imagine many Democrats abandoning the welfare state in exchange for slightly better social policy (no one votes on foreign policy). It also can't be purely reactionary. There's no donor base for such a party, and the only way to pull Democrats into such a party would be by promising to expand the welfare state to proportions unacceptable to basically any self-identified conservative.

One early attempt to build a new conservatism bridging this gap, something called "libertarian populism," has been a noble disaster. The idea — which boils down to shrinking the government in the name of opposition to entrenched power — is philosophically incoherent, not actually populist, and too easily assimilated into the establishment Borg. It sparked a lot of discussion among pundits last summer, but failed to change the party in any significant way.

But the libertarian populists, who did have some good ideas, were headed in the right direction. Arguably, the most deeply entrenched power in the United States is racial hierarchy, and there are conservative-friendly policies available to confront it. If Republicans leaned in on their libertarian side, and got way out in front of Democrats on racism in the criminal justice system, the drug war, and immigration, they'd at least have a shot at cutting into three core Democratic demographics: black voters, young voters, and Latino voters.

This strategy wouldn't necessarily alienate reactionaries; religious conservatives, often more reactionary than libertarian, are big supporters of criminal justice reform. Doubling down on the anti-abortion fight and giving up the quixotic quest to privatize Social Security and Medicare could significantly stanch the overall bleeding.

I'm not sure this somewhat more inclusive conservatism would be enough to fix the party's ills. For one thing, minority voters tend to have pretty progressive economic views, so they might not be willing to support the GOP in big numbers unless Republicans back off the welfare state in a big way. Moreover, I'm not sure who, exactly, in the current Republican coalition would be willing and able to take the party down this road.

But the current GOP establishment is dying. And unless its elites want to remain at the mercy of the New Jersey State Assembly, they need to start thinking along these lines.


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