Conservatives, Libertarians, and Purity Tests: Can These Groups Win Without Each Other?
After running across this piece in the Economist today, I was reminded of that timeless adage "You'll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar." That's a woefully good reminder for the Right as Election Day draws nearer.
Plenty of noise has been made in the past few weeks about the abrupt resignation/firing of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post blog "Right Now." I have been a defender of Weigel's, in large part because I think people's expectations of Weigel were too high - and that's not to disparage Weigel at all, whose work I have followed for a couple of years. The problem was, in my view, that lots of activists expected him to counter Ezra Klein's "Wonk Book" with an editorial style, using his platform at the Post to propel the Tea Party to the revery where so many believed it belonged. Another part of the problem is that, as Dan Gainor at the Media Research Center notes, the Post was never clear about why it had hired Weigel in the first place. Reporting? Check. Opinion? Maybe? I still think Weigel does a good job of reporting, and if he's guilty of anything, it's a preoccupation with man-bites-dog narratives. Aside from all that, I don't have much to add to the gallons of punditry sloshing around the Internet about Weigel-gate.
The reason I bring Weigel's short-lived stint at the Post back up for discussion is that the reaction from the activist community to Weigel's resignation - particularly on Twitter - was pretty vicious, with lots of "Good riddance" and "we told you so." Then came the announcement that Weigel would be a paid MSNBC contributor on Countdown with Keith Olbermann - and activists were once again a-Twitter with disgust. Thankfully there was an equivalent outpouring of support for Weigel. I disagree with Keith Olbermann frequently, particularly when it comes to his sneering punditry and progressive worldview. I appreciate that he was the first (and for a long time only) mainstream media personality to cover the devastating flooding in my hometown of Nashville earlier this year, and he and I share in New York Yankees fan-dom. But why the Weigel witch-hunt on the Right?
And then it hit me: the Right and center-right are still obsessed with (plagued by?) litmus tests that, unchecked, can be impossible to pass. And not normal litmus tests either - sure, nobody wants to see another John McCain presidential campaign - I mean the conservative base is so energized right now that it has become bloodthirsty, and it's beginning to feed on itself. Long-time allies to conservatives - the libertarians - have begun to take notice.
I urge everyone to check out this written exchange between Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey, AEI/National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg, and FreedomWorks' Matt Kibbe, a debate on where libertarians belong on the 21st century ideological spectrum, and how they can, should, and might play in the activist/political component of the Tea Party movement. Romantic libertarians like yours truly hope wistfully one day to inform a more rigorous social policy agenda - one that actually gets government out of people's lives, including their marriages and sex lives - to complement existing tenets of economic freedom upon which, for the most part, everyone right-of-center seems to reaching consensus. But because of these purity tests, many libertarians worry that the emergence of centrist rhetoric at Tea Party rallies is nothing more than a ruse to grab handfuls of votes on Election Day 2010 and 2012, and then Big Government conservatism does us all in - again.
I am sympathetic to Brink Lindsey's point in this respect. Libertarians - who often sacrifice opportunities to "get involved" in lieu of safeguarding transcendent philosophical values for the sake of practical virtue - should not compromise their core beliefs just because Sarah Palin said we need less government and more personal responsibility. But I also think Matt Kibbe makes great points - the Tea Party movement is as fascinating a paradigm shift in American politics as I will likely ever see in my lifetime. It has unbundled the Left almost completely, who has tried to use every tool at its disposal - from race-baiting in formal media outlets to unscientific opinion polling - to couch the Tea Party movement as garden-variety Republican, and quintessentially racist, xenophobic, and homophobic. Kibbe insists that many Tea Partiers don't know where to place themselves on an ideological scale, and notes that many have never been involved in political discourse before now. This groundswell provides libertarians with that romantic opportunity to inform the policy debate - especially issues like gay marriage, which Tea Party groups support, and like Kibbe, I think it's hasty to accept Lindsey's premise with open arms. So Lindsey's libertarian protectionism can be just as dangerous and self-defeating as the Gainor conservative witch-hunts.
The Tea Party movement is still today very fragile, despite the noise the movement has made and the support it has drummed up. If libertarians and conservatives can agree about anything, it's opposition to power-drunk Democrats; it's probably best that everyone focus on that for now, instead of running reckless with purity tests, and when Republicans win, it will be up to them to follow through on promises they're making to people getting involved for the first time. Those people don't know where they lie on the ideological spectrum, but they know that the government is screwing them.