Not long ago, I found myself in discussion with a friend over email about the potential of meaningful cross-ideological political coalitions.
The idea that political ideologies need to find ways of working together on different issues to achieve, in turns, the same and differing goals is, in many regards, as old as politics itself. Invariably, a Republican President will be forced to work with a liberal Congress. Canadian minority governments are increasingly common in part due to the coalition building and cooperation they require. And within particular political parties, there always exist certain strains that need to be harmonized in some fashion or another.
But more than just the traditional trappings of political bric-a-brac, there seem to be people looking for more unconventional ways of building such coalitions. Bringing together people who seem worlds apart in their views.
Specifically, the discussion I was in sought to look at the possibility of a reinvigorated fusion between American liberalism and libertarianism in the form of a portmanteau known as: liberaltarianism.
Liberaltarianism was first introduced in June 2006 by Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos, one of the Internet's most widely read progressive blogs, when he wrote about his appreciation and admiration for what he described as "libertarian democrats". Moulitsas wrote,
"The core Democratic values of fairness, opportunity, and investing in our nation and people very much speak to the concept of personal liberties -- an open society where success is predicated on the merit of our ideas and efforts, unduly burdened by the government, corporate America, or other individuals. And rather than always get in the way, government can facilitate this.
Of course, this also means that government isn't always the solution to the nation's problems. There are times when business-government partnerships can be extremely effective (such as job retraining efforts for displaced workers). There are times when government really should butt out (like a great deal of small-business regulation). Our first proposed solution to a problem facing our nation shouldn't be more regulation, more government programs, more bureaucracy.
The key here isn't universal liberty from government intrusion, but policies that maximize individual freedom, and who can protect those individual freedoms best from those who would infringe."
Coining the actual term some months later in a post entitled Liberaltarians, Vice President for Research at The Cato Institute, Brink Lindsey wrote,
"But the real problem with our politics today is that the prevailing ideological categories are intellectually exhausted. Conservatism has risen to power only to become squalid and corrupt, a Nixonian mélange of pandering to populist prejudices and distributing patronage to well-off cronies and Red Team constituencies. Liberalism, meanwhile, has never recovered from its fall from grace in the mid-'60s. Ever since, it has lacked the vitality to do more than check conservative excesses--and obstruct legitimate, conservative-led progress. As a governing philosophy, liberalism has been moribund: When Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton managed to win the White House, they did so only by successfully avoiding the liberal stigma.
Today's ideological turmoil, however, has created an opening for ideological renewal--specifically, liberalism's renewal as a vital governing philosophy. A refashioned liberalism that incorporated key libertarian concerns and insights could make possible a truly progressive politics once again--not progressive in the sense of hewing to a particular set of preexisting left-wing commitments, but rather in the sense of attuning itself to the objective dynamics of U.S. social development. In other words, a politics that joins together under one banner the causes of both cultural and economic progress."
Of course, four years after Moulitsas wrote his post, we know that a joining together under one banner did not happen. Indeed, as Republicans and conservatives largely descend into greater and more intensely vitriolic witch hunting and Democrats demonstrate a seeming unwillingness to cut to the real issues facing the country, waiving off anyone and everyone who might dare to offer criticism to that effect, the chasms undergirding partisan rancor seem deeper and wider than ever.
In September 2009, Michael C. Moynihan trumpeted the "end of liberaltarianism," under the Obama administration in the quintessential libertarian blog, Reason's Hit and Run.
But need this be the case?
By my lights, the seeming death of political coalitions is less a function of their impossibility as it is an overly simplistic view of how they might work. That is, such an understanding seems stuck in a theoretical cul de sac of impractical and unlikely friendship and an unfounded belief in coalitions drawn along the axes of single issues.
There are, more and more, fertile fields of convergence that, in themselves do not, perhaps, produce fully formed and durable political coalitions. These convergences do, however, offer us some novel and helpful ways of looking at our political interactions.
Take for example the interesting, though not often talked about convergence in regards to the place/importance of folk wisdom and tradition between more grounded conservatives and progressives. In terms of conservative representation, I'm thinking specifically of folks like the original "crunchy conservative" Rod Dreher and the whole Front Porch Republic crew with their respective localist flavours, focus on tradition, and more simple and sustainable ways of living. James Poulos and the postmodern conservatives with their philosophically dense political praxis and rejections of modernity on conservative grounds. And paleoconservative Daniel Larison who is an ardent and effective skewer of the myopic and intellectually bankrupt worldview of contemporary American movement conservatism.
All of these conservative strains occupy an interesting ground that butts up against some elements of progressives that draw on a more postmodernist/Foucauldian "excavation of local voices and knowledges" perspective vis-a-vis the ills of modernity and the necessary tonic of creating space for oppressed minorities (such as Salon's Glenn Greenwald and the Fire Dog Lake crew)
This particular convergence is very much a sentiment of the X/Y cusp generation in its late twenties to early forties: that we have all benefited from the advances of modernity, but there is a need to pull back and rein in that sense of unbridled advance with an ounce or two of common sense.
You can see this in a rising tide of anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism, shifts towards slow cooking and whole/organic food preparation/consumption, many of the impulses driving environmental concerns, and even the music industry where a return to more gritty styles of rock 'n roll embedded in the blues and country roots of the genre a la The White Stripes, The Vines, Fleet Foxes, and the re-emergence of musical dinosaurs like Bruce Springsteen. There seems to have been an aching for something that one can only describe as less plastic in the last few years. Something that feels less synthetic and more human.
I don't think this convergence and others like it have been very well explored and it is, in many regards, a key to carving our a political path forward.
As an additional tributary, you also get a necessarily skeptical but not fatalist view of government that spills out of this inclination and finds a hook in point for more libertarian thinking. People understand that in some instances -- like, say, health care reform -- government is the best (and perhaps the only) means of achieving a certain set of goals in something approaching an equitable manner. Particularly when those goals -- again, like universal health care -- are quite large in nature.
But in utilizing government, there is also the recognition that, left unchecked, government will -- just as many large corporations have -- run rough shod over a whole swath of interests. A recently released video of a SWAT raid on a Columbia, Missouri home that has sparked much debate about the mindless continuation of the so-called "War on Drugs" and its unintended consequences is a good example of government destructiveness.
And so there is a hedged bet going on: we'll use government to achieve this end, which we think is important, but we're going to keep a watchful eye towards overreach and excesses because we don't entirely trust government to restrain itself and keep from treading over the needs of unintended victims.
I know that the general assumption about progressives is that they are wholesale government-lovers, but Moulitsas' 2006 missive proves that this is not entirely accurate. As Moulitsas gestures towards, a lot of progressives look at government as a means to an end in an increasingly corportized world. And perhaps the only really effective means to certain worthwhile ends. This political calculus belies a much more nuanced analysis than is often extended to progressives. In the blogosphere, Glenn Greenwald's brand of highly intellectual and fiercely critical (of both parties) liberalism is the epitome of this kind of sensibility.
And so you can look to formulate something that is regionally specific. A formulation that speaks to the particular dynamics of a given country so as not to fall into the cookie-cutter approach of previously envisioned coalitions such as the liberaltarianism mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
If we look at this from an American frame, the heavy influence of libertarian skepticism is very much an Americantrait and it ought to be leveraged to maximum advantage. But not in a dogmatic or willfully ignorant fashion.
And in this regard, the overwhelming size of the country becomes a help, not a hindrance. This kind of pushing back against an over extension of government, a holding in check to ensure that there is a sort of balance between the collective needs and individual rights/liberties, is something that requires a good showing numbers wise. Otherwise the threat is empty.
This is, at least in part, why I remain somewhat hesitant to write off the tea partiers. I disagree with them almost 100% and I find a lot of their actions to be immature and ill-advised, but I can see how their ferocity could be useful moving forward. In some senses, we all need that fire in our belly, just better directed and more finely honed.
In addition to understanding that in a twenty-first century context durable political coalitions are unlikely to fall along single-issue axes, the other thing to grasp is that we need not be friends or unite ourselves under a single banner of common cause. Indeed, some of the most effective coalitions could be built upon conflicting interests and ideas. Relationships of animosity, of effective checks and balances against the most common of our ideological blind spots are, perhaps, where we ought to be looking for opportunities, in addition to our various convergences.
Of course, a common rejoinder to such suggestions is to argue that to be effective in affecting political discourse, one needs to belong to a certain team. One has to have team members with which one does take up some degree of common cause. This kind of broad political patch-working that I describe seems to suggest that one must become a political nomad -- a vagrant interloper.
The idea of needing a team isn't something that, admittedly, speaks very strongly to me personally. I have, in the last little while, found the most interesting political spaces to be interstitial -- by which I mean intellectual and political space in between given ideologies rather than firmly within them. But I understand why this is a pressing issue.
My response would be that there's nothing saying that you couldn't do what I'm suggesting from a particular team. In fact, given current circumstances, you probably couldn't do what I've suggested without some kind of grounding in a particular ideological persuasion. To affect political discourse requires a certain legitimacy. And presently that legitimacy is primarily derived -- rightly or wrongly -- from membership within a given team. But what it is that you try to do through and from that team is, to my mind, what really matters.
I would offer that there are a whole host of dissident conservatives who are making efforts that at least head in a direction that is at least somewhat akin to what I'm describing. But each in his own way has come to a certain grips with the idea that what it means to be conservative isn't a static monolithic entity. And so each in their own way are working to generate what strikes them as a more constructive kind of conservatism
Here I'm thinking of people like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, Andrew Sullivan, Charles Johnson, Conor Friedersdorf, and Daniel Larison
But in so doing, I think two things become pretty clear.
First, they are seeking out and fostering ideological and political coalitions that transgress certain accepted norms and expectations about how you work with and how. Sullivan, Bartlett, Johnson, and Friedersdorf probably have more allies among liberals and progressives than they do among conservatives. Conservatives see them as challenging orthodoxy and therefore, in some senses, heretical. Liberals appreciate their breaking the ranks and so are more inclined to meet them in the middle, so to speak.
There are both some strengths and some drawbacks to this.
One the one hand, it seems terribly important that members of particular teams be challenged in real and substantial ways. That is, to some degree, precisely what these kinds of reorientation are all about -- breaking prescriptive and calcified lines of thought and belief sub-systems. In order to do that, you need to push pretty hard sometimes. That kind of pushing is, with the folks on the receiving end of your pushing, not going to exactly win you friends. But it is both important and, in many regards, necessary.
On the weaknesses side, I worry about the kinds of behavioral grooves that this kind of effort can develop in and of itself.
The point here isn't simply to alienate everyone who identifies as "conservative". The point, as I see it anyhow, is to shift the overall dynamics, whether you are talking about within the political process as a whole -- as I'm inclined to do -- or within a given ideological persuasion. It can be easy to get into this endlessly combative and confrontational relationship to the objects of one's attention. And that kind of combativeness can come to exhibit decreasing degree of mindfulness.
One's aim is to challenge, yes. But ultimately you want to bring people on board.
I worry at times about the potential for and the implications of this kind of knee-jerk combativeness. This is a not uncommon critique that each of Sullivan, Bartlett, Friedersdorf, and Johnson have lobbed against them.
There is speaking truth to power and then there is just looking for a fight. I worry that each of the four writers mentioned glance occasions where they're doing not much more than looking for fights, though I'm overwhelmingly supportive of what they're trying to do.
In this regard, Frum is much better in terms of trying to build a winning coalition of conservatives, but he also doesn't push as hard as the others. Ross Douthat is another good example of the "softer touch". So there's always a trade off and knowing how to balance that trade off is a matter of developing and exercising the Mahayana Buddhist practice of upaya, or skillful means.
The other thing to note here is how isolated each of these individuals is within their team. Even Frum, who is perhaps the least challenging of those I've mentioned, is an apostate. Movement conservatives don't consider any of Sullivan, Friedersdorf, Frum, Johnson, Larison or Bartlett to really be conservatives. Each of them would be torn to shreds at a Palin or a Tea Party rally. And most of them would probably be exposed to a distinct air of condescension and rebuke at any number of mainstream conservative events.
And so part of what we need to acknowledge here is that this is a likely outcome of any kind of effort of the type that I'm describing regardless of your ideological location. It is a natural reaction from people who are being challenged on their held beliefs. So if you're search for a team is about a comfortable sense of acceptance, then you'd best be prepared to set aside most of your impulses towards challenging people and really trying to dig into problems in a way that moves things forward.
But, of course, then you wouldn't really be addressing the whole issue that stoked this conversation. And so what would be the point?
So while it might be true that a simple coalition between liberals and libertarians in the form of liberaltarianism does not seem very likely, it remains true that there are many opportunities for useful political coalitions. In fact, one might argue that there exist more and greater opportunities than there ever have been before.
Looking at the recent British election is instructive in this regard.
After thirteen years in power, the centre-left, third way Labour Party was voted out in favour of the re-branded conservative Tory Party. However, the election resulted in a hung Parliament, meaning that the Tories, while they won the most seats, did not win enough seats to form a majority government. This necessitated a Tory search for a coalition government -- a political coalition between the Tories and another political party to form a majority of seats in Parliament.
Instead of forming a coalition with Labour based along well established lines of broad agreement that had formed over the decades during which Labour and the Tories had oscillated between governing and opposition status, the Tories instead chose to form a coalition with the breakout Liberal Democrats. While also liberal in nature, the Lib Dems, as they are often called, follow a much more classically liberal strain of thought that focuses on preserving and advocating individual liberties in the lineage of John Stuart Mill and John Locke.
The move is somewhat controversial and has some members of the Lib Dem party reeling. But already there is a sense that these uncharted water could bring a much more productive relationship than would have following the tried, tested, and true pathways -- precisely because it breaks with what we find familiar.
Ultimately time will tell.
However, the UK example demonstrates that it behooves us to reorient away from what really amount to immature and overly simplistic formulations of political coalitions. If political coalitions are to be a useful tool now and in the future, we must begin looking into more nuanced versions that ultimately require more of us, but stand to be much powerful and potentially sustainable.