There's a new, and apparently virulent (at least among the right-wing brain trust), strain of conservatism in the wild: "Libertarian Populism." I'll let the New York Time's Ross Douthat tell you what it is:
[Libertarian populism is] a strain of thought that moves from the standard grassroots conservative view of Washington as an inherently corrupt realm of special interests and self-dealing elites to a broader skepticism of “bigness” in all its forms (corporate as well as governmental), that regards the Bush era as an object lesson in everything that can go wrong (at home and abroad) when conservatives set aside this skepticism, and that sees the cause of limited government as a means not only to safeguarding liberty, but to unwinding webs of privilege and rent-seeking and enabling true equality of opportunity as well.This all sounds surprisingly lovely: "unwinding webs of privilege"—all for that; skepticism of big corporate interests—all for that, too. Indeed, if Douthat's definition of this "libertarian populism" holds, and if the phenomenon takes root and grows among in the conservative intellectual garden, I—and a good many other liberals—would likely applaud. Conservatisms problems are twofold: one is misplaced priorities; the other is intellectual dishonest. This allegedly new and different kind of conservatism would do much to remedy the latter (though, importantly, not the former).
Timothy Carney over at the Washington Examiner throws the picture into starker focus; he writes:
The new Republican populism should declare war on the cronies and special interests who use big government to rig the game in their favor and deny opportunity to those trying to climb the ladder and live the American dream.Again, here a conservative intellectual is stealing words out of my mouth. Insofar as the state has been co-opted by business interests and been "rigged" in the favor of those selfsame interests, "bigness" ought to be opposed. Political privilege, when thought of this way, is a dangerous thing, and a Republican party that fought against that would, in the eyes of many on the left, be good.
It's time for free-market populism and a Republican Party that fights against all forms of political privilege -- a party that champions all who want to work and take risks in order to improve their lives and raise a family.
Of course, it's not good—more than that, it's the eliminationist right's wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.
I see two problems. First, right-wing populism in America has always amounted to white identity politics, which is why the only notable libertarian-leaning politicians to generate real excitement among conservative voters have risen to prominence through alliances with racist and nativist movements. Ron Paul's racist newsletters were not incidental to his later success, and it comes as little surprise that a man styling himself a "Southern Avenger" numbers among Rand Paul's top aides. This is what actually-existing right-wing libertarian populism looks like, and that's what it needs to look like if it is to remain popular, or right-wing. Second, political parties are coalitions of interests, and the Republican Party is the party of the rich, as well as the ideological champion of big business. A principled anti-corporatist, pro-working-class agenda stands as much chance in the GOP as a principled anti-public-sector-union stance in the Democratic Party. It simply makes no sense.Shorter: the context of the concept—the web in which it is embedded—is inseparable from the concept itself. When you buy American libertarianism, you're generally buying a whole package of embedded concepts—chief among them a paranoid fear of the "other," which in American thought is defined as non-white and non-Christian (it used to be non-Protestant, so, progress, I guess?). And lest you protest that, in principle, one could have one without the other, I'll remind you that the world of libertarians is not a political philosophy classroom; it's the world where guns are necessary to protect against them, where the wheels of government turn to prop them up, where they are taking over our country, and we need to take it back. (Yes, I have met people who resolutely subscribe to libertarian philosophies and don't wear masks emblazoned with the Stars and Bars, but it's worth remembering that, at it's core, libertarianism is about saying a hearty "fuck you" to everyone who isn't you or yours.)
The special interests whom they want to get away from government are not big corporations—in practice anyway. They are the the people who are supported by the SNAP program (as evidenced by the "tea party"-backed house's recent vote); they are the people who get caught by our increasingly frayed social safety net. In the world of Republican politics, the idea of privilege is turned on its head. The privileged are those who receive meager government aid through entitlements, not those who feel that they are entitled to yet another tax break.
The right, even in its "pure" libertarian form, goes beyond merely wanting to deny aid to the disempowered; they embrace, at best, simply denying the injustices done to the systemically oppressed. At worst—and this populist libertarianism represents the worst—they actively argue that they are the politically privileged. To make matters worse, this kind of thinking allows entire groups of people to be the problem.
Carney writes that,
Populist movements in the past have often been ugly because they scapegoated vulnerable minorities. The new Republican populism shouldn't blame the "47 percent" of Mitt Romney's imagination, or immigrants seeking to make a better life.And I take him at his word. Too bad that his party and his movement can't help but do otherwise.