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The Care and Feeding of Campus Libertarians | The Nation

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The Care and Feeding of Campus Libertarians

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Julian Sanchez

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“We are in the classic fog of war,” says Stephen Cohen.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

For the past half-century, the American political landscape has been defined by an uneasy alliance between small-government libertarians and social traditionalists. United under the banner of "fusionism" (a political label coined, as so many seem to be, by one of its critics), this improbable coalition of iconoclastic Oscars and fastidious Felixes came to define the conservative movement for the Cold War era. That movement is coming undone.

By the middle of George W. Bush's first term, rumblings about a conservative crack-up were already being heard on the right. Now—after six years of single-party rule marked by ballooning budgets, homophobic demagoguery, religiously-inflected moral preening, catastrophic military adventurism, casual contempt for civil liberties, and a view of executive power that would make Caesar blush—many of us are ready to jump ship. Last month, noting that progressive blogger Markos "Kos" Mouslitsas had already declared himself a "libertarian Democrat, Brink Lindsey of the libertarian Cato Institute made waves with a New Republic essay proposing a new "liberaltarian" coalition.

The response from the left thus far has been, to put it politely, unenthusiastic. (It probably doesn't help that "liberaltarian" may be the most cringe-inducing neologism since the New York Times coined "hipublican.") But the real test of a political coalition's viability is in practice, not theory. If it's too soon to pick out drapes, it may at least be worth trying dinner, a movie, and a protest rally. College progressives can take the first step by seeking ad-hoc, issue-specific opportunities for cooperation with their libertarian counterparts on campus.

Your first thought may be: "Why bother? If I want to be called a commie, I can watch Fox News. If I want to hear someone quote at length from Ayn Rand... well, I'll never want that." But progressives have much to gain from reaching out to libertarians, and this may be an especially crucial time to try it.

Consider the findings of a recent study by the libertarian Cato Institute, which pegged the proportion of the electorate with broadly libertarian attitudes at about 13 percent. Statistics for the general population show that voters under 30 preferred Kerry to Bush, 54-45 percent. But according to the Cato study, libertarians in the same age bracket broke for Kerry by a whopping 71-24 percent. That's in sharp contrast to older libertarian voters, who preferred Bush by about the same margin. It's also a sharp reversal from 2000, when younger libertarians favored Bush almost as strongly.

Why the sudden swing? Well, it's a political science truism that party preferences tend to get locked-in at a young age, forming the basis of lifelong voting habits. One natural way to read those numbers, then, is that older libertarians with fond memories of Goldwater or Reagan were willing to stay in the conservative coalition, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the GOP has abandoned small government principles, while their younger counterparts aren't locked-in yet.

An unflinching look at the effectiveness of resistance to the war in Iraq might suggest another potential benefit of ideological hybridization. High-profile events like anti-war rallies may be satisfying to the people who participate in them, but a look at opinion polls on how the general public views them reveals an uncomfortable truth: They're more likely to increase the average person's support for a war than diminish it. It's a safe bet that protests staged by radical groups like ANSWER had, if anything, the opposite of their intended effect.

Part of the problem, as the libertarian activists who staged a Guns for Tots event in Harlem could tell you, is that groups of people with strong, shared ideological commitments tend to develop a species of political tone-deafness. When brandishing a "Bush=Hitler" placard makes fellow in-group members think you're bold, it's easy to forget that it makes most everyone else think you're insane. This feeds into people's strong pre-existing temptation to pigeonhole political positions in binary categories, which makes it easier to ignore them. Hence, marijuana decriminalization ends up being regarded as a "leftist" cause, even though libertarians, and the conservative National Review, also support it.

Making common cause with libertarians, where this is possible, helps on both counts. Being forced to craft talking points in collaboration with people who hold a very different general worldview forces both sides to examine what aspects of their message might inadvertently alienate others. Each side will have arguments that might never have occurred to the other, allowing them to appeal to a much broader audience than either could have alone. And the mere fact that otherwise opposed groups are presenting a united front on a given issue makes their concerns harder to dismiss. In 2005, for instance, the Columbia University chapter of the ACLU worked with Columbia's student libertarian group to sponsor a talk by Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News analyst and a fierce opponent of the Patriot Act. Noam Chomsky might have brought in a larger crowd, but how many people who didn't already agree with him would have been motivated to attend with an open mind?

Suppose, then, you're convinced that a little cross-ideological love fest is at least worth a shot. How do you go about it? Here are three broad suggestions.

Separate people from policies.

Hardcore libertarians are going to believe a lot of things you find at least deeply misguided, and quite possibly appalling. Larval-stage libertarians may even take a certain pleasure in trumpeting the least popular of these in the most blunt, undiplomatic way possible. Many of them will believe, for instance, that private employers (though not government) should be legally permitted to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The vast majority of these folks, believe it or not, nevertheless find these practices every bit as repugnant as you do. They do not have white pointy hoods hidden under their beds: They just place greater weight on freedom of association relative to substantive equality, and are more sanguine about the ability of market forces and public shaming to curtail such behavior. They'll tend to oppose government social programs, minimum wage hikes, or attempts to restrict trade in order to promote better labor standards abroad. Repeat to yourself, if necessary: This is not because they secretly despise the poor, but because they have a different view of the economic effects of such policies.

A related suggestion: Don't "educate." What most people would describe as trying to persuade people of their views, progressives sometimes characterize as "educating the public" about an issue. To those who disagree, this can sound kind of obnoxious. Make your baseline assumption that libertarians, just by dint of being on a modern American college campus, understand your views at least as well as you understand theirs. Assume disagreements are just that, disagreements, not symptoms of "ignorance." When necessary, agree to disagree, and move on to something more fruitful.

Be an agreement entrepreneur

. There are some obvious areas where most progressives and most libertarians are already on the same page, such as reproductive freedom, censorship, the drug war, and unconstitutional government surveillance. But there are plenty of other issues that have been branded as property of "the right," even though progressives could just as easily join in like opposition to "pork" spending, which is seen as part of the right's brand, despite the promiscuous earmarking of Republicans like Ted "Bridge to Nowhere" Stevens, and even though much pork is pure corporate welfare. Hunt for these points of untapped consensus.

Be narrow-minded.

If you've done a moderate amount of activism, you've almost certainly been to a kitchen-sink protest. You know the type: Nominally, people are rallying against (say) pre-emptive war, but half the marchers are carrying signs bemoaning the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, and half the speakers are delivering jeremiads against corporate-driven globalization and genetically modified crops. Events or initiatives that draw in libertarians need substantially more focus. On a range of issues, you may want to consider which components of your message are essential, and which you're willing to omit for the sake of building a broader coalition.

Say, for instance, you want to stage a campaign to promote awareness about and support for GLBT rights. If that means demanding that marriage laws treat gay and straight couples equally, insisting that the military admit openly gay soldiers, shaming companies with discriminatory policies, and exhorting individuals to examine their own heteronormative attitudes, libertarians will largely be on board. If it means pushing for an expansion of hate speech laws or statutes prohibiting discrimination by private employers, many of them will jump ship. Sometimes it will be worth narrowing your message to bring them on board, and sometimes it won't. Either way, though, you'll want to make the decision consciously and with full awareness of the tradeoffs.

As should already be apparent, forging a libertarian/liberal coalition, even on issues where they're already inclined to agree, will not be easy, nor is it guaranteed to succeed. The present moment of political flux may be a historical inflection point, prelude to a massive political realignment and a new brand of "fusionism." It may be just a brief hiccup, after which the old patterns reassert themselves. Or it may be that our chances of avoiding the second possibility depend on our willingness, liberal and libertarian alike, to take a chance on trying to effectuate the first.

Julian Sanchez is a Washington, DC, based writer and a contributing editor for Reason magazine. You can read his blog here.

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