Libertarian Populism: How to Sell Ideas to the American People

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a big debate about the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. On one side you have the status quo — those who continue to grow government and get the United States in perilous military engagements overseas — and on the other, there is a new brand of fusionism that is gaining in popularity.

Ben Domenech, editor of The Transom, has dubbed this new fusionism as “libertarian populism,” which is part of the debate over conservative reform. In a response to a recent critique by Ross Douthat, Domenech outlines the tenets of libertarian populism and explains that it presents a path for limited government advocates to sell ideas to voters:

The appeal of libertarian populism is that it refuses to cede the philosophical battle to the side of big government – and the permanence of a broken welfare/regulatory state and convoluted tax code – before the argument is even joined. Instead, libertarian populism can and should be cast in the proper light: the sober reality of our dire fiscal situation; the abject brokenness of our welfare state; tax, education and regulatory systems that retard economic opportunity, punish success, hurt the poor and middle class, and reward cronies; and a federal government that wants control over almost every aspect of our lives, from the raw milk we drink to the lightbulbs we use and the toilets we flush.

As an approach which frames limited government not just as a safeguard of personal liberty, but a way to offer wide-ranging opportunities, enhance economic mobility, and undermine rent-seeking elites, it represents a real break from the party’s approach to policy setting over the course of decades. It is bolder, yes – but it is also far simpler, more idealistic, and more coherent. Most Americans of all political walks understand that our broken system is rigged, and not for the little guy, and they resent it immeasurably. When the Beltway Burkeans argue for good governance reforms, they don’t tap into these motivations with anything approaching such passions.

In this, as in so many other areas, libertarian populists do not believe the current system is fixable because it was never intended to – and simply cannot – accomplish the goals it is attempting to meet. The problems we currently face – of cronyism, waste, abuse, disincentives, and so on – are not flaws in government but instead the inevitable result of expanding it far beyond its intentionally-limited design. Smarter government cannot solve them – only markets, individuals, and civil society can.
Much of the debate about conservative reform amounts to a wager on which GOP option is more appealing to the current electorate: managing power vs. devolving power. Of these options, the latter platform runs deeper and requires more opposition to the status quo of how government works - and it also represents an effort to cleanse the party’s soul of its sins over the past two decades. A platform of devolving power back to people might not be electorally successful - it’s impossible to know how aims tested with candidates capable of presenting such a case will actually work - but it is clearly defined, represents a true departure from the party’s current brand, and is geared towards maximizing human liberty. In all these aspects, it strikes me as the right course toward building the coalition that can win not just one election, but in the long term.

Ultimately, the conservative reform project is about a question of selling ideas. A populist libertarian approach seeks to convince the American people that they can achieve more by limiting government than by expanding it or by tweaking it. It offers them a simple, clarifying message, one which is easy to understand and cuts across traditional political boundaries. It is not a message likely to sit well with the elites. But it represents a clear break from the fusionism of the past, and a possible path forward toward a party and a coalition which actually takes the idea seriously that there are some things government should not do.

One point that was very profound, as someone who has recently been talking up the merits of fusionism, is that Domenech says that this new fusionism is much different than what we’ve seen in the past.

“Libertarian populists recognize intrinsically that the old fusionism is dead. The seat atop the legs of the stool was communism, and then for a brief time – really, just 2004 – Islamic terrorism,” he writes. “Today the most reliable social conservatives are also the most economically conservative, and there is no monolith on foreign policy. The New Fusionism is libertarian populism, and it understands: there is no stool.”

There is something there is a cohesive element that’s holding this particular brand of fusionism together, and Domenech touched on it. And it is an growing skepticism of government. While those who desire the status quo often talk up the merits of their policies or foreign intervention interventions, there is now a backlash as people are openly questioning whether we need yet another government program to solve some perceived problem or societal ill or another bombing campaign to oust some horrible dictator who poses no threat to us. And this attitude isn’t not just expressed toward one particular political party; both sides are questioned.

Domenech goes into much greater detail than the excerpt above shows. The entire piece is well worth a read. And while you’re at it, subscribe to Domenech’s daily newsletter, The Transom.

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