Never Mind the Libertarians, Here’s the ‘Pragmatist Moment’

By the third paragraph of Robert Draper’s recent New York Times Magazine cover story, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” one starts to suspect that the answer is no. It’s at this point that Lisa Kennedy Montgomery has finished comparing figures from the political Right to bands from the days when she was an MTV VJ known simply as “Kennedy.” Ron Paul is like Nirvana, she says, Rand Paul is like Pearl Jam, and Ted Cruz is, in many ways, like Stone Temple Pilots. Gen-Xers will perhaps appreciate the reference points. But it’s tough to buy Kennedy, now a libertarian and Republican, as a herald of the political future.

Even if you haven’t read Jonathan Chait’s devastating critique of the Draper thesis, the Kennedy problem provides a clue to its content. The proposed Libertarian Moment is packaged up with generational confusion, leaving observers unsure of who, exactly, should be carrying the banner. Ed Kilgore and Sarah Posner understand it as a Tea Party phenomenon, one more instance of Christian Right activists claiming the mantle of American liberty. Matt Sitman disagrees, arguing that “our” libertarian moment is the province of the young. Draper seems to understand the term broadly, offering a little something for everyone.

It’s true, though, that young people are central to the equation, and their “libertarian leanings” provide the soil in which this plant is supposed to grow. Draper writes:

Raised on the ad hoc communalism of the Internet, disenchanted by the Iraq War, reflexively tolerant of other lifestyles, appalled by government intrusion into their private affairs and increasingly convinced that the Obama economy is rigged against them, the millennials can no longer be regarded as faithful Democrats — and a recent poll confirmed that fully half of voters between ages 18 and 29 are unwedded to either party. Obama has profoundly disappointed many of these voters by shying away from marijuana decriminalization, by leading from behind on same-sex marriage, by trumping the Bush administration on illegal-immigrant deportations and by expanding Bush’s N.S.A. surveillance program. As one 30-year-old libertarian senior staff member on the Hill told me: “I think we expected this sort of thing from Bush. But Obama seemed to be hip and in touch with my generation, and then he goes and reads our emails.

Chait disputes the facts and figures very persuasively. But Draper could be right on the data and still be wrong in how he interprets it. It’s true that the millennial generation is increasingly disillusioned with party politics, and that they see glaring problems in the policies their predecessors have enacted, but that doesn’t make them libertarians by default. It may well make them pragmatists, interested in fixing things without fidelity to a binding set of positions.

You don’t have to be a free market purist, for instance, to believe in marriage equality. Nor do you have to hate federal regulation to acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a disaster. Anyone with a heart can be moved by the expulsion of DREAMers from the United States, and the overreach of the NSA—and subsequent way overreach of the militarized police in Ferguson—is simply evident to all.

At best, Draper makes a case that the current political moment could swing libertarian. But perhaps a simpler explanation is available to us. The young, uncompromised by political affiliation, just want to fix these problems and move on with their lives.

By the end of Draper’s piece, one senses something oddly anachronistic. Try as you might, you can’t simply squeeze a new phemonenon into a dated ideological mold. It’d be like comparing Ted Cruz to Stone Temple Pilots. The guy is many things, for sure, but he ain’t that.

Eric C. Miller is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He has a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA in English from the University of Maine, and a PhD in Rhetorical Studies from Penn State University. A regular contributor at Religion Dispatches, his research area sits amid religious rhetoric and public advocacy.

  • DKeane123

    While I was unaware of these articles/discussion and find them very interesting. I’ve always found libertarianism to be based upon a lot of wishful thinking about how humans behave outside of the larger governmental presence (anyone remember why we had to draft the Constitution?).

    I’m wondering if this is posted here because libertarianism is now considered a religion? Or is the single reference to Christian Right activists enough?

    Regardless, thank you for the interesting post.

  • Jim Reed

    Is libertarianism now considered a religion? I think they have learned they need to be conservative Christian if they want to get votes.

  • http://www.devonnollforpresident2012.org Devon J. Noll

    Since you have written that you are unaware of the other articles on this, here is some fill-in to perhaps put this in context:

    Draper in his article claimed that the libertarian movement was actually a kind of smokescreen for the Christian Right and was actually an outgrowth of their policies and politics from the 1980s and earlier. Many of the older Libertarians hold with these far-right Christian views, so the Religious Right movement has capitalized on it and hides behind its actions many times.

    The question raised by Draper is whether it is time for such a theologically based libertarian movement to come to the fore in politics and if so, would it be appealing to the majority of the people from both a political and religious perspective, especially younger voters. There has been a great deal of disagreement on this point, within political, generational, and religious groups, as this article indicates, but in reading this article, I tend to agree with the author – Draper has the numbers right, but his interpretation is wrong.

    I do not think that the libertarians are so much connected with the Religious Right as the situation being the other way around, and most young people who are not church affiliated are not so much libertarian as they are pragmatists who understand that finding a balance between government and private lives in this nation must be restored so that we can move on and solve the bigger, more survival related issues facing us.

    I hope this help you understand why this is being discussed on this forum.

  • phatkhat

    There are, in fact, many ties between libertarianism and theocratic movements. Some libertarian luminaries have moved between the Constitution Party (JBS/theocratic ideology) and the Republican Party. Some are not nearly as pro-individual freedom as they appear. They simply believe moral prohibitions should be enacted at the local/state level rather than at the federal one.

  • DKeane123

    I am sure that is true, Here in NH we have the “Free Staters”, that were able to get into the legislature during the peak of the tea party in 2010. Lots of attempts to get rid of speed limits, vaccinations for school age children, banning DUI checkpoints, they lowered tobacco taxes (companies raised prices to match the old price and increase profits), attempts to ban abortions – it was a nutty couple of years.