Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Political moralism and the self-defeating impulse toward totalitarian 'purity'

Carl Milsted on a meaningful distinction:
Liberty. Some love it because it provides wealth, opportunity, and other good things. Others declare that any denial of liberty is unacceptably evil, that liberty is a fundamental right of man. Both call themselves libertarians, and so they gather together at political conventions, seminars, and blog forums -- to call each other nasty names and do battle over the meaning of a word.
Read the rest, which is from the December issue of Liberty, which has been advertising on the sidebar for a couple of weeks.

Milsted makes a distinction between what he calls "consequential" libertarians and "moralist" libertarians, a distinction that replicates itself everywhere in politics. Some people are just natural-born fanatics who turn to politics in a search for totalitarian purity.

Fanatical demands for ideological purity in politics represent a totalitarian impulse, and are the bane of any really practical program for political action in a democratic system. To gain an effective governing majority requires the building of a coalition organized on fundamental principles and shared interests.

Zealous fanaticism can be useful in politics, boiling issues down to their stark fundamentals. I still remember the evening in 1995 when, having slipped the moorings of my Democratic upbringing, I sat down to dinner with a Republican Party official and the conversation turned to abortion. I mentioned my (small-L) libertarian opposition to taxpayer-funded abortion -- why should Catholics, for example, be taxed to pay for what is contrary to their expressed doctrine? -- and my host responded bluntly: "Abortion is murder and it ought to be against the law."

The Litmus-Test Trap
That statement has the virtue of simplicity, and has radical implications. Those who agree with it have a clear mandate for political involvement and it is thus scarcely surprising that pro-lifers remain the unbreakable backbone of the GOP today. Nothing makes me more furious than those "sophisticated" Republicans who sneer at pro-lifers. Without hard-core pro-lifers, there might never have been a Reagan presidency or a 1994 "Republican Revolution."

Yet the tendency toward fanaticism -- the radical certainty of the True Believer -- can have disastrous consequences in politics. There are many pro-lifers who make that issue a litmus test in such a way that it compels them to vote for bad politicians.

A perfect example of this problem is Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, the "pro-life" Democrat whose sellout cinched the Senate vote for ObamaCare. Many pro-lifers in Nebraska told themselves they could vote for Nelson because his partisan allegiance was negated by his declared pro-life principles.

Of course, many Republicans elected on the strength of their pro-life bona fides have proved incompetent, corrupt or politically untrustworty, which creates the environment within which the election of pro-life Democrats becomes likely. And it is the single-issue litmus-test approach of the True Believers that is both cause and effect in such a scenario: They elect a bad Republican because he's "right" on their single issue and then, when he disappoints them, they replace him with a Democrat who is clever enough to position himself as pro-life. Whether this pattern ever actually results in the enactment of pro-life policies . . . well, that's an interesting question, isn't it?

'Anarchy Next Wednesday'
Let us return, now, to Carl Milsted's attempt to deal with libertarian fanatics, in which he describes a platform fight at the 2006 Libertarian Party convention:
At the time I was leading a major effort to reform the LP (the Libertarian Reform Caucus) to widen the LP's definition of "libertarian" so as to include a large fraction of voters who say they support both personal liberties and economic liberties, and to soften the party's platform away from its call for anarchy next Wednesday.
If you've ever attended a Libertarian Party gathering, you either smile at that description or become enraged by it. There are some Libertarians who oppose even the mildest concesion to pragmatism. They want an LP that is fanatically pure and, as an inevitable result, politically impotent.

Purity is one of those ideas that have consequences and I made a reference to LP fanatics when describing those consequences after the November 2008 election:
LGF -- which lately has been trying to purge Pam Geller as a Nazi (!) sympathizer -- doesn't mind saying "we blew it." And I agree: You blew it. And in fact, you still blow. Purge-happy partisan fanatics! Purge the Buchananites! Purge the libertarians! Purge the creationists! Purge the pro-lifers! Bobby Jindal is "political suicide!"
Purge, purge, purge, until the Republican Party is only you, and then maybe people will understand that this was your objective from the very beginning, you intolerant assholes. I am reminded of Bob Barr's description of the more fanatical Libertarian purists -- they don't want to belong to the Libertarian Party, they want to belong to the Libertarian Club.
Let these purging purists have their way, and you can plan to hold the 2012 Republican convention in Charles Johnson's living room. And I'll vote Libertarian again.
In the end, of course, CJ purged himself, but the fundamental point remains. It's this "club" mentality, the desire to act as membership chairmans of an exclusive sect composed entirely of one's fellow True Believers, that makes the fanatical quest for purity such a disastrous impulse in politics.

Big Boobs and Big Tents
Successful politics requires a gregarious attitude, what we might call the Sheila Mosely Principle. In fall 1976, Sheila was a candidate for homecoming queen at Lithia Springs (Ga.) High School. Sheila was a popular cheerleader with an impressive C-cup rack, but there were other popular cheerleaders running for homecoming queen, one of whom was at least a D-cup.

So one day a couple weeks before homecoming, I was walking down the hall and encountered Sheila, who flashed a friendly smile and said, "Hi, Stacy." Maybe that wasn't the first time Sheila had ever spoken to me, but it was certainly the friendliest she'd ever been, and it made an impression.

Of course, I knew this unexpected gesture was politically motivated, but it was nonethless impressive that Sheila had condescended to solicit the support of a stoner hoodlum like me. Impressive -- more impressive even than Kim Cantrell's D-cups -- and therefore Sheila got my vote.

Sheila understood that every vote counts. She wasn't going to let my stoner hoodlum status be an obstacle to her quest for homecoming queen. And that gregarious impulse, that willingness to solicit support from outside one's own social or political niche, was what made Ronald Reagan such an unequaled success in politics.

Reagan's "Big Tent" approach has been misunderstood and misapplied by many of his would-be successors, who have used it as an excuse for Clintonesque "triangulation," the politics of pre-emptive compromise. But Reagan was an unapologetic conservative, who did not feel the need to talk about being "kinder and gentler" or employ defensive modifiers like "compassionate."

From C-Cups to Tea Parties
Never renouncing his firm belief that liberalism was wrong -- a sound fundamental principle -- Reagan could nonetheless work with liberals and solicit their support for his agenda (rather than cooperating in a "kinder gentler" pursuit of the liberal agenda) because he had the same kind of winning self-confidence that permitted Sheila Moseley to smile and say "hi" to a hoodlum stoner.

The problem of fanatics who insist on purity is that their intolerance of dissent betrays a lack of confidence. If your ideas are so self-evidently true, what explains your totalitarian impulse to purge the impure?

Winners understand teamwork, and thus exhibit a cooperative, gregarious tendency in politics that rightly ought to be called populism. When I see intellectual idiots denouncing the Tea Party movement as "populist," I understand that they mean the term as a pejorative, a synonym for angry ignorance. But while Tea Party crowds are indeed angry about the current direction of policy in Washington, as individuals they are some of the most cheerful, friendly people you'd ever want to meet -- and certainly far less ignorant than their critics would have you believe.

Furthermore, the Tea Party people exhibit a very Reaganesque "Big Tent" attitude. Go to these rallies, and you'll find hard-core evangelical pro-lifers and libertarian bikers in happy coexistence, united by opposition to the big-government menace of Leviathan-on-the-Potomac. This is what I've called "Libertarian Populism" and -- despite the dismissive snobbery of Julian Sanchez -- it is wrong to suppose that such hostility toward the elite is mere ressentiment., when a two-decade bipartisan succession of Ivy-educated White House occupants (Yale, Yale Law, Yale/Harvard MBA, Columbia/Harvard Law) have led the nation to its current predicament.

If elitists can get over their fears of the populist mob, and if libertarians can get over their purist demand for "anarchy next Wednesday," there is a glimmer of hope for a real breakthrough. But we're not going to get there unless people start thinking like Sheila Mosely, whose friendly smile was enough to triumph even over a D-cup rack.

P.S.: Don't forget to visit Liberty magazine. If they're smart enough to advertise here, they must be geniuses!


  1. Reagan smoked tobacco? He must be evil...

    only evil people smoke cigarretts.

  2. Libertarians fighting always remind me of Trotsky vs. Lenin. As long as political purity is the litmus test, libertarians will never reach any of their lofty goals.

    Even worse than when the left C cup and the right C cup can't agree.

  3. Sorry, but this essay is an ungainly mess. It squishes lots of different concepts together.

    Among other problems, you mix up politicans with voters. Voters are supposed to be True Believers in whatever they happen to believe. Politicians are supposed to represent those voters, which often means they must represent some combination of True Beliefs.

    There are many pro-lifers who make that issue a litmus test in such a way that it compels them to vote for bad politicians.

    Bleh. As a general rule, pro-life politicans are good politicians on all sorts of other issues. When in doubt, vote for the most pro-life candidate possible and you won't go too far wrong.

    It's comical that anybody would suggest that what ails the GOP is excessive purity. What have you been smoking? The party has spent the last several years shafting every single interest group which supports it, with the notable exception of the Chamber of Commerce, which does not support it. A little purity for a change would do this sorry excuse for a party the world of good.

  4. The problem with "consequential" libertarians is that they have no love of liberty as a thing in itself. Typically they only love wealth. They'll eagerly support a tyranny if it can promose them wealth.

    If you read the libertarian mags you'll have seen the fawning praise they often heap on Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There is precious little freedom in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Lots of money though, at least for certain people.

  5. TrogloPundit said...
    So did Sheila win?

    Of course. She was a senior. Kim Cantrell was only a junior that year, although her prodigious D-cups carried her to the crown the next year.

    My fellow LSHS grads may want to check their yearbooks and correct my memory on the details here -- I was stoned pretty much constantly back in the day -- although both Sheila and Kim's racks remain permanently etched in my consciousness. Some memories are so profound that no amount of drug-induced brain damage can ever eradicate them.

  6. That homecoming queen election was just the opposite of last year's Presidential election. 2008 pitted two exceptional boobs against each other, but, in this case, the bigger boob won.

    Stacy, after you witness the Longhorns trounce the Crimson Tide in person, will the resultant decline in health force you to take a 'leave of absence' and leave Smitty as interim head blogger?

  7. Libertarian Party Purity has always been their silliest and most damning feature. Years ago I was involved with the LP before discovering that they were more interested in a Jihadist approach of going down in flaming purity than in actually winning anyone over.

    I arranged for tables at gun shows that ended up being manned by people who thought a convincing argument went like "We stick up for pornography and drug use of course we're not going to compromise on gun rights." At least the gun show promoters refunded the fees when we got kicked out.

    If the LP ever decides to leave the Porn and Pot caucus behind and at least acknowledges that in foreign affairs the world will not allow us to just be a giant Switzerland they might get somewhere. Until then the libertarian caucus of the Republican Party remains the place to be.

  8. I was a regular reader of Liberty back in 2001.

    Until 9/11, when Bradford wrote his pissy little essay complaining about how his favorite sitcoms were being pre-empted by all that annoying coverage of burning buildings. I assume that's online as well somewhere.

    I still glance at it in the bookstore sometimes though.

  9. "If the LP ever decides to leave the Porn and Pot caucus behind and at least acknowledges that in foreign affairs the world will not allow us to just be a giant Switzerland they"

    ... will cease to be part of the prospective solution and begin being part of the existing problem.

  10. Thank you for promoting my essay!

    @Anonymous # 2: Read the Liberty essay if you haven't already. The main point is the idea of moral consequentialism. Treat liberty, or non-initiation of force if you prefer, as a consequence of action and you get a bridge between the two schools.

    Taxation is theft, or at least a forced purchase, but if tax elimination leads to anarchy as usually experienced (chaos, civil war, conquest, etc.) then some taxation is justifiable on moral grounds: some taxation results in less aggression. If libertarian anarchy is as easy and as stable as some libertarians claim, then taxation is indeed unjustifiable theft. Pardon me for disbelieving this premise, however, until some modern evidence is provided.

    @Ronsonic: Based on my polling (see legalizing prostitution is the most popular plank in the old LP Platform. It even comes out quite popular at gun shows -- where I first deployed the ancestor of this online quiz. Pot legalization is also quite popular by libertarian standards. Legalizing all drugs, however, is not.