Is The GOP Becoming More Libertarian?

Public opinion analyst Nate Silver argues that the Republican Party is turning libertarian:

Are Republicans turning into libertarians?

Last week's Tea Party protests had their origins in the libertarian movement. Although many conservative groups were eager to co-opt their purpose, the core of the message — anti-tax, anti-big government — was about as libertarian as it gets . . .

We can argue about the significance of the tea paries and we can argue about whether they represent the way forward for Republicans. But they are just one manifesation of what seems like an increasing drift toward libertariansim within the party. Consider also:

-- A new Gallup survey suggests that 80 percent of Republicans think that big government is a bigger threat to the government than big business, versus just 10 percent who think the opposite. This represents an enormous partisan split from Democrats, among whom a majority think that big business is the greater threat. Moreover, the partisan split has grown significantly since 2006; it has now become almost a definitional issue for Republicans.

-- The Republican alternative budget could be considered a somewhat radical experiment in libertarianism, dramatically slashing taxes while promising to balance budgets — an achievement that would only be possible if the size of the government were cut enormously. . .

-- Republican insiders are increasingly uncertain about whether gay marriage, which was such an important issue for the party over 2000-2004, is any longer a winning issue at all for them. Reaction to the Iowa Supreme Court decision was surprisingly muted in conservative circles. . .

-- If gay bashing is becoming less in vogue among Republicans, it's unclear which other cultural issues — areas where Republicans sometimes favor bigger, more statist government — might take its place. Yes, there's always abortion. But I'm surprised there hasn't been more anti-immigrant sentiment, as often happens when jobs are scarce; perhaps the Republicans' poor performance among Latino voters on November 4th might have scared them away from that issue. Marijuana legalization seems to be gaining some traction (although more among pundits than policymakers), but about half the conservative commentariat (see Glenn Beck, for instance, who calls himself a libertarian) seems to embrace it.

I welcome all of the above developments. But I'm less convinced than Silver that they signal a major move towards libertarianism by the GOP. Much of the GOP's current support for free markets is a function of the federal government's having come under the control of the Democrats. Both parties are far less enamored of big government if it's under the thumb of their opponents. When the Republicans themselves controlled the White House and Congress just a few years ago, they pushed through a massive expansion of federal spending and regulation. President George W. Bush presided over a highly statist administration, by almost any measure. It's possible that the GOP has definitively rejected the Bush-era model of big government conservatism. But it's too early to tell. The real test will be how the Republicans act when and if they regain a share of power at the federal level (e.g. - by controlling at least one house of Congress, or at least having a large enough minority to significantly influence the content of major legislation).

Silver's points on social issues are well taken, but I have a few caveats here. Many conservative pundits and intellectuals have long supported drug legalization, including such luminaries as the late William F. Buckley. But that hasn't had much effect on the GOP's actual policies. I am happy, as Silver seems to be, that many Republican insiders want the party to deemphasize its opposition to gay marriage. But this stance may be due to the fact that the issue has been overshadowed by more important concerns, such as the financial crisis. Whether the Party changes its long term orientation away from social conservatism remains to be seen. I suspect there will be strict limits to any such movement, because the GOP cannot afford to completely alienate its social conservative base.

In the meantime, however, there is certainly room for cooperation between GOP conservatives and libertarians, to the extent that both oppose the Democrats' massive expansion of government. Whether the two groups can agree on a positive program as well as a negative one remains to be seen.