Cultural or Political Axis?

Donald linked below to a discussion of the death of “liberaltarianism”, which led many to ask what exactly that is.  As it so happens, I’d been reading about this seemingly contradictory phenomenon on Ross Douthat’s blog the other day.  It seems all this goes back to a piece Brink Lindsey originally wrote for The New Republic a couple years ago in which he complains:

Conservatism itself has changed markedly in recent years, forsaking the old fusionist synthesis in favor of a new and altogether unattractive species of populism. The old formulation defined conservatism as the desire to protect traditional values from the intrusion of big government; the new one seeks to promote traditional values through the intrusion of big government. Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.

Though he admits there’s not been much real movement on the part of Democrats to please libertarians, he cites a few things:

To date, Democrats have made inroads with libertarian voters primarily by default. Yes, it’s true that Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame caused something of a stir by proposing the term “Libertarian Democrat” to describe his favored breed of progressive. And the most prominent examples of his would-be movement–first-term Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana, fellow Montanan Tester, and Virginia Senator-elect Jim Webb–have sounded some libertarian themes by being simultaneously pro-choice and pro-gun rights. At the same time, however, their anti-nafta, Wal-Mart-bashing economic populism is anathema to free-market supporters.

With the Obama/Democratic Congress coalition currently pushing through spending that makes the Bush years look downright sober, folks at NRO and elsewhere have voiced the expectation that this idea of libertarians flocking to the Democratic side of the aisle (which among other things makes the to me unlikely assumption that there are actually enough libertarians in the US population to flock convincingly) will fall apart pretty quickly.

Not so, says proponent Will Wilkinson. His argument is, it seems, basically that he seeks a true philosophy of persona freedom, and there’s no room for that in the culturally conservative GOP, while he sees possibilities in detente with liberal intellectuals.

I think Obama and the Democrats are already in the process of screwing it up. The romance of transformative hope is going to wear off pretty quick as all-but-uncontested Democratic policy deepens and lengthens the recession. There’s a lot of culturally and psychologically liberal people out there who are, and are going to be, interested in a liberalism that actually works. I want to use this time of ferment to work on developing the missing option in American politics: an authentically liberal governing philosophy that understands that limited government, free markets, a culture of tolerance, and a sound social safety net are the best means to better lives.

So “whatever happened to liberaltarianism” is that it’s an ongoing project to change who talks to whom, to freshen the stale dialectic of American politics, and to create new possibilities for American political identity.

What I think we’re essentially seeing here is the reverse side of the “moral conservatism” which keeps a number of people who might otherwise be “centrist” to “liberal” on the conservative side of the aisle — it sounds to me like in Wilkinson’s estimation there’s more common ground to be found for strongly secular, personal freedom emphasizing libertarians in getting together with secular progressives than there is with the current conservative movement, with its strong emphasis on cultural conservatism.

It’s often claimed that the “culture war” is a creation of the right, but this sort of thing makes it clear what a strong motive it is for the cultural left as well. Essentially, some secular libertarians find their common ground with big government progressives on issues like abortion, gay marriage, end of life issues and cloning far more important to them than their concerns regarding economics and the size of government. In a sense, that’s only fair as many religious people consider their positions on these issues more important than their allegiances on secular issues.

Yet I wonder if the college educated, secular, technocrat set (whether leaning progressive or leaning libertarian) has paused to think this through. Less than 40% of Americans graduate from college, and the vast majority are religious to one degree or another. Deciding to be the party of the college-educated secularists would not exactly be a winning formula. I imagine that the Democrats know this, but from their writing one wonders if the libertarians do.

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