Libertarian Populism Can Be Popular
There’s been some discussion in the blogosphere recently on “libertarian populism.” AEI’s Tim Carney published a list on Monday of policy solutions that libertarian populists should push towards the general public, including breaking up the big banks, ending corporate welfare, cleaning up the tax code, reducing the payroll tax and a couple other things. Carney writes that the goal is to “turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections” and to do so, conservatives must “[o]ffer populist policies that mesh with free-market principles, and don’t be afraid to admit that the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and the well-connected.”
I’m not a conservative or a libertarian so I don’t want to jump too deep into this debate which doesn’t involve me, but I’m very partial to Carney’s ideas. I would add in one other major one, that certainly falls under the libertarian mindset: reforming our intellectual property laws. All of these policies are focused on helping the working class. Shouldn’t that be a great way to garner support from them?
Ramesh Ponnuru doesn’t think so:
I’m sympathetic to most of the items on Carney’s list — and those on the list that fellow populist Conn Carroll has compiled. Taken together, though, they do not seem to amount to a winning political platform. A Republican party that took on the U.S. Export-Import Bank might improve its image a bit, but how many Americans really care enough about the issue to change their votes based on it? Nor does freeing the food trucks seem like it would win many votes, however right it might be as a policy matter.
The libertarian populists sometimes seem to make the same political mistake as left-wing populists: Assuming that because most voters distrust big business and do not believe they share its interests, they are therefore looking for the politician who will most vocally take it on.
Ponnuru is right that most voters don’t care at all about the Export-Import Bank. You can say that about most of Carney’s proposals (with the exception of the payroll tax reduction – which Ponnuru points out). But this isn’t about one specific proposal. It’s about the image of libertarian populism.
Obamacare has been the lead news story for years now, but a fifth of the country still doesn’t know about the individual mandate.. Few know about the regulations in Dodd-Frank or what was in the Stimulus. They hear about policies once in a while, but don’t follow DC closely. Ezra Klein has been preaching this for a while now. Political and policy analysts focus way too much on the political impact of certain policies or proposal. The public doesn’t follow this stuff.
What matters is the general image of the party and right now, Americans believe it caters towards the wealthy. This image won’t change over night and is going to take a concerted effort across the entire policy spectrum. Carney’s ideas are a great start. If libertarians in Congress (ahem – Rand Paul) came out with a major policy platform with these ideas and messaged it as a conservative manifesto to improve the lives of working class Americans, it would be greeted with open arms by huge swaths of people.
Most Americans are not going to hear about the details of how Paul wants to end corporate welfare or break up the big banks. But just hearing that he’s promoting such policies would prove that libertarians are looking out for the interests of main street. It can’t end there though. Libertarian populists must continue to push free-market policies in every facet of policymaking. They must stay on message that these policies are aimed at the working class. Slowly, but surely, people will begin to associate libertarianism with pro-middle class ideas. In fact, over time, libertarian populism could become popular and that would certainly be a positive development for working class Americans, the Republican party and the country as a whole.