Libertarian Is The New Mainstream

You don’t hear the word “mainstream” in political spin like you used to.

Back in the late 1980s when Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Pete DuPont, Al Haig, and George H. W. Bush were battling to replace

1988 Republican Candidates

1988 Republican Candidates

Ronald Reagan, “mainstream” was in. Candidates fought for the title of “mainstream Republican,” “mainstream Conservative,” “mainstream everything.”

I’m glad that word went away. But I’m bringing it back, if only for one blog post.

I was listening to my favorite podcast tonight driving home from work: James Altucher. Speaking of the former WWE wrestler Kane, Altucher said:

He knows a lot about economics and his politics lean towards libertarian, but he has a more mainstream side.

The date of that podcast is July 18, 2013.

I get it. Back in 2013, libertarian was still a fringe ideology. Back in 2013, there were only two “mainstream” ideologies operating in the USA: Democrat and Republican. One builds insurmountable mounds of debt to buy votes, the other builds insurmountable piles of debt to buy campaign donations from the Chamber of Commerce. And occasionally the two parties entertain us by yelling at each other in public.

That’s all changed, of course. Libertarian—the ideology, not the party—is the new mainstream in America. The two old parties? Well, they’re the fringe.

The Democrats and the Republicans represent coalitions of selfish interests: big government, big labor, big minorities, big old people, big banks, big espionage, big corporations. Both parties reflect the post-WWII era that fed them their power.

To see how the parties derived their immense power, look at the way generational historians Howe and Strauss describe the post-war era in their classic, The Fourth Turning, in 1997:

People now in their forties [sixties] or older widely remember this as an era when large institutions were regarded as effective, government as powerful, science as benign, schools as good, careers as reliable, families as strong, and crime as under control. Government could afford to do almost anything it wanted, while still balancing its budget. From year to year, the middle class grew, and the gap between rich and poor narrowed. Worker productivity and family incomes grew at the fastest pace ever measured, with no end in sight. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote of The Affluent Society in which poverty was no longer “a major problem” but “more nearly an afterthought.” “The frontiers of our economic system are formed by our mental attitude and our unity,” said Harold Stassen in 1946, “rather than by any limitation of science or of productivity.” Abroad, Americans saw themselves bearing a new imperial role, believing, with J. Robert Oppenheimer, that “the world alters as we walk in it.” They took pride in a nation described by British historian Robert Payne as “a Colossus” with “half the wealth of the world, more than half of the productivity, nearly two-thirds of the world’s machines.”

Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2009-01-16). The Fourth Turning (Kindle Locations 2945-2950). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Remember, the people who dominated American politics for most of my 50 years reflect on that era as “normal.” From Eisenhower through George H. W. Bush, every American President was a product of WWII and the American High. Think about the messages of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (41). To all of these men, The Best Days of Our Lives served as the model for American normalcy. Their campaigns—even Jimmy Carter’s first campaign—promised a return to the simple, optimistic normalcy of 1950s American.

Heck, in his 2011 State of the Union address, even Barack Obama channeled Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob. Even those of us born after the American High—Gen X and Millennials and the unnamed generation beginning middle school next month—the simple happiness of the post-war years serves as the ideal for America. We learned about it in television reruns and old movies. As Strauss and Howe put it:

Thanks to vintage TV and nostalgia movies, deeply etched memories of the American High are continually recalled decades later.

When I think about that era and our collective desire to go back, I think of a Christmas song I hated as a kid. I hated it, because I didn’t want to grow up and leave the mystery and potential of childhood. It was Doris Day’s “Toyland.”

Toyland, toyland Little girl and boy land While you dwell within it You are ever happy there

Childhood’s joy land Mystic merry toyland Once you pass its borders You can ne’er return again

We should have listened to that sad, simple song when our national leaders promised to return to the American High.

That promise of innocence restored gave the two big parties big powers. From 1946 to about 1992, we trusted big institutions. Sure, the 1960s challenged the idea of government’s goodness, but that tantrum died down once Nixon resigned. By the late 1970s, we were burned out on bell-bottoms, beads, and beards. We looked forward to “normalcy,” and we elected just the man to restore it: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan tried. And he succeeded, in some sense. The 1980s were Morning in America. Remember this?

Ah, but Doris Day warned us:

When you’ve grown up, my dears And are as old as I You’ll laugh and ponder on the years That roll so swiftly by, my dears That roll so swiftly by

Those two big parties still think Pax Americana, and prosperity, are just around the corner. And they think that Americans see only two choices: the Democrat way or the Republican way.

But Americans are defining a third way.

Why do I think libertarianism is the new mainstream?

I’ve already said that the old mainstream, like childhood, has passed, and once passed its borders we never can return. But there’s something more. Again, I look toward Strauss and Howe for glimpses of how America will change in the next decade.

During the coming Fourth Turning, some of these climax ingredients will play little or no role at all; others will shoot along channels that swell, diverge, and reconnect in wholly unforeseeable ways. Eventually, all of America’s lesser problems will combine into one giant problem. The very survival of the society will feel at stake, as leaders lead and people follow. Public issues will be newly simple, fitting within the contours of crisp yes-no choices. People will leave niches to join interlocking teams, each team dependent on (and trusting of) work done by other teams. People will share similar hopes and sacrifices—and a new sense of social equality. The splinterings, complexities, and cynicisms of the Unraveling will be but distant memories. The first glimpses of a new golden age will appear beyond: if only this one big problem can be fixed.

Decisive events will occur—events so vast, powerful, and unique that they lie beyond today’s wildest hypotheses. These events will inspire great documents and speeches, visions of a new political order being framed. People will discover a hitherto unimagined capacity to fight and die, and to let their children fight and die, for a communal cause. The Spirit of America will return, because there will be no other choice.

Thus will Americans reenact the great ancient myth of the ekpyrosis. Thus will we achieve our next rendezvous with destiny.

While we have yet to reach the climax of our Crisis era (we’re still up to a decade away), the battle lines are already drawn.

The Four Turnings

Generations through the 4 turnings

For as long as anyone alive can remember, the battle lines were Democrat vs. Republican, left vs. right, collectivism vs. individualism, liberal vs. conservative. But those old lines have worn as thin and useless as Barack Obama’s red line in Syria. Young Gen Xers and Millennials no longer see the world in those post-war terms. They see another battle: institutions vs. people.

We see this in the recent cultural upheavals. Same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and government spying. Here are some highlights from Reason’s recent poll of young people.

Part of millennials’ apparent support for big government is tied to the generation’s larger disconnect with the political rhetoric that has shaped the national narrative since the end of World War II. This trend is probably a result of two things. First, that millennials simply don’t fully understand what some of these terms mean, and second, that the prevailing discourse has started to lose relevance for this new generation after the end of the Cold War. Rather than flocking to one party or another, millennials are identifying as independents more than their predecessors did and tend to view their party choice as the lesser of two evils.

. . .

On top of all of this, millennials are deeply distrustful of our government. As the generation that came of age post-9/11, this makes a lot of sense. Significant majorities feel thatgovernment regulators abuse their power instead of acting in the public interest. A majority also says that the government as a rule, rather than an exception is wasteful and inefficient. So we may not be in for as dark a future politically as some claim–particularly since a majority of millennials say they would vote for a fiscally conservative, socially liberal candidate[4]  

Millennials are the largest generation in American history, eclipsing the Boomers by several million people. When you add their numbers to Generation X, which is also distrustful of institutions, you get a massive, youngish population ready to shift responsibility for social good from Washington to city hall.

I admit that one of the two parties might seize on this libertarian shift, jump in front of the parade, and claim dominance toward the end of the Crisis era around 2025. Or a different party could emerge. One that represents the anti-federal government people against the aging and confused, but entrenched and powerful, political class.

However this plays out, don’t expect the old Democrat-Republican dichotomy to last much longer. Its days are numbered. When last of the Boomers enter elderhood in 2022, the world will look very different. The mainstream will look more libertarian. Activist government will recede, as will many of our sacred social norms.

And that’s a good thing, in my view. The powerful government in Washington is hostile to religion. If that government’s power grows much stronger, the religious right’s ability even to practice religion will face new threats. But as central control diminishes, so does government’s power to compress freedom. And that includes freedom to pray.

As I said, libertarian is the new mainstream. At least, we better hope so.