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The Emerging Liberal Majority

Is the traditional conception of politics as contest between the economically statist, socially progressive left, and the market-friendly, socially retrograde right, just pining for the fjords, or is it stone dead? Consider this: Jesse Larner wrote a thoughtful critical appreciation … Read More

By / June 3, 2008

Is the traditional conception of politics as contest between the economically statist, socially progressive left, and the market-friendly, socially retrograde right, just pining for the fjords, or is it stone dead?

Consider this: Jesse Larner wrote a thoughtful critical appreciation of Friedrich Hayek in the Winter issue of Dissent, pointing out several historical and theoretical lacunae in Hayek's thought but crediting Hayek's critique of planned economies as decisive. It's notable not only for being a beautifully written piece, but also for where it's coming from: a left-wing writer in a prominent left-wing magazine (albeit one that's always been regarded as "the right wing of the left"). When the premier journal of democratic socialism agrees that the viability of systems of central planning is over, it's over. But on the other hand, Larner perceptively notes what might come as a shock to some of Hayek's most ardent fans, namely that he "recognizes such a thing as the social interest and will even endorse some limited redistributionalism — he goes so far as to suggest that the state ensure a minimum standard of living." Which suggest the potential for a reconciliation between classical and contemporary liberalism.

Coming at the same question from the opposite direction, Cato's Will Wilkinson observes by reference to Friedman and (James, not Pat) Buchanan as well as Hayek that liberal-libertarian "fusionism" is really "just seeing our way back to a pre-existing economically literate political liberalism." Socialism and communism are dead, and with them the tactical rational for libertarians and classical liberals to make common cause with the right. "The question these days," Wilkinson argues, "is whether the U.S. will have the good sense to adopt more rational market-based old-age pension policies, like Sweden or Australia, or lower corporate tax rates to a level more in line with the rest of the wealthy world…Slightly higher personal tax rates and slightly more redistribution is a possibility, but a slide into socialism just isn’t on the table."

So that's what a pair of out of touch eggheads think; what about real people? There are two texts to consult here: Christopher Caldwell's classic 1998 Atlantic Monthly piece, "The Southern Captivity of the GOP," surveyed a vast range of socioeconomic data and tracked the correlation between the shift to a post-industrial economy marked by massive suburbanization to the revival of the national Democratic party in the 1990s. Ruy Teixeira and John Judis' ill-timed but increasingly prescient The Emerging Democratic Majority filled in the political side of that story. Whereas the Roosevelt coalition was smashed when Richard Nixon and then Ronald Reagan pried away its southern and sun-belt wings, the Reagan majority is moribund due in part to the migration of Yankee Republicans to the Democrats, but at least as much in virtue of the Democrats adding scores of new voters to the electorate, thanks to the expansion of the McGovern coalition and an even larger expansion of the Latino population.

That's where the Larner and Wilkinson pieces come back into the picture. Each of them approaching the prospect from opposite starting points argues that achieving a liberal-libertarian equilibrium is not only possible but desirable. The data Caldwell, Texeira, and Judis marshal suggests that if the fulcrum of the coming realignment is a shift in the country's substructure, the lever can be a shift from persistent Roosevelt-era concepts of left vs. right and liberal vs. conservative, towards a new ideological division to match the new political economy: liberalism (broadly construed) vs. populism.

Look at two of the most emotionally salient issues in our politics, trade and immigration — which in addition to being emotionally salient, are two sides of the same coin — to see how it might work. Currently both parties contain populist wings furious in their opposition to trade (Democratic populists) and immigration (Republican populists); yet the emerging, if silent majority (to borrow a phrase) is friendly to both. Moreover, the core of support for populism in the south and Appalachia neatly overlaps the power center of the GOP. Whereas the Democrats have solidified their bases, nearly completely conquered traditional Republican strongholds like New England and California, and made strong inroads into "new" southern states like Virginia and North Carolina through the expansion of the wine-track liberal vote congenial to markets and primarily concerned with environmental and foreign policy and by winning over the proverbial "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" suburban moderates who used to tilt Republican. Their next battlegrounds are the southwest and Rocky Mountain states, which they can flip through the same phenomena plus the huge expansion of a Latino electorate invested in liberal immigration policy.

In other words, the Rawls-Hayek fusion Wilkinson speaks of doesn't just make philosophical sense. It's also a promising strategy for the Democrats to build a national majority they haven't enjoyed in more than half a century. Conversely, by rejecting liberalism in favor of full-throated populism, the GOP is on the verge of fulfilling Caldwell's predictions, and reducing itself as a rump Anglo party trapped in the deep south and Appalachia.

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