Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Return of the Realignment Watch: Dem Edition

I've been making a conscious effort to avoid discussing the increasingly cynical Democrat primary, at least to the extent it has become focused on utterly silly issues. However, I have argued that the lengthening of the Dem primary campaign, particularly in light of Obama's increasingly inevitable victory, is bad for both the Dems and the country as a whole. My rationale for this was that the drawn-out campaign, particularly with Hillary Clinton's have-to-see-it-to-believe-it working class hero act, has increasingly forced the candidates into an economic populism from which they will not be able to back down in the general election. This is bad for the ultimate Dem candidate as it makes them less able to move to the center in the general election. But it is equally bad should the Dem candidate still win the general election since it will be almost impossible for that candidate to completely back off from their newfound economic populism.

Tonight, however, it occured to me that the polarization of the Dem campaign may actually be good for the country in the long run, and may create a situation in which libertarians will be better able to influence the Democrats than ever before. Why do I say this? It's the juxtaposition of two things: this interview at The Art of the Possible with Glenn Greenwald, and the staggering number of Clinton voters tonight who said they would either vote for McCain or not vote at all should Obama win the Dem nomination (around 35-40% in both North Carolina and Indiana, it looks like). The bitterness engendered by the Dem nomination battle may result in the departure of a substantial portion of the Dem voter base for the Republican party. As I will explain below, this portion of the Dem voter base also happens to be the least libertarian-friendly, and may allow the Dem Party to liberalize its agenda on issues of importance to libertarians (including trade) without having the union bosses looking over their shoulder so much.

The Greenwald interview, by itself, doesn't break much new ground, though it does help reinforce the notion that cooperation between Progressives and libertarians is, at least in the short term, a good idea. As is usually the case with Greenwald, the interview is well worth a read, even though there are several items about which I could not disagree with him strongly enough. But the passage that clicked for me is this:

I think that many liberals have become much more skeptical of government power and the notion of trusting government leaders as a result of the abuses of the last eight years. Obviously, there are some of them who will quickly lose that skepticism and distrust if there is a Democrat in the White House, but — while recognizing this is just speculation — I honestly believe that’s a minority. I think the radicalism of the last eight years in terms of expansive government power has engendered a real political realignment and made liberals and libertarians far more natural allies than libertarians and those on the Right.

(My emphasis).

In large part, at least, I think Greenwald is right on this point, though I should be more hesitant to allow him to speak for Progressive/liberals as a group, and he clearly underestimates the importance of free market economics to libertarianism as a philosophy. Still, the point that libertarians in recent years have increasingly found common cause with the American Left is nothing new, as the very existence of a site like the Art of the Possible can attest.

Indeed, the biggest hurdle to such an alliance is the American Left's deep discomfort with free market economics (or, put another way, libertarians' deep discomfort with the economics of the American Left).

Should the bitterness of the Dem primary campaign actually result in a large swath of Hillary Clinton voters switching sides to vote for McCain, then we legitimately could see a small but important political realignment take place. This is because the voters and groups most likely to support Sen. Clinton without being willing to back Obama in a general election campaign are the voters with the most anti-free market positions (and, for that matter, the least understanding of economics of any sort- look at the idiotic pandering that is Hillary's gas tax holiday proposal and you'll get the picture).

As these anti-trade economic populists move to the McCain camp, Obama will have less incentive to go through the motions of being an economic populist. This is because his remaining supporters are likely to be more educated about the issues of free trade, and at least willing to accept the notion that free markets can play a valuable role and are often (if not always) better than the alternatives.

To be sure, Obama will need to find a way of building a sufficient coalition to win the election. To do so, he could try to win the populists back over, but he will be trying to convert an extraordinarily skeptical crowd whose opinion of him has been poisoned (fairly or unfairly) beyond repair. Moreover, in doing so, he will lose a huge chunk of his ability to snatch independent voters from the claws of apathy while having no chance of winning over a sizable portion of the lost Hillary voters. The other, perhaps more likely, way for Obama to build a winning coalition will be for him to create a new Dem coalition that maintains his stronghold amongst intellectuals and highly educated liberals while also appealing to the millions of educated disgruntled Republicans who have only slightly more love for McCain than they have for Bush. These disgruntled ex-Republicans are likely to be war opponents, or at least harsh opponents of the Bush-era expansions of executive power, socially liberal, and fiscal dissidents of the Bush spending sprees- a group that roughly includes most libertarians these days.

Without the need to maintain the economic populists, who Obama has already lost, Obama would be much more able to return to the generally pro-free market positions he most likely actually holds (based on his relationship with respected economist Austan Goolsbee). Such a newly formed coalition would not be libertarian, taken as a whole. However, it would be a coalition that would be far more cohesive than, say, the existing Republican coalition wherein so-called "libertarians" are often just war mongering theocrats who like lower taxes.

This isn't to say that the above-described realignment will happen, or even that it is likely. Just that it's a possibility should the deep divisions caused by the Democratic primary campaign not heal relatively quickly.