The American Electorate’s “Squishy Center” vs. Liberty

I have invoked the electorate’s “squishy center” in several posts; for example:

If a left-wing Democrat (is there any other kind now?) returns to the White House and an aggressive left-wing majority controls Congress — both quite thinkable, given the fickleness of the electorate — freedom of speech, freedom of association, and property rights will become not-so-distant memories. “Affirmative action” will be enforced on an unprecedented scale of ferocity. The nation will become vulnerable to foreign enemies while billions of dollars are wasted on the hoax of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and “social services” for the indolent. The economy, already buckling under the weight of statism, will teeter on the brink of collapse as the regulatory regime goes into high gear and entrepreneurship is all but extinguished by taxation and regulation.

All of that will be secured by courts dominated by left-wing judges — from here to eternity.

And most of the affluent white enablers dupes of the revolution will come to rue their actions. But they won’t be free to say so.

Thus will liberty — and prosperity — die in America. Unless … the vast, squishy center of the electorate takes heart from Trump’s efforts to restore prosperity (and a semblance of constitutional governance) and votes against a left-wing resurgence. The next big test of the squishy center’s mood will occur on November 6, 2018.

How big is the squishy center? I estimated here, based on popularity ratings for Obama and Trump, that about one-third of the electorate is hard left and about one-third is staunchly conservative; thus:

Figure 3
Derived from presidential approval ratings compiled by Rasmussen Reports for Obama and Trump. Current as of February 8, 2019.

I concluded on this note:

Left and right — the hard left and staunch conservatism, in particular — are irreconcilable. They are in fact locked in a death-struggle over the future of America. The squishy center is along for the ride, and will change its tune … and allegiance opportunistically, in the hope that it will end up on the “right side of history”.

As for the size of the squishy center: It may comprise about one-fifth of the electorate, rather than one-third, judging by electoral oscillations since the advent of the modern Republican Party around 1920. Hyper-active Teddy Roosevelt captured the party upon his ascendancy to the bully pulpit in 1901. Though TR’s presidency ended in 1909, the GOP remained in his thrall through 1916. TR’s “Bull Moose” (Progressive) candidacy in 1912 swung the election to Woodrow Wilson — the father of the administrative state. Charles Evans Hughes, the GOP nominee in 1916, was a TR man.

The GOP returned to “normalcy” in 1920, with the election of Warren G. Harding and his running mate-cum-successor, Calvin Coolidge. By “normalcy” I mean that Harding and subsequent GOP nominees have paid lip service, and sometimes actual service, to the project of limited, constitutional government. In any event, GOP presidential candidates, whatever their platforms and programs, have been consistently to the right of their Democrat opponents.

Given that, the division of the popular vote between the two major parties gives a first-order approximation of the ideological divide:

(I attribute the dampening of the fluctuations since 1984 to the generally uninspiring character of the post-Reagan candidates. Clinton’s weak surge in 1992 and 1996 reflects his GOP opponents — Bush I and Dole. Obama’s weaker surge in 2008 reflects McCain’s bumbling performance, and a temporary burst of enthusiasm among blacks and misguided whites who wanted to send a “message” to George W. Bush.)

A similar but more precise estimate of the ideological divide can be obtained by counting the votes cast for third parties. Drawing on Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, I assigned votes to two camps, which I call Federalist and Nationalist. Federalist for the idea of a confederation where States are co-sovereign with a limited, central government; Nationalist for the idea of a strong central government of almost unchecked power, ruling over subservient States.

On the Federalist side are the GOP; the Southern Democrats of 1948 and 1968; and the Libertarians of 2016. (I count the Southern Democrats as favoring the Federalist side because of their stance on States’ rights, however ignoble the cause it served. But their inclusion does not taint the GOP, as I explain here.)

On the Nationalist side are the Democrat Party; the Socialists of 1920 and 1932; the Progressives of 1924 and 1948; the Independent/Reform parties of 1980, 1992, and 1996; and the Greens of 2000.

There are other third parties, of less consequence, that could be labeled Federalist or Nationalist — the Libertarians before 2016 and the Greens of 2016, for example. But assigning them wouldn’t make a significant difference in the picture of the ideological split, which looks like this:

The Federalist surge in the 1920s is less impressive than the GOP surge of that decade, while the Nationalist surge in the 1990s is more impressive than the Democrat surge of that decade. But the bottom line remains the same: The electorate swings between 40-60 percent in the GOP/Federalist camp and 40-60 percent in the Democrat/Nationalist camp.

That is to say, there’s a hard core Republican/Federalist vote of 40 percent and a hard-core Democrat/Nationalist vote of 40 percent. The other 20 percent can’t make up its collective mind. But it’s the decisive 20 percent.

Democracy is the enemy of liberty.

If Men Were Angels

Libertarians, God bless them, are always looking for simple solutions to complex problems. Here, for example, is David Bernstein, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy:

I doubt [that] any two libertarians agree on the exact boundaries of libertarianism, but how’s this for a working definition: “A libertarian is someone who generally opposes government interference with and regulation of civil society, even when the result of such government action would be to clamp down on things the individual in question personally dislikes, finds offensive, or morally disapproves of.”

Thus, for example, a libertarian who hates smoking opposes smoking bans in private restaurants, a libertarian who thinks homosexual sodomy is immoral nevertheless opposes sodomy laws, a libertarian who finds certain forms of “hate speech” offensive still opposes hate speech laws, a libertarian who believes in eating natural foods opposes bans or special taxes on processed foods, and a libertarian who thinks that all employers should pay a living wage nevertheless opposes living wage legislation. It doesn’t matter whether the libertarian holds these positions because he believes in natural rights, for utilitarian reasons, or because he thinks God wants us to live in a libertarian society. [“How’s This for a Working Definition of ‘Libertarian’?,” February 26,2015]

This reminds me of the title of a poem by A.E. Housman: “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.” Why is it stupid stuff? Because it omits an essential ingredient of liberty, which is line-drawing.

By Bernstein’s logic, one must conclude that anything goes; for example, a libertarian who hates murder, rape, theft, and fraud must oppose laws against such things. Bernstein, like many a libertarian, propounds a moral code that is devoid of morality.

Bernstein might argue that morality is supplied by prevailing social norms. Which, until the bandwagon effect produced by the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, would have meant the non-recognition of homosexual “marriage”. But libertarians were prominent in the chorus of voices clamoring for the Supreme Court to make a national law recognizing homosexual “marriage”, even though the marriage laws still on the books in most parts of the nation — laws that defined marriage as the union of male and female — arose from prevailing social norms. Libertarians have a slippery way of proclaiming laissez faire while striving to enforce their own moral views through law.

Libertarianism is an ideology rooted in John Stuart Mill’s empty harm principle (a.k.a the non-aggression principle), about which I’ve written many times (e.g., here). Regarding ideology, I turn to Jean-François Revel:

As an a priori construction, formulated without regard to facts or ethics, ideology is distinct from science and philosophy on the one hand, and from religion and ethics on the other. Ideology is not science — which it pretends to be. Science accepts the results of the experiments it devises, whereas ideology systematically rejects empirical evidence. It is not moral philosophy — which it claims to have a monopoly on, while striving furiously to destroy the source and necessary conditions of morality: the free will of the individual. Ideology is not religion — to which it is often, and mistakenly, compared: for religion draws its meaning from faith in a transcendent reality, while ideology aims to perfect the world here below.

Ideology — that malignant invention of the human spirit’s dark side, an invention which has cost us dearly — has the singular property of causing zealots to project the structural features of their own mentality onto others. Ideologues cannot imagine that an objection to their abstract systems could come from any source other than a competing system.

All ideologies are aberrations. A sound and rational ideology cannot exist. Falsehood is intrinsic to ideology by virtue of cause, motivation and objective, which is to bring into being a fictional version of the human self — the “self,” at least, that has resolved no longer to accept reality as a source of information or a guide to action. [Last Exit to Utopia, pp. 52-53]

A key aspect of ideology — libertarian ideology included — is its studied dismissal of human nature. Arnold Kling notes, for example,

that humans in large societies have two natural desires that frustrate libertarians.

1. A desire for religion, defined as a set of rituals, norms, and affirmations that are shared by a group and which the group believes it is wrong not to share….

2. A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies….

If these desires were to disappear, I believe that humans could live without a state. However, given these desires, the best approach for a peaceful large society is that which was undertaken in the U.S. when it was founded: freedom of religion guaranteed by the government, and a political system designed for peaceful succession and limitations on the power of any one political office….

I think that it is fine for libertarians to warn of the dangers of religion and to oppose war…. On other other hand, when libertarians assume away the desire for religion and war, their thinking becomes at best irrelevant and at worst nihilistic. [“Libertarians vs. Human Nature,” askblog, February 17, 2017]

In Madison’s words:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. [The Federalist No. 51, February 6, 1788]


Related posts:
On Liberty
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

Consistent Conservatism

[A] person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

Parsing Political Philosophy (II),” Politics & Prosperity

*       *      *

I offer myself as an example of the operation of temperament on political preferences. I am, by nature, a conservative person. For example, I’m cautious about change. It’s my view that if a thing works reasonably well, tinkering with it will probably cause it to stop working well, or at all. For that reason, I dislike meddling in the affairs of others. I don’t know what they know about their own circumstances, so I presume that they’re acting in their own best interests. And if they mess up their lives, it’s up to them to make things right if they can. And if they can’t, it’s not my responsibility to clean up the mess that they’ve made. But, in typically conservative fashion, I will try to help them if I’m attached to them by blood or another strong bond.

By extension, I intensely dislike government meddling because it can mess up so many lives, even (and especially) lives that would otherwise be well lived. It follows that government has only one legitimate function, which is to protect Americans from force and fraud. That implies a vigorous defense of Americans and their overseas interests against enemies, foreign and domestic. The purpose of a vigorous defense is to enable Americans to lead their lives (lawfully) as they deem best; it is not to make America safe for governmental meddling in social and economic affairs.

Government, in short, should be conservative in the way that I am conservative. Some would call me a libertarian, but it is my long-held position that conservatism is true libertarianism.

My consistent conservatism is reflected in my attitude toward WikiLeaks. I was gladdened by this recent news:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange promised he’s not done leaking information that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton. During an interview this week with Fox’s Megyn Kelly he said the documents would be “significant” in perhaps turning the tide of the 2016 election by giving voters a better understanding who they’re electing.

Not that I’m a Donald Trump fan; I’m not, as you will know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. But I welcome almost any development that might keep that lying, hypocritical statist Hillary Clinton out of the White House.

Am I a hypocrite, too? My visceral (conservative) reaction to activists, protestors, and rabble-rousers is “go away and mind your own business.” That was my reaction to WikiLeaks when I first heard of it — and Julian Assange — six years ago, in connection with the release of documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to war-making in defense of Americans and their overseas interests, my conservative (i.e., cautious) view is that it’s better to kill enemies sooner rather than later. Delay gives enemies a chance to build their strength, and to use it in unexpected ways.

I know that the politicians and generals who wage war aren’t always or often brilliant about how they do it. But perfection is hard to come by, so I’m willing to tolerate mistakes as long as they err on the side of “too much” defense. (LBJ’s Vietnam vacillations were maddening to me; he should have gone all out or bugged out, but he did neither.) I was therefore angered by the revelations six years ago because it seemed to me that they put America’s war-fighters in jeopardy, or at least compromised America’s ability to wage war.

So, no, I don’t think I’m hypocritical in the least. Anything (non-violent) that helps to take down a domestic enemy like Hillary Clinton is acceptable. Anything (violent or non-violent) that damages America’s defenses against foreign enemies is unacceptable, and often treasonous.

Conservative in temperament, conservative in politics, consistently conservative. That’s my motto.