Left-libertarian Populism


The Ron Paul campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were probably for a lot of the population the first time that they listen about libertarianism. “Libertarian” still means a lot of different things for a lot of people. But after Ron Paul, libertarian means something more than a “Republican who smoke pot.” A campaign for anti-interventionism, anti-bailouts and pro-civil liberties made Paul the first Republican candidate to been able to reach across the ideological spectrum since Buchanan. The Ron Paul campaigns for good or for bad still associate the idea of libertarian with conservative.

With the eyes in the 2016 election there had been a discussion about the possibilities of libertarian populism.  The two most known proponents of the strategy are Ben Domenech and Tim Carney both are conservative libertarians and their proposals although a very interesting strategy for republicans don’t challenge the limits of partisan politics. The fact is that even is very possible a victory of Rand Paul in the primaries according to the latest polls. The problem is that even his victory don’t mean at least necessarily a victory for libertarianism. Rand Paul has try been seen as a more mainstream Republican but the success of his father campaign was an unapologetic anti-Beltway libertarianism. People saw Ron Paul as a man of principle that serve in Congress for a long time that’s why a lot of his supporters where not only regular conservative activists, he surprise with support from strippers, pimps and indie rock bands. He was seen as an honest antiwar candidate even if some of his supporters probably don’t agree with the entirely platform. The question is whether his son Rand could be able to get the same support of his father in coalition of the Tea Party, paleoconservatives, libertarians, antiwar liberals, anti-system radicals and a bunch of people that during most time of their lives were disaffected from the political process. The Kentucky senator has said “I’m more reasonable than my father” however some his actions generate some doubts. His foreign policy and the War on Drugs positions are walking in a thin line in the search to be a more mainstream candidate he could lost some his initial supporters but he is surprising with his positions about prison reform. The filibustering against drones get supported both left and right even if there is possible that a lot of the supporters of that stance of Rand are not going to vote in the republican primaries an event like that make conscious conservatives getting serious about the only possibility to re-take the White House is by nominating a conservative libertarian. His positions on civil liberties are still popular and could get him support despite in what it looks like the most crowded field in republican primaries in years. The results of 2016 are almost impossible to predict.

Libertarian Populism isn’t a predetermined ideology but it combined free market economics with a resentment of the Washington status-quo or in other words “crony capitalism”. It have the rhetoric of limited government that conservatives had been saying for years but when it comes to the military spending there a real difference between Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Walter Jones and “big government libertarians.” I understand this populism in the tradition of the post-Cold War populism. There was in the 90s the campaigns of Jerry Brown on the left,  Pat Buchanan on right and Ross Perot as an independent that were able to get support with a criticism of the elites and foreign policy interventionism. In 2000 Ralph Nader criticism to two party duopoly was able to made him one successful third party candidates with the platform of the Green Party that is grassroots democracy (electoral reform and cooperative organizing), social justice (end to the War on Drugs and prison reform), ecology (invest in solar and wind technology) and peace (anti-interventionism). In 2004 and 2008 he was able of get support both from paleos like radical decentralist Bill Kauffman and libertarians like rothbardian/randian Justin Raimondo. Both of them endorsed Ron Paul in his campaigns. Something worth of mention is that Ron Paul is not a post-Cold War populist in the exact sense because his anti-interventionism was part of his 1988 presidential campaign with the Libertarian Party however it was difficult until the fall of the Soviet Union to predict to insurgence of a proudly anti-imperialist candidate. I agree with Jesse Walker that libertarian populists or “LibPop” as the term he coined don’t have necessarily to win elections to influence the politics but my position is that the probably most interesting factor of the “LibPop” phenomenon is that a new generations of politicians and activists could be far more interesting if there is a discussion of libertarianism and populism rather than if the cultural war is over. I said that thinking in what happen to other populists while Perot disappear of the map now Jerry Brown is back again governor of California but both messages are pretty much lost. When people use to think in Buchanan they seem him as a cultural warrior but forget the importance of his paleoconservative foreign policy was central to his campaigns of the 90s even then when in 2000 ran as a third party candidate it was his anti-interventionism an important part of the campaign. But besides of helping found The American Conservative probably the most thoughtful conservative magazine of this time there is few influence at large when he decides to return to the Republican Party. Nader decided to remain independent but still was dismiss by most of the media maybe some of the greens in alliance with other radicals union members are following their advice to fight in the unions against liberal leadership that wants to endorse and finance the Democratic Party there is difficult to break entirely with the democrats although at least some unions are refusing to endorse democrat candidates. But with Ron Paul was different there are people proudly referring to themselves as “Ron Paul republicans”, embracing libertarianism especially the anti-interventionist position.

Brian Doherty refer to the campaign of 2012 as Paul being a real maverick at the same time being the most conservative in the republican primaries and more progressive than Obama. Paul even had some kind words to the Occupy Movement as back in the day Goldwater in his campaign to re-take his senate seat speaking at the University of Arizona he said that he had “much in common with the anarchist wing of SDS.” But is precisely the analogy SDS-Occupy that today could resonate. Karl Hess who was the Goldwater’s speechwriter was responsible for the lines of Barry at his nomination in the Republican convention in 1964 when he said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” In the Libertarian Forum the newsletter edited by Murray Rothbard when Hess was explaining his new condition as tax-resister in opposition to the Vietnam War he told than in letter to the IRS he explains his position using the same famous phrase that he put in the Goldwater speech. After being a member of the Republican National Committee and writer of the great part of republican platform in 1964 he was force to resign when Goldwater lost, later he found home in the SDS. Carl Oglesby a former president of the SDS who coined the term “corporate liberalism” in a famous speech in 1965 to blame the system responsible for the Vietnam War. Oglesby ideals for the New Left was to join forces with the Old Right in their anti-imperialist vision of America and the permanent call for antiwar populism. They were symbols of an American Left that rejects statism and authoritarianism as the form to solve the problems neither to achieve their social justice ideals.

It is difficult to understand how social justice and free markets can be achieved. The left-libertarianism is an “unknown ideal” as Sheldon Richman says. Left-libertarians could be people like CounterPunch former editor the late Alexander Cockburn with his defense of the militias and Zapatistas was a unique position in the American Left who was worshipping their leader of the time Clinton’s balkanization of the Balkans and his police state displayed at Waco. At the same time Occidental College historian Thaddeus Russell with his provocative A Renegade History of the United States seems to be hailing a libertarian-radical alliance with his defense of prostitutes, gangsters, slackers and other rebels portrayed for him as heroic figures in the achievement of some of most important liberties of today. Kevin Carson had write about Alliance of the Libertarian Left (ALL) and Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) as institutions of free market libertarian criticism of corporate capitalism. There is difference with them and liberalterians a libertarian/liberal fusionist ideal like the thoughtful Bleeding Heart Libertarians and the less serious Daily Kos a blog basically converted in part of the liberal apparatchik of the democrats. Left-libertarianism is usually associated with anarchism and even a great part of its members refuse to join the electoral process. But not all and the example of Karl Hess could be relevant. More known for being Goldwater chief speechwriter Hess was a former member of the Socialist Party but unlike many former radicals turned into conservative warmongers or neocons more precisely he was still a radical and the reason for him to leave the SP was that they weren’t clear about their political approach to elections. In fact his discourse resemble to the courage of socialists like Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas who oppose imperialism. In his biography Mostly on the edge he refuses to call himself a capitalist rather he defines himself as a free-market pluralist. He even goes beyond in a documentary Anarchism in America he stated that the anarcho-communist writer Emma Goldmann stood for all he originally thought the Republican Party ideals were like isolatianism and anti-authoritarianism. In another documentary Toward Liberty he narrate his move from the far-right to the far-left. His beggining as a conservative columnist to a Washington insider to after the beggining of the Vietnam War a member of the anarchist wing of SDS and a supporter of the Black Panthers to his later move to West Virginia where he don’t only embraced libertarianism but also environmentalism with his interest in the power of the neighborhoods and the energetic independence in the form of solar and wind power. His criticism to liberalism was that since Woodrow Wilson is synonymous of American Imperialism at home and abroad. Wars abroad had become an excuse to cut civil liberties and the opportunity for politicians to attack their enemies like it happens to the Black Panthers in the 60s. Hess was a critic of the liberal approach to climate change because the liberals in his opinion only want to raise taxes to polluters and don’t see what honest ecologists who understand themselves as part of a system perceive that the real problem is the political pollution of Washington. A longtime member of the Libertarian Party Hess was enthusiast of third party politics but recognize the possibilities of an alliance between them and other organizations including democrats and republicans.

The history of the American Left is the history of permanent submission to liberalism. In the early twenty century the Socialist Party was a large organization with real possibilities of challenge the two party duopoly with union leader Eugene Debs as an iconic figure who was able to get support from the diverse factions of the organization and his message reach to more people than his voters when he ran in 1920 he was in prison for his opposition to World War I but he manage to get almost a million of votes. He was succeeded by a Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas who also oppose imperialism. The Socialist Party born of the support from labor unions but when FDR was in power, in search of better deals with the government the unions abandoned the socialists. The Communist Party was never a large organization but gain a particular reputation when in the Cold War legislations of some states forbidden to give jobs to the communists even they eternal enemies the trotskyists recognize some courage in the part of the members of the CPUSA. But politically speaking their courage was questionable after the Henry Wallace campaign in 1948, the thesis of the CPUSA was the same of people of The Nation that’s “lesser-evilism” under the threat of fascism and by fascist they mean conservatives. The decline of the radical left in the 40s gave space to liberalism to expand itself with the state power as their main tool. It was only in the 60s that the New Left was born out of opposition of American Imperialism in the form of the Vietnam War. But that time both the Socialist and Communist parties were no longer able to connect with a large student movement center in the Studens for a Democratic Sociaty (SDS). Even while the trotskyists were able to get some kind of larger support their sectarian characteristics prevent them to be larger. The maoists at some point take the SDS and transformed that in the Weather Underground but their ultra-leftism and support for violence divested them from a heterodox youth that opposed the Vietnam War that includes from the countercultural yippies to the southern radicals who marched with Confederate Flag of the Young Patriots Organization, the Black Panthers and puerto rican lefties of the Young Lords. The anarchist wings of the SDS are part of long history of anarchists that radically opposed imperialism but had an interesting new factor the presence of libertarians. Carl Oglesby was not an anarchist neither a socialist in the way socialism was understood in the Cold War, he even as president of SDS denounced state socialism but he was closer to kind of socialism of Debs, Thomas and the early Socialist Party message of patriotic radicalism that recognizes the American history as their main inspiration. They believe them to be part of the American revolutionary tradition and that the third American Revolution would be the revolution against corporate capitalism oppression but Oglesby added the Old Right tradition with figures like antiwar Senator Robert Taft. Murray Rothbard argued that if in 1972 the conservative antiwar republican Senator Mark Hatfield runs for president he  would be the most closely to libertarian president even if probably he was most near to been a radical decentralist. Rothbard predicts that someone like Hatfield could get the support of the New Left. The McGovern campaign in 1972 change the possibilities of libertarian-radical alliance when the disorganize New Left finally organized them but as a part of Democratic Party was a critical point in the dead of New Left. Even if George McGovern was an honest antiwar liberal most of the democrat politicians were still dishonest warmongers. The democrats for years leave for granted the New Left radicals as their supporters. But something happen in the 90s the Green Party decided to draft Ralph Nader in 1996 and got more than half million votes with no campaign. Nader for a lot of people was seem like a liberal hero but he never identified himself as a liberal. Nader whose icons were socialists like Debs and Thomas but also conservative Senator Robert Taft. He also talked about the liberal intelligentsia in reference to academics and journalists than basically are in they support for the democrats are betraying their social justice commitments. In the 2000 campaign that year he almost got three million votes. His campaigns in 2004 and 2008 had less success and many liberals are still blaming Nader for the Al Gore defeat. But the media notices that an antiwar populist candidate was getting support both left and right with buchanites jumping in support of Nader. While Nader is not a libertarian of any sort he is probably the most lucid critic of the bipartisan consensus on Washington about war and corporate welfare. His recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State is an effort not make strange bedfellows rather than a message for natural alliance between those who oppose crony capitalism, the Military Industrial Complex and the surveillance state. In his book tour he even presented at Cato Institute a metaphor for willingness that very few people on the left seem to agree in reaching out besides their safe base.

There is in the “progressive” left some signals of defeat for 2016. Even in 2013 the victory of the socialist Kshama Sawant in the City Council election in Seattle had develop some hope and there is some space in 2014 for the real challenge of the independent left at least in mayoral and city council elections. However speaking about the possible presidential contenders to left of neocon Hillary Clinton there are few and not so convincing. Bernie Sanders is not as antiwar as usually people thinks of a socialist. Elizabeth Warren is not an antiwar candidate of any sort. Brian Schweitzer is neither as libertarian as Daily Kos wants you to believe neither a populist as MSNBC wants you to believe rather a demagogue. Dennis Kucinich and Russ Feingold are real antiwar and pro-civil liberties candidates but their possibilities are few they even lost their seats in the house and the senate. While democrats were saying that greens shouldn’t dare challenge their “progressives” members. Without support of the democratic leadership Feingold lost a race in 2010 and Kucinich lost the democratic primaries after redistricting in 2012. Kucinich ran for president twice in 2004 and 2008 with little support even while he embrace great part of Nader platform. In 2012 after the Obama re-election he spoke at Democracy Now! about his possible 2016 campaign bid running as a democrat but also not ruled out running as green something that is very possible since in 2003 some greens try to draft Kucinich to the Green Party primaries, his move to Washington probably would reduce the chances for him as third party candidate of being label as an spoiler. Feingold spoke at early 2005 about a possibly of a 2008 run but in 2006 he decided not to run. Feingold probably if he run would do better than Kucinich although is difficult to predict how much he could get even him has not spoken openly to run but some journalists are suggesting that because he could get some grassroots support. Both Kucinich and Feingold are capable of getting support across the political spectrum besides the antiwar paleoconservatives. Kucinich opposition to the War on Drugs make him popular with libertarians and his presence as Fox News contributor make him also someone who could  attract conservative support. Feingold as former senator of Wisconsin a swing state with a progressive tradition was the only senator that opposed the Patriot ACT which was praised both by conservatives and libertarians.

The question is for the left could it also been libertarian and populist. The left since the days of Hess or Oglesby was unable to reach out to the broad libertarian movement not to mention that there were some serious tensions over the vision of corporations. The left by their association with liberalism is often associated with the elites. Terms like limousine liberals had do more harm to the left than the attacks from right-wing radio. There is resentment of the elites and people are in all they right to do so. With liberals like The Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel organizing luxury cruises to La Habana while saying that democrats are for the people. What people? Millionaire Castro-supporters maybe. But both Hess and Oglesby were clear in their opposition to liberalism. Hess in a documentary stated that he was proud of never having been a liberal. Oglesby criticism to the liberalism of the Vietnam War was that from Truman to Johnson all the supporters of these imperial project were liberals. The question is whether the critic of liberalism could be a strategy campaign for years it was for conservatives even Bernie Sanders when he ran as an independent for congress he defined as a socialist to don’t have the burden of been call “too liberal.” But thinking of left-libertarianism it also could be a critic of Left/Right divisions when in 1969 the writer Norman Mailer ran for mayor in the democratic primaries of New York he ran on a radical decentralist platform and identifies himself as a left-conservative. Like another radical decentralist as conservative Senator Mark Hatfield he was praised by Rothbard as a part of a libertarian project to challenge the bipartisan statism. Left-libertarian populism could be understand as a fusion of social justice ideals, support for free markets, anti-interventionist foreign policy and critic of state and corporate power also is important to remain he long tradition of left-libertarians of oppose the police brutality and the surveillance state. Left-libertarianism could be populist if it focus on developing the power of the communities that would be better with self-government rather than subject to the burocracy of Washington.

It is worth remember that in 2008 Paul endorsed Ralph Nader (Independent), Cynthia McKinney (Green) and Chuck Baldwin (Constitution). Paul cited coincidence in foreign policy and civil liberties. Also the promise of no raising the National Debt and audit the Federal Reserve. I would go beyond and put ten points that could be used for left-libertarians but in general for libertarian populists:

  • Anti-interventionist foreign policy
  • End the War on Drugs
  • End corporate welfare
  • Fight corporate crime
  • No raise the National Debt
  • Revision of the Federal Reserve
  • Repeal the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act and FISA legislation
  • Stop the NSA spying
  • Stop police brutality
  • Prison reform

As I mention in the beginning “libertarian” still means a lot of things so “left-libertarian” more than a theoretical support of the vastly theories I would argue that the possibility of a left-libertarian critic of big business and the big state or more accurate as Ralph Nader like to said the Corporate State. Limited government is not Empire. Individual liberty is more than economic freedom. Hess was clear to remember libertarians than was not a libertarian position to oppose something just because the left was working for the same thing. Hess also support the idea of an alliance between libertarians and religious fundamentalist because their main compromise was with their God not the State. I think is dangerous to see the Republican Party as the only vehicle of restore freedom in America. The Libertarian Party is a central part in history of the libertarian movement with an interesting platform that in theory was supposed to welcome both Left and Right but failed in the 80s when there was options for attract the electoral left after Rainbow Coalition inside/outside strategy and in 2008 Barr/Root ticket don’t get enough conservative support as some party insiders initially were thinking. The Green Party had a role in the same-sex marriage that is often forgotten when in the mayoral election San Francisco it was the green Matt Gonzalez who put the topic on the campaign and only after that a democrat Bush supporter like Gavin Newsom change his mind on the subject. It was the green mayor of New Paltz Jason West who first celebrate same-sex marriages in the New York State. Both events ended pressing the democrats on the issue because they usually consider LGBT support for granted. Most of the cities that passed resolutions against the Patriot ACT and the Iraq War had green councilmembers but they still had problems to get higher offices than mayors in small cities. The Democratic Party has failed to the progressive community again and again. Even saying that there is space for people like antiwar Dennis Kucinich or a civil libertarian Russ Feingold on the Democratic side. Jesse Ventura as an independent libertarian-leaning could be an interesting choice over the others Bush and Clinton. Kevin Zeese of the Green Party, former president of NRMAL and longtime progressive activist was able to get the endorsement of the Libertarian Party for his principled antiwar positions in his campaign for the Senate in 2006 he also took some free market positions for the development of alternative technologies. In the Libertarian Party longtime activist Mary Ruwart could be an interesting nominee to challenge the Left/Right division of the political establishment. Of course in the Republican Party there are chances for the front-runner Rand Paul, the most libertarian member of congress Justin Amash and the Old Right antiwar Walter Jones.

Sometime ago the energetic libertarian activist Starchild claimed “We need a libertarian Che Guevara”. I agree with that proposition even I’m not sure how left-winger can a left-libertarian could be and still be considered libertarian for the broad liberty movement. But with the difficulties of Rand Paul in trying to be a more mainstream candidate he is forgetting the radicalism of libertarian icons like Goldwater or his own father. If extremism in defense of liberty is no vice as Karl Hess used to say there is no danger on be on the other side fighting against the most reactionary neocons like the Clintons and Bushes. Maybe now is time the for a left-libertarian populist revolution.


About Camilo Gómez

My main interests are history, politics, film and music. Twitter: @camilomgn
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