What’s really happened
Ignore the rhetoric, look at the policies. Libertarians have gone from victory to victory since 1970.
It’s a predictable outcome when one considers the sort of political priorities America’s two parties have actually chosen to pursue, rather than the ones they loudly claim to care about. Though Nixon may have helped popularize a Republican-versus-Democrat narrative that persists to this day, the moral versus the hippies, once he was out of office, it was the rather distinct right-wing narrative of markets versus state — the very essence of Reaganism and the Tea Party — that emerged far more dominant. The Democrats, likewise, long torn between conflicting roles as the party of the traditionally-minded, unionized working-class and educated, urban, secular, white-collar progressives, eventually found more support amongst the latter, who were more passionate, faster-growing, and, of course, wealthier.
Though the parties battled at the ballot box, their two value systems actually complimented each other nicely. Republicans lowered taxes and deregulated big business, while Democrats encouraged permissiveness and non-discrimination. In different ways, both parties championed a philosophy of “anything goes,” allowing Americans, in Courtwright’s words, to happily embrace “the self-liberation of the counter-culture, but also the self-enriching possibilities of a liberated economy.” To put it another way, the vast majority of Americans soon became champions of that most maudlin of political identities — economically conservative, but socially liberal. The Republicans have never really had a plan to combat this natural dispositional preference, and even the most religious, cultural, and moral conservatives have been largely swept up by its attractive allure. Though the GOP considers itself far more right-wing than it did in Nixon’s day, his 20% sop to the so-cons has failed to evolve beyond tokenism.
And it’s not just a matter of RINOs — as Courtwright repeatedly observes, even the most supposedly stalwart darlings of the American right, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, were socially liberal enough creatures to make their attempts at counter-revolution predictably half-assed. Reagan, after all, was a divorced Hollywood actor who rarely attended church, knocked up his second wife before they got married, and was, by most accounts, a pretty aloof, crappy father. The younger Bush was likewise a recovering alcoholic and drug user with a penchant for rude jokes, anti-authority mischief, and derelict buddies. Both leaders, though heartily endorsed by the most humorless of Evangelicals, were affable and tolerant guys who disliked judging others and tended to believe the world’s evils were caused by honest misunderstandings, rather than the sinful claws of Satan. These were not the sorts of men to herald the dawn of a new great awakening.
Presidents 40 and 43 were not terribly unrepresentative of their supporters, of course. One of Courtwright’s most revealing anecdotes describes the two very different crowds of people passing the caskets of two of the 20th century’s most consequential presidents. As Kennedy lay in state, his gawking supporters all looked sharp in their suits, ties, and fedoras. Reagan’s people, half a century later, didn’t even feel the need to change out of their sweat pants and baseball caps. Conservatives have lost their ability to see what makes the latter sort of behavior problematic, because they too have uncritically come to embrace the material joys and non-judgmental independence of the liberated, me-first lifestyle borne by a free-market society. The result is a political culture in which issues like gay marriage or abortion are icebergs with nothing beneath the tip. Culture war battles are all over symptoms, not causes, because in most cases the root causes — permissiveness, secularism, and capitalism — are far more popular, even to the most upright church-goer, than any more authoritarian, less individualistic alternative.
I want to make a distinction from the review, tho’ — or perhaps it’s just a shift in emphasis. While social conservatives have lost, fiscal conservatives have gone from victory to victory. Indeed, the Tea Party only continues this trend — retrenchment of the welfare state, given current demographic trends, is a necessity.
Compare that to 1972, when President Richard Nixon was looking at a guaranteed national income, universal health care, and goodness knows what other expansions of the Leviathan.
I suppose it’s still Ronald Reagan’s country. For good and for ill.
And for all that libertarians complain about being politically homeless, if you compare America in 1972 to America in 2011, they’re the ones who have made real gains.