Want to feel better about the Republican Party’s problems in minority communities? Spend some time with the Libertarians.
You won’t find a lot of black Libertarians because libertarian theory runs counter to every lesson learned by African-Americans in the real world struggle for civil rights. The long, sad decline of the Republican Party as the primary vehicle of black political expression corresponds closely to the rise of libertarian philosophy as a force in Republican politics. It is a story of unintended consequences and unwelcome alliances that offers crucial lessons for Republicans as we struggle to restore the party’s influence in minority communities.
Republicans began embracing libertarianism about a decade before the term found its modern American meaning. Barry Goldwater embraced individual liberty as a paramount political value in the early ‘60’s. Libertarians formed a separate political party in the early 70’s when a small core of anti-war conservatives broke from the Soviet hawks over Vietnam, but the two movements never fully disentangled from each other.
To this day figures like Ron Paul or Gary Johnson move easily between Libertarian and Republican circles because the boundaries are muddy. The libertarian movement today is still the heir of the Goldwater Republicans. It was Goldwater who launched the Republican shift toward libertarianism and it was under Goldwater that the libertarians failed Black America.
The proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 presented the libertarian wing of the conservative movement with a wrenching choice. Libertarians loathed segregation, but breaking Jim Crow would demand a sweeping expansion of Federal power that would intervene deeply into private life. The dilemma was that African Americans repression rose not only from government, but from the culture and personal choices of their white neighbors.
The Civil Rights Acts proposed to do something that libertarian ideology insisted was impossible –expand personal freedom by expanding central government power. Goldwater made a fateful decision to break from the core of the Republican Party and oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His decision alienated the black community and shone a glaring light on a fatal weakness in libertarian theory.
Libertarianism protects personal liberty from being impaired by government. It creates weak states on the assumption that without government intrusion personal freedom will blossom.
The black experience is a living reminder that government is not alone as a potential threat to personal liberty. It is possible, as in the Jim Crow South, to build a government so weak that no one’s personal liberties can be protected.
The libertarianism Goldwater embraced had its eyes fixed firmly on Communism. In the fight against the tyranny of a totalitarian ideology, the right failed to recognize that tyranny can flourish under a weak state. Libertarian conservatives watched Medgar Evers’ funeral without recognizing small government oppression at work.
The high-minded pursuit of personal freedom from government made Goldwater an accidental hero for segregationists. In the most noxious irony of the 1964 election, Goldwater as the standard-bearer of personal liberty earned the endorsement of segregationist Democrat Strom Thurmond and became the first Republican to win the Deep South since Reconstruction.
Goldwater’s awkward alliance with racists launched a troubling trend. By elevating ideology over experience, the party of Lincoln was forging a strange new path. Those alliances, and the stubborn refusal to re-examine the choices that inspired them, continue to make the Republican Party a tough sell not just for African Americans, but for anyone with an ethnic or religious identity outside the white community.
A closer look at the weakness of libertarian ideology would provide ready opportunities for Republicans to right some wrongs. Our message of small government works only when it is tempered by a respect for the very real role that good government plays in guaranteeing freedom.
A more carefully crafted message of less intrusive government could appeal to a black urban working class who can’t get access to good schools because of the power of government employee unions. Personal freedom and accountability are a strong fit with the values of a deeply religious community torn by violence and social collapse.
Our message has potential to appeal to minority audiences, but it will never ring true unless it accounts for some realities that many Republicans are loathe to acknowledge. For example, many hard-working, successful African Americans got their start on the economic ladder with progressive hiring and promotion policies at the Post Office or other Federal agencies. It was a muscular, activist Federal government that gave African-Americans their first opportunities to participate in the American Dream.
Extreme anti-government rhetoric devoid of nuance or constraint creates well-justified fear in minority communities. Libertarian values have historically failed them, leaving them exposed to terrifying oppression. Republicans cannot continue to clumsily paint government as a fount of endless evil and hope to appeal to minority communities whose own family stories render that message hollow.
In appealing to minority communities, we need a message of small government that is more nuanced than libertarians will tolerate. Smaller government is a better prescription for personal liberty and economic success, but only if it remains strong enough to protect basic civil rights. A government small enough to “drown in a bathtub” turns society into a playground for petty tyrants.