A More Libertarian Republican Party Would Be a Wrong Turn For the GOP

Nearly every article on PolicyMic this week concerning the future of the GOP and how it can win over millennials is based on abandoning (to some degree) its social platforms and identifying with a strong, principled libertarian philosophy. While I agree that it would be best if the GOP abandoned its social agenda from a popular opinion standpoint, I highly doubt that such a shift is possible in the next five to 10 years.

Also, I sympathize with the libertarians that many Republicans seem committed to talking the talk on spending, but aren't as equally committed to walking the walk. Spending cuts, especially the kind of cuts that the libertarians and the fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party are looking for, are relatively tough moves politically. While the public does support reducing government spending in theory, there is very little support when specific areas of spending are considered. In fact, a recent Pew poll found that pluralities of Americans would want to either hold spending constant or increase it for most of the 19 areas specified. (The only areas that the public seems more willing to slash are foreign aid and the State Department budget, which together amount to a total of about 1% of the annual budget.)

The vexing question that kept coming up while reading these appeals was just how strengthening the GOP’s fiscal conservative roots connected to broader millennial support, which was the supposed focus of the articles. While I am confident that the respective authors are themselves convinced and supportive of such a platform shift, it isn't at all clear that millennials are behind it. Many libertarian ideas about government are considered pretty fringe today, relatively more radical in their vision of government than the even the current GOP, which has already moved considerably farther to the right over the last few years.

Which is to say, I’m not convinced that the GOP’s problem has simply been a social agenda problem. There remain serious economic issues, some of them structural, others cyclical, that the U.S. must address over the next few years in order to engineer a strong economic recovery and return to full employment. I am not sure that what the millennials are looking for is further absence of government in this effort. At least not the kind of government absence that led to a wildly unstable financial system and near collapse.

Removing government from consumer protection, slashing dollars allocated to the poor, sick, to children, or college-bound students is not the kind of vision that the millennials, a generation that overwhelmingly supported President Obama, appears to have in mind. The GOP’s problem is not a lack of principle, but rather a vision of modern democratic governance that is quite simply at odds with what the majority of Americans want, especially a majority of millennials.

Now, the argument can be made that what the majority of Americans want is untenable — a substantial entitlement system; a large and powerful military; and a level of taxation that cannot pay for all of it. However, that incongruity doesn't change the reality of popular opinion. Those advocating for the salience of stronger fiscal conservative principles have a serious uphill battle in terms of gaining mainstream support. This advocacy is made all the more difficult by the fact that far more moderate shifts in spending and taxation would allow us to reduce deficits and debt without gutting essential programs.

The libertarian response to all of that would probably highlight the significance of the national debt, the supposed weight such debt has on economic growth, that such is the consequence of irresponsible spending, and that crisis looms should we fail to act and act decisively to substantially reduce the size of government. They would go on to suggest that we Millennials will bear the brunt of the pain should we fail to act now. I find this narrative wholly unconvincing.

There simply is no looming "debtpocalypse." Even in Paul Ryan’s recent budget, the main cuts to entitlements — the single largest driver of projected future deficits and debt growth — don’t actually take effect until 2024. And where the cuts do come from in the mean time? From programs for the poor, for children, and for students. This is a radical restructuring of government that seems far beyond millennial support, or popular national support for that matter. And let’s remember that the millennials are a decidedly more liberal bunch than older generations.

There are a few other problems within the libertarian ideology that millennials also seem loathe to support, such as libertarian support for: the Citizen’s United decision, which vastly expanded the opportunities for money to influence politics; for further reducing business regulation in such areas as pollution restriction, labor law enforcement, minimum wage policies, and anti-discrimination policies; and — for those millennials who concern themselves with such things — for the radical ideas about dissolving the Federal Reserve, reestablishing the Gold Standard, and reforming the tax code to a single-rate flat tax for all Americans.

Ultimately, the problem with the arguments for a more libertarian GOP is that the libertarian platform is severely disconnected from where millennial support has largely been going: to concerns of ongoing financial malfeasance, concerns about significant and growing income and wealth inequality, concerns over the future of American labor, and concerns that climate change is occurring and that the government needs to legislate on the issue. There are obviously many more areas that millennials feel strongly about, but this list isn't meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it’s meant to show that, for all the calls for more libertarianism from the GOP in order to build millennial support, such arguments don’t seem to flow from current millennial political views.

The push toward a stronger, more principled fiscal conservative stance, in my estimation, is a wholly bad idea for the Republican Party. Not simply for winning over millennials, but for winning over mainstream support from the American electorate as a whole.

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Benjamin Byron

Ben is a policy analyst interested in national and foreign affairs. Ben's focus is on international security issues, but he is also very interested in national issues, such as government reform, economic policy, education reform, and technology policy. Ben received a B.A. from Dickinson College in International Studies and a Master's Degree in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. Recently, Ben has been particularly interested in media and technology, specifically with regard to how media and technology affect the relationship between the state and society.

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