Comment strings on Twitter do not add up to conversation. That’s especially true when an interlocutor defends extreme libertarian views by demanding to know what’s wrong with his ideas, one question after another, each easily answered but never leading anywhere. It’s a tactic out of Eric Bernes’ popular 1964 book, “Games People Play” – an adult version of toddlers repetitively asking ‘why.’ It can be stopped only by responding with Socratic questions of one’s own, and then the game suddenly ends.
If you have ever taken an online test purporting to reveal where you are on the spectrum of political thought, you’ve probably discovered some libertarian leanings. I have. It places a high value on individual and property rights, personal responsibility, freedom from government interference, and restraints on the power of government. American to the core, but in recent years it’s mutated into an extreme form that gained enough viability to elect Trump, and will no doubt remain long after he’s gone. The mutant form is a closed system of thinking admitting little deviation. It captures the basics of libertarian thought, and forces it into the servitude of selfish individualism characterized by the likes of Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society.
Mutant libertarians self identify as righteous patriots defending a fortress under siege. Under siege by whom? By a mob of socialists, communists, the lazy poor, unwanted immigrants, liberal elites and other detested rabble manipulated by various unseen puppet masters. They see the mob as a threat to their individual and property rights. The mob has no sense of personal responsibility, and expects the unlimited power of an unrestrained government to care for them from cradle to grave. If the mob succeeds, dictatorial government will control every aspect of personal life. Because this mutant libertarianism is a closed system under siege, intellectual, fact based challenges can be understood only as unpatriotic mob thrown hand-grenades to be tossed back before they go off. There can be no negotiation with the enemy, no terms by which truce can be had.
It leaves progressives angry and confused. After all, progressive ideas are about empowering more individual rights for more people, respecting property rights in more equitable and sustainable ways, celebrating personal responsibility, limiting government interference in the choices people make, and being fiscally prudent with the peoples’ money. Aren’t they libertarian principles too? There are sticking points to be worked out. Progressives, by and large, are not afraid of government, and are willing to use its power for the good of the people. They think of taxes as the peoples’ collective investment in the future of the nation, and they expect them to be levied on all with fairness. They’re disturbed by embedded discriminatory practices and policies that have made it more difficult for some to have access to the same rights and privileges that have accrued to the white population over the last few centuries. These are sticking points that make negotiation difficult, but not impossible.
What’s the right strategy for engagement? What’s most likely to work. I suggest we consider a lesson learned from the South Pacific in WWII – island hopping. It left some enemy strongholds stranded on their island fortresses as American forces moved on to more important and more winnable targets. Mutant libertarians, who believe themselves to be under siege, are cemented into their cult like ideological fortresses. No amount of engagement will move them. Leave them there. Trump got seventy million votes, but they’re not all mutant libertarians. Most are ordinary people who want good jobs, a decent life, and are anxious about societal changes over which they have little control. They’ve been fed mutant libertarian propaganda ever since Obama was elected, but they never joined the cult. What they need to know, is that progressives are with them about jobs and a decent life, and that progressives are not going to take away their freedoms, or burden them with excessive taxation. Government is not going to intrude on their private lives, but it will give greater assurance that the changes and chances of life won’t bankrupt them, that their air and water will be cleaner, and that the world they’ll leave to their grandchildren will be a good one.
It’s a message of hope often shared within progressive circles, but seldom sold to the general public with any skill. Instead, progressives have wasted too much effort indicting the mutant libertarians. The best of traditional American values are progressive. Leave the mutants to grumble in dis-ease of their own making. Sell the best of American values and the hope for a better life they offer.