Ralph Nader and left-libertarian convergence


Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant contributor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.

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81 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    I’d be all for some sort of increasing left-libertarian movement. I’d be a lot more hopeful of this doing some good if Paul showed any evidence of not being a brittle ideologue. But if it can move in a positive direction then thats for the good. I do recall some libertarian ( no i can’t recall his name) hoping for liberals to listen more to libertarian ideas but express no desire to listen and learn from liberal ideas. That would be how i would picture a conversation Paul would proceed. In fact i don’t think Nader ( i voted for him 2000 btw) is all that willing to listen either.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    WTF, “If they’re on your side”? Progressives care about the welfare state. (I think!) Maybe Ralph Nader doesn’t. That’s fine. But it doesn’t mean that if libertarians are against the welfare state (not all are, I realize), or progressives fear that they will seek to reform it in ways they don’t support (pretty reasonable), then it’s an evasion for that to affect progressives’ view of an ill-defined strategic alliance. “Today’s most exciting new political dynamic”? Putting it in those terms, how the hell is a progressive supposed to know how far Nader proposes to take that?

    Libertarians may be aligned with progressives on certain things, but that doesn’t put anyone on anyone’s “side,” except on the particular issues you are on the same side of, which in and of themselves are well-known and old news, not some new political dynamic. But that’s just what Nader is trying to make of these well-known convergences: some amorphous new political reality or strategic partnership. It’s precisely the amorphousness of his description that unsettles progressives, but it’s also precisely what gives his account any novelty or interest. If he were to drop the political mysterianism and be clear what he is talking about — that progressives and libertarians share certain views (though rarely agree on the justifications for those, which almost always leads to divergences as general political inclinations become specific policy positions) on certain topics — there would be nothing for progressives to be concerned about, as they’d merely be hearing something they know perfectly well themselves. But Nader would also have no interesting or new political observation or prescription here, because to the extent he seems to, that is because he is is obscuring with amorphous non-specificity the particular and well-understood nature of the specific-issue convergences re rests his announcement of a new political dynamic upon.Report

    • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

      “[P]rogressives and libertarians share certain views (though rarely agree on the justifications for those, which almost always leads to divergences as general political inclinations become specific policy positions) on certain topics”

      Really? They have different policy positions? On the drug war, foreign policy, etc.? They seem quite similar to me.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Depends. I think fissures often become apparent when one gets down to the really nitty details. But if not, it doesn’t affect the overall point of my response.Report

        • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

          I think you’re overestimating the extent to which the left has recognized it agrees with libertarians on a bunch of stuff. That might be common sense in Leagueland and some other online communities, but I really don’t think the average progressive has carefully examined their views vis-a-vis libertarians. This is just my sense, of course, and there’s no hard data to back me up (or refute my claim).Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            Even if that’s the case, it would make more sense for Nader to point out the areas of agreement but not try to make something new and ill-defined of them, because, 1) as I mentioned, when he does that, he ends up simply invoking all of libertarianism for progressives (alternatively, libertarians, if they actually cared a whit about this, could make a concerted effort to drastically downplay their views on areas where alienation with progressives occur, like health care and, well, economics…), and 2) it’s actually the case that there’s nothing new there, whether progressives know it or not.Report

          • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

            I think the problem here is that the average “progressive” isn’t committed to anything in particular on a philosophical level. Witness the extent of the defense mounted by the mouthpieces of liberalism (Think Progress is the biggest one, although also Mother Jones, TNR, etc) for Obama, where his flaws are either not mentioned at all or sloughed off with, “The other guy is worse!” It’s patently clear that what animates these guys is fealty to the Democratic Party, not ideology.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Well if liberals or conservatives (National Review’s lips were virtually surgically attached to Bush II’s posterior from 2000-2008) wanted to hold out only for politicians that were true to principals they’d have no candidates. Such are politicians and politics.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              Right, Ryan, there’s no progressive critique of Obama out there at all, not even at this website!Report

              • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

                Do you consider the League a “mouthpiece of liberalism”? Should I have been more specific? As North points out, the silence is usually deafening when “our guy” is in charge, so it’s not crazy that this is the case, but my point remains.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                What is your point?Report

              • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

                That the official mouthpieces of liberalism, such as they are, are not a good match for libertarianism specifically because their overarching concern is electing Democrats rather than any particular liberal philosophy.

                This may have some element of tautology in it, but it remains a big stumbling block for any ideological alliance. The left, by and large, is committed to a kind of partisan politics that simply doesn’t appeal to libertarians. And, frankly, I find myself more in line with the libertarians on this particular point.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                That’s a fair point as far as it goes, but I guess I don’t see what it has to do with my explanation of why many non-magazine-employed progressives are leery of Nader’s announcement.Report

              • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

                I agree with Ryan— it is a big hurdle. Libertarians have never held political power, so they’re typically less stricken with reflexive partisanship than the average progressive. Also, despite their historical allegiance to the GOP, libertarians’ views don’t fit neatly onto the left-right ideological spectrum. I think this also plays a role in impeding partisanship.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Should libertarians seek partnerships with progressives or not, Shawn?Report

              • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

                Yep. I said it was a hurdle, not an insurmountable hurdle.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                So libertarians should do this. So however much progressives’ disgusting propensity to actually make a positive choice between two short-run possible governing parties turns off libertarians to the idea of associating with them, should libertarians aggressively question progressives’ integrity and good faith in their propositional commitment to issues on which such partnerships might be forged, and indeed their ability to hold consistent philosophical positions of any kind?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Put up a politician who runs on the stuff that progressives and libertarians agree upon.

                Hell, there’s a non-trivial number of Libertarians who voted for Obama as:

                A) A rebuke to the Republican Party
                B) They thought he’d be good for Medicinal Marijuana (or, at least, better than Bush), better on extraordinary rendition, better on voluntary wars, or better on civil liberties in general.

                The Libertarians that I know of who tell me that they’re going to vote say that they’re voting 3rd Party next time.

                If you want to build a coalition with Libertarians, why not try running on at least *SOME* of the stuff that makes them go off on rants?Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                There was a liberal Senator who largely agreed with libertarians on civil liberties, the Drug War, and so on. He lost by ten percent and I saw no movement from libertarians to save him.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Was this senator the same senator who put his name on a law that was argued before the Supreme Court as being broad enough to allow the banning of books?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Off the top of your head, do you know if the guy who was the Libertarian Presidential Candidate for 2008 endorsed Russ Feingold?

                Quick yes or no without googling!Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Yes, even though I disagree with that argument about that particular law. But I guess, that’s my point.

                Here was a Senator who was good to great on all the things libertarians claim to care about and say they agree with liberals on (civil liberties, etc.) but yet, because he believed people should only be able to donate a massive amount of money to candidates instead of an insane amount of money to candidates, screw it, let’s hope the guy who talks about tax cuts wins.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                I bet you most of the people who claim to be libertarians on the Internet aren’t sure who the 2008 candidate for the Libertarian party was. 😛

                But on a more serious note, the Libertarian Party nominee aren’t who libertarians listen to. I’m talking more about mainstream libertarian think tanks such as Reason and other various libertarian sites on the web.

                However, if he did, good. At least there’s one principled libertarian out there. 🙂Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Here was a Senator who was good to great on all the things libertarians claim to care about and say they agree with liberals on (civil liberties, etc.)

                Except for banning books.

                I imagine that’s more important to some folks than others, of course.

                Like I said the last time you brought this up: McCain-Feingold is more than enough to turn a full-throated “he’s awesome!” into a “well, he was good on some things, bad on others” endorsement.”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                even though I disagree with that argument about that particular law

                You realize, of course, that the people defending the law in front of the Supreme Court argued that the law was broad enough to ban books, despite your interpretation of the law.

                Would you like me to find you the transcript?Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                I’m sure something was said along the lines in a total hypothetical as many Supreme Court arguments go too and libertarians took said hypothetical and assumed said book bannings were just around the corner.

                But hey, if you want to throw out the only Senator who was against the PATRIOT Act because he didn’t believe corporations should be able to completely buy elections, then yes, I’m pretty sure any chance of a liberal-libertarian alliance is zero.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                JB, Russ Feingold was indeed the “politician who runs on the stuff that progressives and libertarians agree upon.”

                I admire the guy meself: he spent days researching the intelligence on the justifications for the Iraq Whack of Saddam, voting no.

                Then he lost the very purple state of Wisconsin to Republican challenger Ron Johnson, albeit and admittedly in the weird off-year of 2010.

                But the fact is, he’s also a liberal Democrat who’s more left than libertarian, and who’ll vote for any touchy-feely social program regardless of cost or efficiency.

                Once upon a time, not too long ago, we could afford a “conscience of the Senate” like Russ Feingold, even though he was yet another tax & spend drone. Mebbe we’ll be able to afford one again someday, but first things first.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Jesse, maybe the appearance of intellectual dishonesty on the part of the progressives plays a part as well.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                B) They thought he’d be good for Medicinal Marijuana (or, at least, better than Bush), better on extraordinary rendition, better on voluntary wars, or better on civil liberties in general.

                I thought all that stuff too, and it’s a big part of why I preferred him to Hillary, whom I knew wouldn’t be any better. In fact, if I can believe what I read, she was the one pushing for the latest military adventure.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                maybe the appearance of intellectual dishonesty on the part of the progressives plays a part as well.

                Or maybe neither of these groups really want to align on much of anything because they differ so profoundly on what they both really care about: economics and the role of government in aiding the welfare of citizens.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Err…go read any DailyKos thread, any random article in The Nation, or a lot of bloggers on those sites you mentioned. Yes, a lot of people are defending what Obama has done because in the aggregate, he hasn’t been a bad President. He hasn’t been as good as some people thought he would be, but the simple fact is that the stimulus saved us from a massive depression, the ACA was the biggest progressive bill passed in 40 years, and we’ve got two solid center-left judges on the Supreme Court.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

                Even leaving aside my quibbles about your specific points, the pivot here is illustrative.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Yes, I’m aware of the limitations of the Presidency in achieving truly liberal goals in modern day America.

                To be blunt, that’s the problem with the left for the past 30 to 40 years. The moment we don’t get exactly what we want, the guy in office is a corporatist sellout.

                To go back to your original post. I’m committed to tons of things. I’m also committed to getting making things as better as they can be in the current political climate.Report

              • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

                I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Obama has taken any number of steps *unilaterally* that are directly at odds with liberal goals, and most of those are issues where no one would have noticed if he did something else. I’m thinking especially of things like targeting US citizens for assassination and massively increasing deportations. There was no downside to, you know, not doing either of those things, and yet he still did. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for “the left” to flip out about that. What’s interesting is how little flipping out “the left” has actually done.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Clap louder, Ryan. You’re giving aid and comfort to the Libertarians.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                I’m interested in Shawn’s response to this. Does he support the tactic of going directly after progressives’ good faith on issues they claim to care about as a way to build coalitions, or does he reject Ryan’s tack here as not a fair criticism of progressives, or does he just admit that this kind of thing characterizes the way libertarians end up interacting with liberals after (to the extent they do) entertaining the idea of a partnership for an exceedingly short period of time, such that they can claim having been open to it? Because this is how I generally experience things deteriorating when these discussions get underway.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                …the very issues, I’d add, that Shawn hopes to build coalitions with progressives on.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            The difference between the progressives and the libertarians is highlighted in the debate on gay marriage, it seems to me.

            They both support it, right?

            Well, progressives support gay marriage (among other reasons) because the state should recognize these life partnerships and provide the same benefits that it provides to hetero life partners for their marriages.

            Libertarians support gay marriage because the state shouldn’t have the power to tell gay people that they can’t get marriage, indeed, it’s none of the state’s business.

            Do they stand on the same side when someone who says “gay marriage ought to be illegal!” walks in the room? Yes.

            The question comes:
            Is it more important to get the other side to agree or to get gay marriage legalized?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              (among other reasons, of course)Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Libertarians support gay marriage because the state shouldn’t have the power to tell gay people that they can’t get marriage, indeed, it’s none of the state’s business.

              Who gets ‘legally’ married is exactly the state’s business. If you mean that the state has no business in arbitrarily restricting one group’s access to that legal protection, then the argument isn’t about state power – or what constitutes the state’s business – but consistency of the application of a law. Or the principle upon which the law is restricted. And that’s politics.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I don’t think Jay’s original summary does justice to the libertarian position. My own understanding of the libertarian stance on gay marriage is:
                A- First off government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all beyond enforcing contracts.
                B- Recognizing that we’ll be harvesting a hearty crop of pine nuts off the moon long before heterosexuals ever countenance government being removed from the various civil benefits it showers on their unions; it is preferable that various unions be treated equally by the government in general. Thus since straight marriage isn’t going away gays should also have marriage.

                You’ll get libertarians who just draw the line at A of course which is both philosophically sound but also a cop out and further a totally losing proposition politically. Most libertarians I know, however, go all the way through to the end of B which speaks well of em to me.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                North, doesn’t A open the door to what the state in fact </iconsiders a contract? That is, just because you and I agree that the marriage contract (mutually agreed upon by consenting adults, etc) ought to be recognized by the state, it doesn’t follow that other people will agree with us. They may – and in fact would! – argue that such a ‘contract’ ought not be protected by the state. So disputes about what contracts the state ought to enforce will exist even in a libertarian society. In short, my complaint here is that there must be general (50% +1?) societal agreement on the scope of basic contracts prior to the libertarian principles being agreed upon in a minimalist state. You either have the debate then, or you have it now.

                And also, doesn’t B constitute the liberal’s view of gay marriage? Doesn’t the argument you’re making amount to this: given the impracticality of ever attaining a libertarian government, many libertarians adopt the pragmatic liberal view of equal recognition by the state even as they cling to their ideology?

                And how is that in any sense different than the ideal case of situation A – that the state , via legislation and judicial decision, recognizes contracts between all mutually consenting adults as worth defending?Report

              • Avatar North says:

                I think I’d sort of agree if marriage was as simple as contracts. But I don’t think marriage in the US is reducible to contracts at this time. Heterosexual marriages aren’t contracts; they’re gateways into a whole mess of obligations and benefits. Some of those could be duplicated (expensively) through contracts, some of them simply can’t be. Thus the institution of marriage is separate from contract law. Your true blue libertarian would generally rather that entire thing not be present or at least not be present in any form government is involved with.

                No I don’t think B would amount to a liberal view of marriage. Liberals (myself included) generally view marriage (and government support of marriage) in of itself as a generally good thing and feel gay marriage would simply be more of a good thing. Libertarians would be approaching B regretfully as a least worst option.

                But yeah, if marriage was just contracts I’d agree with you. But since marriages are not contracts right now, or at least not just contracts, I don’t think the comparison quite parses.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Not just contracts, sure. The institution is layered up. But that isn’t the core of the libertarian complaint. If it was simply an argument against too many bureaucratic layers then the solution would be to peal those layers away. Libertarians, however, argue that the state has no role to play here, other than contract enforcement.

                You’re right that consistency would demand that libertarians argue not that gays should have the right to legally marry, but that there ought be in some sense no legal status accorded the agreement/contract of marriage in any event. It’s not the state’s business.

                And even tho that sounds nice, I don’t think that’s the libertarian’s actual position. Surely even libertarians want laws and courts to provide answers to marriage-related disputes regarding property, income, custody, visitation, and a whole host of other potential conflicts, That is, even libertarians want the state to enforce agreements and resolve disputes between consenting adults wrt marriage related issues. But that in turn requires general agreement that marriage between same sex couples is recognized by the state. So the libertarian solution to the gay marriage problem is not different in kind than the liberal solution: broad consensus that rights need to be promoted/protected consistently and impartially by the state.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The distinction I was attempting (and, apparently failed, to make) was this:

                Progressives think that the government should…

                Libertarians think that the people should…

                And, on the surface, the goals appear similar. Gay marriage.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                Slight correction: Progressives think the gov, in some but not all cases, should…

                Progressives think, sometimes, people need the gov to be able to….Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                It’s the problem with laws intended for social engineering, equal treatment under the law means you shouldn’t single out any group for preferential treatment, which in many cases defeats the purpose of the social engineering.Report

  3. Unfortunately, I think it’s more and more the case that those libertarians who actually are motivated by the same kinds of injustices that animate liberals—rather than being first and foremost concerned with perpetuating and intensifying the socioeconomic caste system—are already either de facto progressives or are simply not part of the electoral political scene at all.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      I agree, and the Ron Paul libertarians are completely at odds with Nader’s brand of social democracy.

      I mean, his (Nader) entire career was made from battling corporate abuses and championing consumer protection…not something I can see Paul ignoring.

      Outside of their mutual outsider status, and the “reform the entire system” mantra of their brands, the country would look completely different depending on which were King for a day.

      I can’t imagine a meaningful coalition between the two camps.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I can’t imagine a meaningful coalition between the two camps.

        I can’t either. At root, the two have diametrically opposed views of the role of government in society and of the role of democracy in determining government.Report

        • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

          They actually don’t. At least, not any more than libertarians and conservatives do, and that coalition worked for decades.

          The problem is that libertarians tend to really care only about economic issues (low taxes, small government). The fact that conservatives disagree with them about drugs, war, immigration, and all of civil liberties just isn’t a major priority, so they’re more than happy to throw their lot in with the conservatives who promise small government and deliver low taxes.Report

          • Avatar Jeff says:

            “that coalition worked for decades”

            And brought us the worst President in US History — Katrina, 9/11, torture, Iraq, etc, etc, etc. But, hey, “small government” (ie shutting down bank reform), so YAY!Report

  4. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Fucking Scabs. We’re calling scabs and strikebreakers progressives now?
    Fuck That Shit.
    Nader can roast in hell.Report

  5. Avatar Kimmi says:

    so you’re defending the scab now? or are you just part of the Vermont contingent?Report

  6. Avatar Mike says:

    The only reason a philosophical-based coalition between modern liberals and libertarians can’t work today is because libertarians expect liberals to cross the ideological gap entirely by themselves and admit that government can’t do anything right. Why can’t libertarians admit that government CAN do many things right, and in some cases, is the only entity that can do those things right? That would make this coalition a lot more formidable.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      There are those of us who do accept the government can do some things right.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        I think well/poorly is better than right/wrong.

        Then we could solve this empricaly, looking at the government’s rate of success on certain initatives, and then comparing it against others.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          I see right and wrong more as a matter of degree, so I think we’re in the same place.

          Then we could solve this empricaly, looking at the government’s rate of success on certain initatives, and then comparing it against others.

          Empirics in government? That would be a welcome novelty.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Sad to say James but, given the state of political dialogue in the US, if you keep saying stuff like this you are going to be called a socialist.Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      I think government can provide excellent courts, police departments and military force. Government leaders can be inspirational, and a good limited government is vital to rule of law so that everyone knows the rules to play by. Being anti-statist is not the same as being anti-government.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        Why is the government good at providing police and courts?

        I didn’t know they were uniquely positioned to do these things well, only that they were the only legitimate institution to provide them.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          This is a provocative point. As Thomas Jefferson blogged a while ago we normally just assume the monopoly on police and courts, and then define ‘good’ government as one that provides these justly – and if it no longer does, attempt to change the government.

          But, as was alluded to elsewhere, any institution that is good at providing courts and police *is* a de facto government (and normally becomes a de jure one in due course)Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            so hamas is now a good government? Believe it or not, I believe that foreign wars that involve semi-innocent civilians disqualify even a reasonably non-corrupt and good with da courts gov’t.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        Sounds like social engineering to me, Mike.Report

  7. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Shawn, this is a really good post and really thought-provoking and I intend to write, sadly, a rebuttal because I’ve come to the opposite conclusion in many ways, especially lately.Report

  8. Avatar DarrenG says:

    The main problem with issues-based coalitions is that we don’t have a parliamentary system.

    Without drastic architectural reform of our legislative branch party politics will continue to dominate in this country, and ad hoc coalitions that agree on some issues but dramatically differ on others will not gain traction.

    Perhaps such coalitions could make a dent at the local level or in states with a de facto one party system, but not on the federal level.Report

    • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

      Can you expand on this, DarrenG? What are the institutional impediments you see?Report

      • Avatar DarrenG says:

        Duverger’s Law plus the enormous advantages that accrue to a party from controlling either house of Congress.

        So far I’ve yet to see a realistic description of how any sort of issues-based coalition would manifest within the existing U.S. political system.Report

        • Avatar Shawn Gude says:

          Smart point—thanks for your thoughts.

          As far as I can tell, there are two strategic categories when it comes to left-libertarian coalitions: elite and non-elite. Under the first, I’d include electoral politics (caucusing for Gary Johnson) and legislative politics (Barney Frank and Ron Paul joining forces on a bill). The second category is non-elite bridge-building—essentially, opening a dialogue between libertarians and the left and beginning to form political relationships with one another.

          I guess I don’t expect these alliances to radically realign the partisan makeup of the country. The role I see for said alliances is pressuring politicians and changing the elite conversation on these issues.Report

          • Avatar DarrenG says:

            Interesting. That’s less ambitious than most other proposals I’ve seen, and likely more practical. I’d classify events like Frank and Paul getting together on a specific issue to be an “elite” coalition, but that’s a semantic quibble.

            The more important practical objection is that there isn’t anywhere near a critical mass of elected officials on the libertarian side of the fence to move anything forward, as we’ve seen. Ron Paul is very much an outlier within the Republican party, and I don’t see much chance of that changing any time soon given the incentive structure within the modern GOP.

            Politics is sadly becoming more polarized along party lines, not less, and short of a radical re-alignment I don’t see much possibility for the bridges you imagine, even though I’d like to see them myself.Report

  9. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    So, question: is this a left-libertarian blog, or what?Report