Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Are Republicans Going Back to Goldwater?

Nate Silver at political blog FiveThirtyEight.com had an interesting post about the recent tack toward libertarianism coming from the Republican Party. As most analysts making the claim have asserted, this is rooted in the recent tea parties (note that despite the bad spelling, Silver is a respected commentator):

We can argue about the significance of the tea paries [sic] and we can argue about whether they represent the way forward for Republicans. But they are just one manifesation [sic] of what seems like an increasing drift toward libertariansim [sic] within the party.

Following a failed experiment in nation-building abroad, massive growth of government under a "compassionate" conservative Administration, and now accrual of an ever-expanding debt, the government has become the target of much of the blame of Republicans. Silver cites an interesting Gallup poll tracking "the biggest threat" to America by those who identify by each party:

Most interesting is that Republicans identify government as the greatest threat even compared to another perennial object of conservative criticism: Big Labor. Considering the recent salience of the Employee Free Choice Act, I would expect this to be much higher as a relative proportion.

Nevertheless, I'm skeptical of Silver's conclusion that this represents a shift toward libertarianism. Rather, the increase in relative importance of economic issues (combined with a Democratic administration) has simply magnified the fiscal conservatism of self-identified Republicans as compared to social conservatism; moreover, many tea party attendees were not self-identified Republicans, and so we would be wise not to conflate the views of such activists with a prevailing, or even prominent, voice among such partisans. Republicans have always considered "big government" the greatest threat to America (even if their actions sometimes said otherwise), and the Republican softening on issues such as gay marriage is likely a continuation of a steady trend rather than a sudden and seismic structural ideological change (though if anyone has data on this, please send it my way!). I would welcome a more libertarian Republican Party, but whether we are (or will be) getting one is far from certain.

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