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The Libertarian Path of Conservative Influence
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The Libertarian Path of Conservative Influence

Plus, a few thoughts on whether we succeeded or failed in Afghanistan.

At the risk of shameless Dispatch cross-promotion, I thoroughly enjoyed Jonah’s “Hump Day Epistle” yesterday. It explored—as only Jonah can—the difference between conservatism and partisanship. I’d urge you to read the entire thing, as he weighs into the battle over whether you can be “conservative” and vote for Joe Biden—or conservative and vote for Donald Trump. Here’s Jonah:

I do think you can be a conservative and still want to vote for Biden. I wouldn’t vote for him, but I know people who are pro-life, in favor of limited government, and all the other things we usually associate with conservatism who will eagerly vote for Biden if he’s the Democratic nominee. Is that the wrong thing to do? Let’s say it is. That doesn’t transform them into liberals. It just means they’re wrong.

And you can be a conservative and still be wrong. Likewise, you can also be a conservative and not be a good or loyal Republican. 

He’s making a key point. Once conservatives understand that “conservative” and “Republican” are not synonyms, our electoral and political choices get very hard. For example, applying definitions of conservatism that prevailed before the 2016 GOP primary, there will not be a conservative on a major-party ballot in 2020. 

Make no mistake, there are aspects of the Trump administration that are traditionally conservative (judicial nominations, the Paul Ryan tax cut), but there are many other aspects that explicitly and intentionally reject recent conservative orthodoxy. These include the trade war, exploding deficits in a time of peace and prosperity, retreat in the face of foreign enemies, coddling the North Korean dictator, attempted expansions of executive authority, and attacks on federalism.

Moreover, this list doesn’t even touch the character failings and personal scandals that the conservative movement used to resolutely oppose in political leaders. 

The word “conservative” has to mean something. And in the modern era it meant an ideological movement that was more or less united around the famous “three-legged stool” of “social conservatism, fiscal restraint, and muscular internationalism.” The GOP’s commitment to fiscal restraint (or limited executive authority) has waxed and waned depending on whether it controls the White House, but that was the “consensus” that the populist right has now declared dead. 

The populist right has chosen to unscrew two of the legs, balance conservatism on culture alone, and then demand that the rest of the movement fall in line. But right-wing populism looks a lot more like pro-life progressivism than it does anything recognizably conservative. It’s centralizing rather than localizing. It celebrates big government rather than attempts to restrict its reach. And it’s hostile to a global order that has not only kept the world from a third world war, it has helped safeguard an extraordinary and historically unprecedented decrease in poverty and increase in economic opportunity. 

I was recently a guest on AEI’s “Banter” podcast (thanks for having me!), and I was asked how should Reagan conservatives respond to the challenge of the times. Resist or conform? I answered that conservatives should take the libertarian path. They should become post-partisan. 

Here’s what I mean. While every libertarian I know rightly laughs at the populist claim that the GOP has been a libertarian party, it is absolutely true that—especially at the state and local level—libertarians have punched well above their electoral weight. How? 

At their best, libertarians will work with anyone who will work with them. Are you with us on school choice? Great. Let’s work on school choice. Are you with us on prison reform? Great. Let’s work on prison reform. The only ideological litmus test in the moment is the specific issue at hand. The result is that libertarians often become welcome nonpartisan allies in a time of vicious partisan polarization, and that alliance can influence policy far beyond the small number of voters libertarians bring to the polls.

There may come a time when Reagan conservatism is popular again—when it is once again in the partisan interests of the GOP to screw two of the legs back on the stool—but until then I’d suggest that conservatives will become more powerful when they reject partisanship and become free agents available to form unlikely alliances to advance better ideas. 

Note that this is not a voting strategy (in my experience libertarian votes are unpredictable; they’re used to making hard choices between candidates who don’t share their political values), but it’s a post-partisan advocacy strategy. My own voting philosophy is heavily shaped by the importance of character as well as ideology. But one thing is absolutely clear—no party that rejects my political ideology is entitled to my political allegiance. 

Against the failure narrative of post 9/11 military intervention.

I apologize for yet more Dispatch cross-promotion, but I highly recommend Thomas Joscelyn’s analysis of the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban. It’s comprehensive, thorough, detailed, and his conclusion is exactly right:

In sum, the deal strengthens the Taliban and weakens America’s hand in the region. It legitimizes the Taliban in the eyes of jihadists worldwide and among the Afghan people and it amounts to a betrayal of the many brave Afghans who have fought alongside U.S. troops over the last 19 years. And the spin on behalf of the deal from top Trump administration officials has the effect of diminishing the ongoing threat the Taliban—and its deep relationship with al Qaeda—presents to the U.S., its interests and allies.

If a Democratic administration had made this deal, Republicans would be scandalized. They’d view it as disqualifying. But rather than dive more into the details (I did that in Time and in my previous newsletter), I want to briefly address a narrative I see all the time online—that America’s military intervention in Afghanistan has “failed.”

A bit of perspective is in order—if I told you on the day after 9/11 that American military strategy would be so successful that there would not be a single, large-scale international terror attack in the United States for the next 19 years, you would have thought I was wildly optimistic. You couldn’t imagine so comprehensively suppressing the jihadist terror threat that domestic terrorists are now more dangerous to Americans than al-Qaeda.

American arms routed the Taliban, killed Osama bin Laden, and destroyed al-Qaeda safe havens. Even now, with a light footprint on the ground, we are keeping America safe and preventing the Taliban from seizing power and rebuilding al-Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure. No, we have not succeeded in remaking the Afghan nation, nor have we destroyed the Taliban, but in the most important task of all—preserving American national security and protecting the American people—our military strategy has succeeded. 

This is a monumental achievement, one that is now maintained at a fraction of the cost in blood and treasure of the earlier days of the Afghan war. It’s an achievement that we should not take for granted. It’s an achievement we now risk throwing away.

One last thing … 

We take a break from relentless Grizzlies highlights to present this excerpt from The Voice. I have two thoughts. First, this guy can really, really sing. And second, why couldn’t I have a cool name like “Thunderstorm”?

Photograph of Ronald Reagan by Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images.

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David French

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.