Becoming a Democrat

I am registering as a Democrat.

Mom, dad, I’m sorry.

No, I haven’t changed what I believe. I will be a libertarian Democrat. We’re rare, which gives me the luxury of cutting my own path. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

I have never been faithful to any political party, and I expect that I will be no different here. Still, this is clearly where I belong for now, and maybe it will be for quite some time.

My reasons are as follows. 

In the primaries I was only nominally a Republican. I could not understand how Republicans were so enamored of the man they were choosing. If Trump’s demeanor had been magnanimous and calm, I would have rejected him for his policy views. If Trump’s policies had been sensible, I would have rejected him for his boorishness and cruelty. These traits were only underscored by the numerous graphic and grossly racist death threats that I and many of my colleagues received during the entire length of the campaign cycle. That never happened to us when we wrote critically of Romney, or of Obama.

I cast a proud symbolic vote against Trump, and I’m glad that I did it. My fuller reasons for that are here.

I’m also glad that I immediately changed my registration back to Libertarian. The Republican Party deserved a mass exodus, and I did my part.

I am leaving the Libertarian Party for the same reasons that everyone sooner or later leaves the Libertarian Party. Parties that want ideological purity can have it — but only at the cost of literally everything else. That’s always been the Libertarian Party’s problem, and so I’m done with them.

Inside the big two parties, we have a signal for when one party becomes the opposite of what you stand for: You join the other party. That’s what I’m doing now.

I choose to be a Democrat because people have repeatedly congratulated me about Trumpism, and because Trumpism is essentially the opposite of what I stand for. (I have no great love for Clintonism either, but at this point, Clintonism is the least of anyone’s worries.)

I’ll put anti-Trumpism into a more positive form in a future essay, but for now I want to send a clear message that I am in the opposition. Having a legitimate opposition, and a smart, healthy one, is an essential feature of any functioning democracy, but especially one headed by a populist. It’s roughly the same role that I filled as a registered Republican while Obama was in office, and it’s a role that I enjoy and take strength from.

It’s hard to deny, though, that I feel more urgency in this case. I have the strong sense that we are leaving ordinary political times, and it frightens me.

On the bright side, I look forward to being understood differently by a different audience. Again and again, I have found lately that when I give my libertarian message to Republicans, they hear only “lower taxes, end gun control,” and after that they stop listening. I would like those things, but it has lately become difficult for a libertarian to work with Republicans on nearly anything else.

Republicans aren’t even good on trade policy anymore. They aren’t even good on property rights. The George W. Bush administration showed that the central state grows unchecked under Republican control. And it doesn’t cost less, because Republicans have made no real progress at controlling spending. Republicans have taken a serious turn for the worse on immigration and on criminal justice. Trump’s own views on the Drug War are perhaps not so bad, but he’s surrounding himself with rabid drug warriors.

These are key issues for me. They are why I care about politics in the first place. And for all of them, the Republican Party can’t possibly be my home.

I fear that libertarians give all this their blessing by remaining in the GOP, or by fleeing to a Libertarian Party that’s popularly regarded as the Republican Party’s sanitarium. Neither of these will do.

Instead, I’m ready to start having some new conversations, even as I give what amounts to the same old message. I will give my Democratic friends grief about their preferred tax policies, and about gun control, and a few other things besides, but I don’t think that these are margins on which our freedom is most in danger right now. Others are more pressing.

I’m ready to talk, for example, about press freedom and civil liberties.

I’m ready to talk about the freedom of religion, and I’m ready to unite with a coalition to guarantee that Muslim Americans have the same freedoms as Methodists.

I’m ready to talk about how to be sincerely proud of free trade, rather than whispering about it in secret. We libertarian Democrats can help our party a lot here, I think.

I’m ready to resist every restrictive immigration policy coming down the road. I’m ready to talk about designing a system that will not force immigrants to choose between obeying U.S. law and feeding their families. We and they both deserve better.

I’m ready to talk about how to fight racism, because widespread private racism always becomes a danger to liberty sooner or later. I find that the policing of speech, particularly on college campuses, has made the matter worse, and we need to try something else, something that preserves the American tradition of free speech and free inquiry, while making it clear that those traditions are not just a cover for racism.

I’m ready to talk about drug decriminalization, and I don’t just mean marijuana.

I’m even ready to talk about drug policy federalism. Perhaps you have only understood “federalism” as a dog whistle for segregation. But federalism is as federalism does, and we might be able to use it as a force for good.

And finally, I’m ready to stop chiding Democrats about the death of the antiwar left under Obama. If they will have me, I am ready to be the antiwar left.

All of these are libertarian causes, at least as I understand that term. All of them are in my view completely unwelcome in today’s Republican Party. All will get a fairer hearing among the Democrats.

Among my colleagues at the Cato Institute, there are libertarian Republicans. There are libertarian Libertarians. And now there’s at least one libertarian Democrat. In a better world than ours, the adherents of classical liberalism would feel at home everywhere, and that’s the world I’m trying to build. You’re welcome to join me if you’d like.

And now some messages for particular groups.

If you are a Democrat, and if you are reading this in disgust: I own every bad name you call me. I am a carpetbagger. I am an unrepentant capitalist tool. I will betray you one day in the name of ideals that you reject. Eventually I hope to sit across the aisle from you and give you hell. But we have to build that day before it happens.

If you are a Republican, and if you are reading this in disgust: You’re in a strange spot right now. The whole world is watching, and I am your loyal opposition: I am loyal to the institutions of my country, and I am opposed to you.

Yet in a sense, you need us way more than we need you: No democracy can be called legitimate without an opposition that is active, independent, and free. How you treat us is therefore a measure of your own legitimacy. Be careful how you use your power.

If you are a Libertarian, and if you are reading this in disgust: I have not left you. I have not left your ideas, at least. I pursue them in another venue, nothing more, and I have gone there to send a message that is also your message. If I had the space, I might argue that your first and truest home is on the left. But that’s another discussion entirely.

27 thoughts on “Becoming a Democrat

    • The Libertarian Party reached major party status in New Mexico due to voter registration. This means that they no longer have to pay money to be on the ballots in New Mexico. They’ve also received recognition in other states due to the election and voter registration, so it makes a BIG difference.

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  1. Very well said. I’d say glad to have you as a D but i’m not a registered D. But glad to have you on this side for now until things change. When things are better we can have better disagreements. For now a lot of us need to stand together for some pretty basic good things.

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  2. Honestly, I’ll be watching to you to gauge how comfortable the water is over in that pool, Jason. I’ve never registered with any party, but I had identified with Republicans strongly because they seemed most friendly to libertarianish ideas. The GOP is clearly the least welcoming party to libertarianish ideas between the two major parties. This election made it a point to vote against the GOP hoping to make a stand against the national populism of Trumpianism. So I’m out. Let us know how it fares, there are others watching how you are accepted.

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  3. “If they will have me, I am ready to be the antiwar left.”

    That’s a huge If, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s you. Few are loathed more intensely on the left than Libertarians. You probably won’t get empty death threats, but you may find their treatment of you equally unpleasant. But you’re going in fully aware of the nature of the swamp you’re walking into, with a solid battle plan. God-speed. And keep us posted.

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  4. “Few are loathed more intensely on the left than Libertarians.” I have been a Democrat all my life who identifies with many Libertarian ideas, and candidates. I was talking up Gary Johnson before he had even decided to run the first time. We will never find anyone, even within our own party, that we agree with on every issue. Find the place that best represents your interests, then work to make your change within that party. Nobody gets everything he or she wants.

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    • “Nobody gets everything he or she wants.”

      So true, and so critically important to accept and embrace, in my opinion. I suspect that my own acceptance of this years ago was what led me to become a single-issue voter, and why I continue to be so. I consider myself to be very well-informed on that issue (healthcare policy) and, when I finally took the time and effort to educate myself on the political parties’ platforms, the Democratic Party’s policies on the issue were (and continue to be) the *only* ones I could find which had/have the potential to slow down and (eventually) even reverse the unsustainable cost trajectory we we’re on. In fact, the Republican Party’s policies on it (and the Libertarian’s, for that matter) were and still are anathema to my own. For someone who feels compelled to put his or her proverbial (or actual) money where his or her mouth is, how could that one *not* join the only party with whom s/he agrees?

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  5. A suggestion for understanding and improving the tax and regulatory aspects of the Democratic Party — look at all the places where markets fail, for reasons of:
    – asymmetric information (insurance for pre-existing conditions, but not mandatory; the existence of fraudsters and scammers, e.g. Bernie Madoff)
    – asymmetric organizing/bargaining (management versus labor; easier to peel off workers at the margin than management),
    – overestimating future luck (aka Lake Wobegon effect, it’s real, it causes us to underinvest in retirement, education, and medical insurance)
    – externalized costs (pollution of most kinds)
    – dependent utility functions (keeping up with the Joneses)
    – tournament economies
    – arms races (drive a big car for your increased safety at the cost of everyone else’s).

    These are all things that can be addressed with taxes and regulation, but that doesn’t mean all taxing and regulating makes sense in this light, or it might not be tuned towards a likely economic optimum. To me, the libertarian response to all this seems to be a cheerful “caveat emptor!” perhaps with an undertone of “unsavvy people get what they ‘deserve'”.

    And this stuff matters — just the overuse of large cars on our roads almost certainly has a body count (they’re more likely to kill pedestrians in crashes, and the additional killed pedestrians cannot be made whole). Failure to get prenatal and infant care right appears to lead to thousands of early deaths every year (I’ve checked the “different nations classify infant deaths differently claim”, I could never find numbers anywhere near large enough to fill the gap).

    Do understand, I would normally expect an informed fan of markets to already know about these things, but I have a hard time understanding how such a person could then align themselves with the Libertarian platform. Most of these market flaws get at the core of the proof that free markets maximize the general welfare — if you get rid of good information/prediction, if you externalize costs, if you have dependent utility functions, you’re left with faith, not proof.

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  6. Welcome, and thank you for doing something in response to Republican failures in policy over the past 16 years. I’m happy you’ll be giving Democratics constructive policy advice, and I hope you’re the start of a trend.

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  7. As a lifelong Democrat welcome. We may not agree on everything but no member of a coalition political party does. The more there are like you the better chance there is to ensure the country gets through this with its core ideals intact.

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  8. How do Libertarians counter rampant abuses of freedom that impact society? That seems to be what the Democratic party focuses on while Republicans advocate for overlooking if not sponsoring the unfettered freedom to abuse. The pursuit of justice in society must be as robust as that of freedom.

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    • Can you give an example of what you’re thinking of? As a rule, libertarian responses tend toward implementing various property- and market-like institutions, but even that rule can have exceptions. As a somewhat better rule, we tend to prioritize solutions as follows, from best to worst:

      1. Do nothing, because many problems either are not our business or do not require government response.
      2. Set up property rights and market institutions such that externalities become priced in, in some problem-solving new way.
      3. Regulate only the offending part of the action, to mitigate or prevent the harm.
      4. Outright prohibition.

      Each of these has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s easy to find specific cases in which every one of them is clearly inappropriate. But I think the pattern tends to hold that we will try 1 before 2, and 2 before 3, and so on.

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  9. From and old Democrat to a new one, welcome! I think, and hope, that you will find more agreement here than you’re expecting. And even where you find disagreement, it should be accompanied by a willingness to work together on other things. We’re not ideologically monolithic, and I for one welcome your alternative views and moderating influence on many things. C’mon Democrats, let’s make our friend feel welcome.

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  10. I’ll be watching your reception and experiences with interest – as Freeman says, from my anecdotal experience, “Few are loathed more intensely on the left than Libertarians.”

    As you may remember, I describe myself as “libertarianish”, and most graphs I’ve seen of my sympathies and positions put me somewhere in left-libertarianism. I’ve been registered Independent all my life, and I’ve voted R, D, 3rd party, and None Of The Above/Abstain in the past.

    This election, I did something I’ve never done before, and that was straight party-line D voting, all the way down the ballot.

    I know that’s not great, and it goes against my priors, but it was not only an effort to hold my nose and vote lesser of two evils (a tactic I have sometimes criticized in the past and one that I half-suspect helped bring us to this sorry pass), it was the strongest protest I could register at the booth against not just Trump, but a GOP so corrupted, debased and/or chaotic as to have enabled a Trump.

    I won’t be joining the Democratic party (I’m just not a party joiner), but my wife and I have been talking and have agreed that if there are local opportunities for protest or resistance (we live in a heavily-immigrant and minority-populated area), we plan to help however we can. We can do no less for our kids, and the brown-skinned kids that are their friends and classmates.

    I’ve always thought of myself, perhaps wrongly, as a centrist – maybe a little farther out toward the edges of the center than many, but a centrist all the same. Cautious by nature, often able to at least see the other side’s point, and willing to compromise.

    Recent developments indicate to me that I’m NOT in the center, or if I am, then the center is no longer where I want to be. Odd to think that I may be becoming somewhat radicalized at this late date, well into my middle age, but here we are.

    Strange times, indeed.

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    • off-topic, but if you live in or adjacent to a swing/R-controlled state, do what you can for voter registration among the poor/black/young/whatever. D’s are weak at state level, that must change.

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  12. I tend to vote democratic, and have for years called myself a Progressive Libertarian (which seems to piss off both groups equally). Welcome to the weird.

    Would you be down for an intended-to-be-revenue-neutral grand bargain on taxes that included:

    Ending the tax on corporate income (yes, end accrual accounting)
    Taxing ALL income at marginal rates (assume they would be lower than current rates, given how much income is made at the top via dividends & capitals gains)?

    (Let’s start there and see if we can talk about some other tax shifts…)

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