Clown Town

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.