Friday, August 27, 2010

Reagan and the Libertarians

In 1975, Governor Ronald Reagan gave an interview with Reason magazine, in which he discussed his relationship with libertarianism, and his beliefs about the role of government:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism...Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals.
Reason approached Reagan for his recent espousal of conservative libertarianism, and it appears that Reagan was interested in reaching out to this idiosyncratic and youthful branch of the right wing - potentially part of the coalition that would bring him the 1976 GOP nomination. The interviewer brought him round to the subject of the Libertarian Party and third parties in general:
Well, third parties have been notoriously unsuccessful; they usually wind up dividing the very people that should be united. And then we elect the wrong kind–the side we’re out to defeat wins...I’d like to see the Libertarian Party...maybe come to this remnant of the Republican Party which is basically conservative in its thinking...and be able to say to them, OK we’re not saying to you give up what you’re doing, but, can’t we find a common meeting ground in order at least to defeat first of all those who are doing what they’re doing to us (and this present Congress is an example)?
If Reagan had any success in courting libertarians in 1975/6, it did not win him the nomination. Interestingly, in 1980, the Libertarian Party's Ed Clark, running as a peace candidate, received the greatest proportion of votes the party has ever won in a presidential election. Though he is the president closest to libertarian philosophy in modern times, his limited approach and commitment to social conservatism separated him from its diehard adherents.

This week, the Libertarian Party is looking back on the Reagan Presidency and considering its mythic relavence in the contemporary movement. LNC Director Wes Benedict asked party members in his "Monday Message", "How to Handle Ronald Reagan?":
As the 2010 election approaches, a lot of Republican politicians are trying to posture as government-cutters, and they often hold up Ronald Reagan as an example. But although Reagan often talked about supporting smaller government, most Libertarians know that in practice he did exactly the opposite...Some polls show Reagan is reasonably well-respected these days. I think the positive reactions are often based on misconceptions, and that brings up an interesting point: how should Libertarians deal with the Ronald Reagan myth?
The current results of the attached poll show that of 1,926 voters:
  • 9% say Don't bring it up, to avoid offending his fans.
  • 7% say It's not a myth. Reagan really did shrink government.
  • 64% say Libertarians should point out that Reagan grew government.
  • 4% say Blame government growth in the 1980s on everyone except Reagan.
Libertarianism is again a vocal, influential wing of the populist conservative movement. There is, however, an unwillingness to embrace its foremost icon for the sake of coalition - to elevate a unifying myth over debate and poitical principle.

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