The 2016 Election's Silver Lining

[Excerpt from the Dallas-Ft. Worth Mises Circle, November 5.]

Silver Lining: The Media has Lost Control of the Narrative

I want to talk about some of the silver linings in this awful election, and one of the most obvious is this: technology really has allowed us to override the media gatekeepers, challenge the official narrative, consume real news and real facts, and threaten the political establishment’s grip on public opinion. The information genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back. In the digital world, people are abandoning what Tom Woods calls the 3×5 index card of allowable opinion and having real debates, without any media filter.

It’s possible to get the “news” from social media feeds tailored to one’s own viewpoint. So when CNN, for example, shows poll results that suggest a certain trend, we’re all supposed to accept this as gospel truth. But if CNN never shows up in your social media feed, and you don’t watch CNN (and I know you don’t), it’s as though the poll never happened, at least for you. And there are more and more people turning off and going around the gatekeepers. The bottom line is that the media and the parties have lost control of the approved narrative.

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Our challenge is not getting information; it’s sifting through all of it. The avalanche of 24-hour news, websites, and social media creates so much white noise that the political class actually hides its criminality in plain view. They just hope it gets drowned out. In the Watergate era, one simple story — a burglary — held the country in thrall for months. Today, every WikiLeaks dump seems to contain the seeds of a thousand Watergates. The information is there for anyone who wants to find it. So it’s not that we don’t know what politicians are up to, it’s that we know too much — and a kind of fatigue sets in that entices us to shrug and accept it.

Silver Lining: Progressives Have Been Exposed

Consider another silver lining: Progressives and Democrats have been fully exposed as the illiberal authoritarians they’ve always been, regardless of their stated policies or objectives. The election has made plain their real character, their reactionary tactics, and their now-open agenda. The idea that conservatives exist, or even participate in elections, is an affront to them. The 2016 election has brought this reality home to average people in so many ways — but it is especially visible in the open hatred and contempt for Trump supporters. Whatever you think of Trump, this public unmasking of the Left is something new.

People in this room already know what real liberalism is. But the people who stole that word, today’s progressives, do not. They are not building a blue-collar working class movement, to put it mildly. These are not your father’s liberals, organizing union halls or telling us to make love, not war. They care nothing about civil liberties, and as for peace, well, just look at the who’s who of neoconservatives endorsing Hillary Clinton. And we’re not just talking about crazy college kids who will grow out of it or a handful of Marxist radicals. Mainstream Democrats, including Hillary and Obama, are directly responsible for using identity politics to further themselves by inflaming hatred and distrust.

And as for the Left’s sacred love for democracy, they now openly discuss abandoning democratic outcomes when the retrogrades have the audacity to vote the wrong way. We’ve seen this with the Brexit vote in the UK, and we’ve seen it here when the New York Times ponders how to nullify votes from unwanted segments of the electorate.

Notice the progressive tactic of floating outrageous trial balloons, and then retreating to a halfway position that by comparison sounds almost sensible. So when a small group starts demanding that we all use 31 gender pronouns, we can laugh it off as absurd. But it plants a seed for the future. When an actress posts an animated video celebrating the extinction of white males, we can dismiss her as a hateful lunatic. But where will the conversation be in a few years?

And yes, progressives use the state to advance their goals. Many of you probably heard about the University of Toronto professor who is under fire for refusing to use those 31 gender pronouns. He may well lose his job, and beyond that may be summoned before a government tribunal to pay a stiff fine. If you think that criminal speech codes are not coming soon to America because of the First Amendment, I have to disagree.

And even when no criminal sanction is forthcoming, progressives set out to destroy the lives of those who disagree with them. Case in point is the NYU professor who created a pseudonym to tweet mocking criticisms of campus PC. He has been thrown under the bus by his administrators, placed on leave, and may well be fired. So while he may never face criminal sanctions like his Canadian counterpart, he will live the rest of his life in a jail cell of sorts. His academic career, relationships, and finances will all shrink. He will be boxed in and his life will get smaller.

This is who progressives are today: religious enforcers of an approved worldview based on an ever-shifting PC code. One thing is certain, and this is where so many libertarians go wrong: the overwhelming threat to liberty today is from the Left, not the Right. It’s frankly silly to pretend otherwise, much as we correctly insist that we are not conservatives. The existential threat to liberty is not posed by 5 skinhead idiots running around in the woods somewhere wearing bedsheets, it’s posed by millions of progressive authoritarians who are everywhere— like the one teaching civics at your kid’s school. But they’ve overplayed their hand in the 2016 election and awakened millions of Americans as a result.

Silver Lining: The Right has Self-Destructed

Let’s not kid ourselves, though, that the right is any better just because it lacks power. But talk about silver linings: we are witnessing the death of the Republican Party before our eyes. It’s incredible to watch, even though it was always inevitable: demographic changes in states like Texas and Florida already doomed the GOP to extinction as a national party. But Trump and the election have accelerated this reality.

Let’s face it: Today’s conservatives don’t conserve anything, except political jobs. And the GOP is a party that never stood for much of anything, except war and banks.

The modern GOP is a globalist, militarist, corporatist, and anti-populist. The Right chose neoconservatism over non-interventionism, Wall Street over Main Street, city over the country, and the managerial state in DC over federalism and state’s rights. They chose the Fed over gold, Lockheed Martin over Woolworth, and Goldman Sachs over your Hometown Bank and Trust. They rejoiced in the rise of the 20th-century imperial presidency. They chose supply-side over laissez-faire, Milton Friedman over Mises, tax credits over constitutionalism. They embraced the welfare and regulatory states, instead of making the optimistic case for capitalism and ownership and opportunity. They’ve allowed the Left to cast them as racists and reactionaries. They blessed entitlements just to keep their cushy seats in Congress and their political perks. They chose to nationalize social issues and cede huge amounts of illegal power to the Supreme Court. They chose John McCain and Mitt Romney over Ron Paul!!!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a movement that deserves to perish! Conservatives, and their Republican Party vehicle have lost any claim to the mantle of private property and personal liberty. They exist solely to be “less progressive” than progressives while accepting the underlying principle that the state runs our lives: the only questions are how it does so, to what degree it does so, and toward what ends it does so.

The Way Forward is Right in Front of Us

While we can celebrate the decline and fall of the media and 2 parties, we also have to recognize that we have been given a gift. A gift of clarity, as the facade of democratic elections cracks. A gift of dissatisfaction, of animosity toward the state and the political class. A gift of populism, with all of its inherent opportunities and dangers.

The 2016 election is a gift, and our job is to unwrap it: to turn the nation’s contempt for politicians into contempt for politics itself. But to do this we need the courage to rebrand libertarianism.

I didn’t say we need a “new” libertarianism because there is no such thing. Liberty is simply the negation of state power in society — not a political third way between Left and Right and not a hybrid ideology. No, what we need is a new libertarian branding, we need better sales and marketing, not a new product. We already know liberty works. Theory and history prove this. But liberty hasn’t endured, has never been widely understood or accepted, and is always under assault.

We might even have to reconsider the term “libertarian,” much as it pains me to say it. As Mises predicted, socialists successfully hijacked our rightful label — liberalism — and we don’t have decades to reclaim it. As a brand, libertarianism — at least the milquetoast version being peddled very unsuccessfully by Gary Johnson and Bill Weld — needs a makeover. We are not “low-tax liberals,” we don’t impress anyone by parroting meaningless progressive slogans like “social inclusion,” and we don’t advance liberty by claiming to share progressive ends. Our winning message is not Democrat-lite, Republican-lite, and it’s definitely not libertarian-lite!

The Johnson/Weld approach has resulted in a huge wasted opportunity to reach out and win this election’s biggest prize — millions of disaffected conservatives ready to abandon the GOP for a candidate as unlikely as Trump — all because of some masochistic need to convince progressives that we’re not mean heartless right wingers. And yet how many angry Bernie-ites or Occupy Wall Streeters will actually vote for Mr. Johnson, rather than Hillary or Jill Stein?

But it’s not just the current campaign. Libertarians have for decades made the enormous mistake of appearing hostile to family, to religion, to tradition, to culture, and to social institutions — in other words, to civil society itself! Yet civil society is by definition the very means by which we organize human affairs without the state. And do we really not understand that family is the first, last, and most important line of defense for the individual against the government?

The strategic cost has been incalculable. Liberty has been sold as an ideology for atomized individuals, for soulless economic actors concerned only with getting rich in the gig economy, for drug and sex-obsessed libertines, for people without any allegiance to anything other than their own immediate self-interests.

What a mistake! If we know anything about human nature, it is that we all desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Just because we as libertarians don’t want that something to be the state doesn’t change this! Yes, nationalism that goes hand in hand with statism and militarism is dangerous. But we can’t wish away the entirely natural human impulse to form in-groups and alliances in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Should we denounce Cherokee nationalism? Should we shut down Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day, on the grounds that it’s wrong to celebrate identity in every sense?

Liberty shouldn’t separate us from our families or the fabric of our communities; on the contrary, it should enhance the community. I look forward to the day when being a libertarian is unremarkable, like having green eyes or being Catholic or having particular tastes in music. Liberty should offer the binding glue of cooperation, not some unnatural hyper-individualism, divorced from human experience.

So let us promote a different vision of liberty, a robust, muscular, pragmatic vision that accords with reality and human nature. One that is not at war with culture, tradition, family, religion, and community. One that fits the world as it is: hardboiled, pragmatic, results-oriented, focused on issues and market solutions.

An effective libertarian message must be:

  • proudly pro-property, pro-ownership, pro-trade, and anti-welfarism;
  • unapologetically anti-state, anti-Fed, anti-globalist, and anti-war;
  • openly supportive of decentralization, secession, and localism;
  • unafraid to appeal to populism and bourgeois materialism; and
  • welcoming toward religion, tradition, and family.

In other words, we should re-brand libertarianism to fit the world as it is, to sell in the marketplace of human action. This is the moment liberty-minded people have been waiting for — the biggest political and social upheaval since the 1960s. The way forward is right in front of us, if only we choose to see it. Thank you very much.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.