The Truth About “Libertarian” Republicans and Democrats

Rick Perlstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" (Scribner). "Nixonland" has been named one of the three best books of the year by the editors at and a New York Times notable book for 2008, and has been named on year-end "best of" lists by over a dozen publications.

His first book, "Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus," won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history and is newly available in paperback from Nation Books. It appeared on the best books lists of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune that year, and also became, in the wake of the Clinton Wars and the 2000 Florida recount, one of the very few books to receive glowing reviews in both left-wing and right-wing publications. From the summer of 2003 until 2005 he covered the presidential campaigns as chief national political correspondent for the Village Voice. He has also published The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America's Dominant Political Party, an essay with responses from commentators including Robert Reich, Elaine Kamarck, and Ruy Teixeira. In 2006 and 2007 he wrote a biweekly column for The New Republic Online; his Nation article "All Aboard the McCain Express" was featured in "Best American Political Writing 2008." From March, 2007 to March 2009, Perlstein was senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, for which he wrote the blog The Big Con. He is now at work on a third and final volume in his Backlash Trilogy, covering the years 1973 to 1980.

He received a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago in 1992, where his cultural criticism was published in the Baffler, and spent two years in the PhD program in American culture at the University of Michigan. Moving to New York, he worked for two years as an editor at Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life. Perlstein's articles have appeared in publications including Newsweek, Slate, the Village Voice, Newsday The Nation, The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, the London Review of Books, Newsday, Columbia Journalism Review and The New Yorker.

  • Transcript


Question: Does libertarianism have a chance to win people from the Republican party?

Rick Perlstein: Well, among conservatives, saying you're a Libertarian has always been a way to say, “I believe in everything having to do with conservatism except the embarrassing stuff.” You know, except the stuff - except the, you know, the spiritual warfare, casting out demons from certain zip codes which was, you know, a big part of Ted Haggard’s paradigm and the church - the Pentecostal church that Sarah Palin is involved with. So, it’s always been more of a gesture than anything else. Of course, the people who call themselves Libertarians within the Republican Party at least, have been quite will to, you know, go along with, you know, these kind of violations of civil liberties. They have kind of gone along with the war on terrorism. Although there are, you know, genuine Libertarians on the right who’ve been actually quite heroic, you know, at preserving the principles of civil liberties.

You know, on - among Democrats, among liberals who find themselves enraptured by the concepts of Libertarianism, it’s not as good a fit. I mean, some folks have been talking now about Liberaltarianism which is the idea that liberalism can be stripped of its kind of paternalistic elements and respect the autonomy people better. Well, the problem with that is that’s always been, you know, the ideal of liberalism and liberalism at its best and the Democratic Party in its most mature form has always, you know, attempted to create the maximum amount of a quality alongside the maximum amount of freedom. Now, it’s something that’s often honored only in the breech because that’s the hardest thing for human societies to be able to accomplish. But, you know, I mean, the liberal vision, you know, dovetails with, you know, what’s called in the rest of the world, social democracy, which is that you can’t really enjoy anything like liberty unless you have some minimum standard of living. You know, unless you're free to change jobs if you hate your boss and you're not afraid of losing your health insurance, you know, that’s neither paternalistic, you know, nor is it socialistic. It’s entrepreneurial. Right?

So, that’s, you know, that’s, you know, straight down the center of liberalism and that’s something a Libertarian would reject because it involves expanding the role for the state. But, a liberal, at its best, understands that sometimes expanding the state can actually enhance liberty in pretty profound ways.

Recorded on:  October 19, 2009