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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[…]

Both sides of the aisle have talked a great deal lately about libertarian ideology. But what does that actually mean? “Nixonland” author Rick Perlstein gives his theory on the real-world meanings of “libertarianism” and explains why a powerful Libertarian Party is not a threat.

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