In Chait’s view, libertarians vastly overrate their own numbers and their electoral importance; and Chait characterizes Lindsey’s proposed alliance as a fool’s bargain in which liberals would have to “agree simply to eviscerate” popular social programs including Social Security and Medicare. Chait concludes his riposte by invoking the scene in The Godfather, Part II, in which Michael Corleone responds to a corrupt politician who, after hurling a vicious insult, is asking for a bribe: “You can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing.”

Chait’s reply is notable not so much for his arguments as for his emotional style. Indeed, his tone of gloating nastiness and contumely so outshines the substance of his essay as to be its real point. Diplomatically telling Lindsey “thanks, but no thanks” would have sufficed if Chait had simply wanted to turn the proposal aside. Evidently, Chait wanted something more. ~Peter Wood

Chait’s article is not really an angry article.  The tone he uses may be one that comes from the frustration of being courted, figuratively speaking, by one of the least politically important groups in the country.  It is the response of someone who realises that his side enjoyed electoral success without much in the way of libertarian support (as has been pointed out before, 2006 actually marked a small decline in libertarian support for Democrats from 2004).  Some libertarians very much want a new home, but the people in the other house see little reason to let them in if it means having to rearrange everything inside the house.  Think about how annoying it would be to be on the winning side of an election and then to be propositioned by some politically marginal group that started taking credit for part of your success.  It would be bad enough if they had anything to do with your success, but it is even worse when they have little or nothing to do with it.  The suggestion that they made your victory possible might just get under your skin and bother you a little.  This is not a case of Chait exhibiting the “New Anger,” but the same old agitation that most libertarians inspire in everyone they meet.  

Suppose that a delegation from the Socialist Workers’ Party or the Natural Law Party were to come banging on your door and suggested a cunning alliance for mutual benefit.  What would you do?  You would shoo them off your porch and tell them not to come back–you may need allies, but surely you’re not that desperate!  Mr. Lindsey’s “liberaltarian” proposal was not much more appealing to the liberals he was trying to win over.  It is like the roleplaying nerd telling the prom queen, “We could be great friends, if you would just make a few concessions to me.”  Chait found the proposal wanting on the merits and, I suspect, resented the suggestion that he and his should water down any of their commitments for the sake of gaining the miniscule support the alliance would provide.  Imagine the response a representative of, say, the Dominican Republic would get if he approached Washington with an offer of free sugar in perpetuity provided that we simply give them Florida.  He would not be embraced warmly. 

Most importantly, Chait noted the political costs of making such an alliance and disliked the condescension inherent in the offer.  To Chait’s ears, Lindsey was saying, “You liberals are so intellectually bankrupt that you really need us to keep your tottering house from collapsing completely!”  Whether or not Lindsey is right about liberalism being “moribund,” I can understand why a liberal would respond to this claim with irritation.  Nonetheless, Chait misses a chance to devastate Lindsey’s claims.  Lindsey notes that Democrats have started avoiding the use of the label liberal, which supposedly confirms liberalism’s demise (if only we should be so lucky!), but the very study that Lindsey leans on to conjure up his libertarian voting bloc makes a virtue out of the fact that there are more “libertarian-leaning” voters than people who self-identify as libertarians.  If Boaz and Kirby are right about that point, on which the entire libertarian voting bloc myth depends, it is meaningless to cite the fact that Democrats no longer self-identify as liberals as an argument against liberalism’s vitality.  Liberalism may be dying, but this is not proof of that.  If they wanted, liberals could simply point to poll results of their own that show broad public support for whatever they want to define as “liberal” positions and declare that such-and-such a percentage of Americans is liberal, even when they do not self-identify as such.  What’s good for the libertarian gosling is good for the liberal gander. 

If Chait was sarcastic and dismissive in the process of refusing Lindsey’s offer, I can hardly blame him.  The idea invites both responses.  I was dismissive of the idea because it was a bad idea, but I have no real stake in the debate.  How much more annoying would I find the entreaties of libertarians if I were one of the people they were trying to convince?  If it can be imagined, I think I would find them to be even more annoying than I already do.

Perhaps I am more sympathetic to Chait’s response because, like him, I find the evidence on which Mr. Lindsey bases so much of his proposal to be flimsy.  Take the 13% “libertarian-leaning” voting bloc that is supposedly such a valuable prize.  This is my view of this so-called bloc:

The argument over which “side” libertarians should take–the old fusionism or the new, liberal fusionism or something else all together–is about as meaningful as arguing over whether Monty Python’s Judaean People’s Front or the People’s Front of Judaea or the Popular Front would be better able to overthrow Roman rule in Life of Brian.  Even if you settled the argument and came up with a satisfactory conclusion, it would amount to very, very little.  It could make for fun debate.  Unruly reactionary observers of the debate could also occasionally toss out Bolingbrokean fulminations that declared the two traditions to be equally obnoxious and therefore in some sense made for each other.  But whatever the outcome the impact of the “libertarian vote” on matters of policy would remain as miniscule as it is today. 

Chait dismisses the Boaz/Kirby study itself with the following:

Alas, the study is shot through with conceptual problems. The first is definitional. Boaz and Kirby classify their subjects based on their response to poll questions on the role of government. Those who give libertarian-esque answers to all three questions–for instance, they choose “the less government, the better” as opposed to “there are more things that government should be doing”–are libertarians. Voila, 13 percent of the United States turns out to be pro-free market and socially tolerant. (Congratulations! You will all be issued a copy of Atlas Shrugged.) 

What should be sobering and not a little frightening to professional libertarian pundits is that only 13% tested as libertarian using this very vague measure.  That means that, at best, libertarians could count on 13% of the people to be libertarian-leaning when faced with the abstract proposition: more or less government?  That probably makes the 13% the upper limit of libertarian potential rather than an actual bloc of likely libertarian-leaning voters.  Besides, as the last election showed, misrule and big-government excesses did not drive away most of these libertarian-leaning voters, so what Mr. Lindsey really has to offer the Democrats is a minority of an already small, unpredictable group.  No wonder Chait was unenthusiastic and dismissive. 

The “unwanted valentine” to which Mr. Wood refers was not even a valentine, but a kind of presumptuous ultimatum with a sugar-coated topping: “let us join forces with you, you over-the-hill, decrepit bums with no ideas, because you really need us and you owe us a little something.”  It is the sort of “love-note” one might encounter on 24 where one member of the team threatens to use some secret information he has on the other member unless she helps him to break protocol to go stop a bomb from going off somewhere.  This is not friendship, but a kind of extortion, and it is no surprise if this sort of proposal would elicit a kind of anger.  But Chait’s article wasn’t all that angry anyway.  In it he stated pretty plainly, “We will not be suffering any fools around here, or at least not any libertarian fools.”

Perhaps Chait does embody some new style of political argument that is somehow unprecedented.  Perhaps there is such a thing as New Anger and Chait is one of its pioneers.  But he does not demonstrate it in this article, which is a perfectly deserved rebuke to a silly idea that had been expressed in a condescending and slightly obnoxious way.  In the end, the proposal proves not only annoying but politically futile, as Chait correctly observes that political success lies in the direction of a liberal-populist alliance that is much more practical and coherent as a political movement.