A Postmortem on Classical Liberalism in the 2016 Presidential Primary

At the beginning of the campaign for the Republican nomination, many thought that it was a libertarian moment in which even Rand Paul might well emerge victorious. But with tonight’s results from Indiana, the Republican Party seems poised to nominate the most illiberal candidate in its history—someone who wants to restrict trade and civil liberties and has no interest in taming the growth of the state. Trump’s prospective nomination suggests that classical liberalism in the more classically liberal of our two parties is in radical decline. If so, what is most distinctive about America—its foundation in liberty—is at risk. We need to know why classical liberalism has so signally failed in 2016 if this failure is to be reversed.

  1. It is just a fluke. Trump is a sui generis candidate who exploited his celebrity to move out in front of a fragmented field. The opponents left standing were not attractive even to classical liberals—Kasich because of his own positions and Cruz because of his personality. The problem with this explanation is that Trump himself has obvious ideological heresies and character flaws. Moreover, his victories have become more decisive even in the narrower field.
  1. Trump’s victory reflects Republican fury that the Republican Congress has not stopped Obama. Primary voters are looking for a tough outsider, even a caudillo, who will finally shake things up. The difficulty with this explanation is that Congress cannot easily stop a President unless a party has overwhelming legislative majorities.  If Congress had shut down the government in a fight with Obama, history shows that the public, including many Republicans, would have rapidly turned against it. But perhaps the public does not understand these basic facts of governance.   Under this explanation, chalk up Trump’s victory to ignorance of our political institutions against a particular political background.
  1. Government has grown so big, that citizens feel that they are chumps if they do not elect a leader who will fight  for them against their fellow citizens in the zero-sum game of redistribution.  The problem with this explanation is that government has been growing bigger for a long time: why choose this time to give up on shrinking it?
  1. Inequality is growing and Trump supporters are angry at a free market and free society that is not delivering for them. But as I have argued before, the free market is flourishing today through creating free and cheap goods through accelerating technology. Perhaps older voters (and Trump voters skew decidedly older) are missing out on many of fruits of the computational revolution: they don’t use smart phones listen to free music. Thus, in our technological era, the oldest voters, who should sources of wisdom and stability, are more inclined to be a part of an angry mob in a world that they find more difficult to navigate than the young.

As social science regressions teach us, a phenomenon can often be explained only by multiple factors, and I believe there may be some truth in all of these. (I invite other explanations in the comments as well). The first two explanations above are the most hopeful, because the phenomenon that they describe will pass. The latter two suggest that classical liberalism will continue to decline.  Given that the rise of Sanders threatens to extirpate the last vestiges of classical liberalism in the Democratic Party, there has never been a time in my life when limited and accountable government in the United States is under greater threat.