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A New Alliance? Progressives and Libertarians Are Agreeing More Often

David Callahan

If the NSA leak had happened twenty years ago, Edward Snowden would have been defended by lots of progressives and a few libertarians here and there. But it's unlikely that any major leaders in the Republican Party or the mainstream conservative media would have come out as Snowden cheerleaders. 

Things have definitely changed. While Dick Cheney predictably called Snowden a "traitor," and other top Republicans also blasted the leak, Rand Paul -- who is now treated as a serious contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination -- said Snowden had committed an act of "civil disobedience" and implied that he might one day be seen as a hero. A few other Republicans in Congress have stood up for Snowden as well. And Rush Limbaugh -- the most influential commentator on the right -- has said he's taking an open mind toward Snowden. Glenn Beck has passionately defended Snowden, while Sarah Palin has pointedly refused to criticize the NSA leaker, instead attacking an "Orwellenian" surveillance state. 

Now, granted, Snowden leaked secrets under a Democratic president, so it's hard to know how this would have played if a Republican were in the White House. But the libertarian faction of the GOP -- a faction that distrusts government in both the social and security spheres --  has clearly been growing. Just three Republican House members voted against the Patriot Act in 2001. Five year later, 13 House Republicans voted against renewal of that law. And five years after that, in 2011, 31 Republicans in the House voted against renewal of the Patriot Act. 

It's not just security issues where you can see more common ground between libertarians and progressives. This axis has also been evident in efforts to decriminalize marijuana and draw down the war on the drugs. And plenty of libertarians have also been supporters of same-sex marriage, believing that government has no role in dictating morality. Likewise, while ambitious Republican libertarians like Rand Paul remain adamantly opposed to abortion, most rank-and-file libertarians support abortion rights. The Libertarian Party's 2012 platform explicitly stated that government should stay out this sphere and let individuals make up their own mind. Of course, also, most libertarians support a very open approach to immigration. Ron Paul said earlier in his career that there should be no immigration policy, and anyone should be able to come to the U.S. -- although he walked back those comments when he ran for President. 

Anyway, the big point here is this: The Republican Party has moved in a sharply more libertarian direction in recent years as the clout of the Christian right has waned and as Tea Party-types wary of all forms of government have grown more influential. That shift has had negative effects on debates over taxes and government spending, making the GOP more intransigent. But on a number of other issues -- security, drugs, abortion, gay rights, and immigration -- libertarians and progressives have the potential to work together. This is a shift that deserves more attention. 

Maybe the folks at Demos should be chatting more with the folks at CATO.