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Strange Bedfellows Indeed: The Powerful Alliance Between Liberals and Libertarians

David Callahan
Just when you think politics is hopelessly calcified and static, some new dynamic can come along that leads to a breakthrough. One such dynamic to watch closely right now is the growing alliance between liberals and libertarians, which is already shaking up the status quo. 
Alliance is really too strong a word; more like a convergence. And this isn't entirely new. Liberals and libertarians have often collaborated together on civil liberties issues, such as the fight to stop the Patriot Act or other efforts to protect civil liberties. And the Cato Institute, along with other libertarian groups, have frequently been a staunch ally of those on the left working against excessive defense spending and military adventures abroad. 
But in just the past year, this unusual convergence has produced its biggest policy victory yet: Decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Following those victories, as many as half of other U.S. states are considering similar steps, according to the New York Times. Two states most likely to move next show the convergence I'm talking about. A push to legalize pot in Oregon is likely to succeed because of the power of liberal Democrats there, while a similar effort in Alaska may go through because of how libertarian that state is. 
Legalizing pot is a big deal, because it's an important step toward winding down the failed drug war that has fueled mass incarceration -- a central preoccupation of the left for years. Libertarians don't seem so worried about how many young men of color are being locked up, but they are worried about the overreach of police power. Cato has a big initiative on the problem of police misconduct -- including investigating those crazy paramilitary SWAT raids which are so common these days -- as active as any similar project you'll find on the left. 
Beyond the growing push to stop the drug war, a broader and potent backlash is forming to the domestic security state. State legislators have their own reasons for wanting to downsize an expensive criminal justice system, amid fiscal pressures and low levels of public concern over crime. Such downsizing is a lot easier to pull off when you can assemble bipartisan coalitions that draw in liberals and Tea Party types. My prediction is that we'll see more movement on criminal justice reform in the next few years than any other domestic policy issue -- both because big reform is so obviously overdue and because of the unusual coalitions that are now possible. 
Downsizing the national security state is another area where you can get strange bedfellows together, starting with efforts to rein in the NSA but extending to a push for deep defense cuts. 
I hardly need to recount all the ways in which liberals and libertarians don't get along. We write all the time here about the dangers of libertarian ideas in the economic and regulatory realms as part of our Gordon Gamm Initiative. 
Today, though, let's end on a positive note: the contours of politics can and do change. Yes, we're often stuck -- as we were on the war on drugs for three decades. But then it can be possible to get unstuck.