A Relationship or a One-Night Stand?

Was the coalition of libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats on Syria simply a product of the dispute over Syria, or is it the beginning of something more?

Protesters from the non-governmental organization Code Pink carry signs against proposed U.S. military action in Syria, outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 10, 2013.  
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Sept. 12, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

The pop­u­lar up­ris­ing against po­ten­tial mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia has scrambled Wash­ing­ton’s typ­ic­al left-right polit­ics. Just con­sider some scenes around the cap­it­al this week.

Rep. Keith El­lis­on, D-Minn., a co­chair­man of the Pro­gress­ive Caucus, walked past an an­ti­war protest and got heckled for sup­port­ing air strikes, while tea-party Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., earned cheers for his op­pos­i­tion. Chris­toph­er Preble of the non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist Cato In­sti­tute vis­ited the usu­ally hawk­ish Her­it­age Found­a­tion and was shocked to hear his rival think-tankers “ba­sic­ally say­ing ex­actly what I would have said.” And Demo­crat­ic firebrand Alan Grayson of Flor­ida teamed with House Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues to or­gan­ize a guer­rilla whip­ping op­er­a­tion.

“I can’t re­mem­ber when Mo­ve­On and Freedom­Works were on the same side of any­thing,” said Steph­en Miles of the Win Without War co­ali­tion.

It’s such a nov­el mo­ment for Wash­ing­ton that some spec­u­late we may fi­nally be see­ing the myth­ic­al pop­u­list co­ali­tion between anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ist liber­tari­ans on the right and an­ti­war civil liber­tari­ans on the left that former Rep. Ron Paul and Ral­ph Nader have dreamed about for years. “I think it’s totally real,” said Becky Bond, the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of Credo Mo­bile, one of the first lib­er­al voices to op­pose in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. “As someone who was do­ing this kind of work in the run-up to the in­va­sion of Ir­aq, this feels very dif­fer­ent. It’s a real left-right co­ali­tion.”

In­deed, Syr­ia has tilted the polit­ic­al land­scape 90 de­grees, turn­ing the fa­mil­i­ar par­tis­an di­vide in­to a ver­tic­al split between the lead­er­ship in both parties, which fa­vors mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion, and the parties’ anti-in­ter­ven­tion­ist grass­roots bases. And it comes on the heels of a re­viv­al of “liber­tari­an pop­u­lism” on the right, alarm over civil liber­ties on the left, and a gen­er­al war wear­i­ness among Amer­ic­ans of all stripes.

The tea party has been nearly un­an­im­ous in its op­pos­i­tion to strikes against Syr­ia, and Matt Kibbe, pres­id­ent and CEO of Freedom­Works, a tea-party group, thinks it’s more than just knee-jerk op­pos­i­tion to Obama. “It’s a shift; it’s a re­align­ment,” Kibbe said. On is­sues such as civil liber­ties, elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance, drones, and crim­in­al-justice re­form, “there’s ab­so­lutely a con­ver­gence. We’re build­ing a new co­ali­tion.”

“You’re see­ing com­ing to fruition a lot of the ground­work that was laid over sev­er­al years,” Miles said. It star­ted in Ir­aq, with an­ti­war House Re­pub­lic­ans such as Paul and North Car­o­lina’s Wal­ter Jones, he said, and has ma­ter­i­al­ized more re­cently in bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion to trim de­fense spend­ing.

One law­maker who has tapped in­to that co­ali­tion is fresh­man Rep. Thomas Massie of Ken­tucky, a Re­pub­lic­an who has in­tro­duced bills with Demo­crats to leg­al­ize in­dus­tri­al hemp pro­duc­tion and end man­dat­ory min­im­um sen­tences. He told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the grass­roots op­pos­i­tion to Syr­ia was un­like any­thing he’s seen since the pop­u­list fur­or over the bank bail­outs in 2009. And it may be just the tip of the ice­berg. “It’s cer­tainly not a one-off,” Massie said. “I think there are a lot of op­por­tun­it­ies go­ing for­ward.”

If you want a glimpse of what this co­ali­tion might look like, the Ju­ly roll-call vote on the amend­ment to end Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency bulk sur­veil­lance sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Con­yers, D-Mich., is a good place to start. The meas­ure earned 111 Demo­crat­ic and 94 Re­pub­lic­ans ayes and split the parties in­tern­ally between more-hawk­ish lead­ers and the pri­vacy-minded rank and file. The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Greg Sar­gent com­pared the res­ult to a whip count on Syr­ia and found “strik­ing” over­lap.

The two sides of­ten come to the same is­sue for com­pletely dif­fer­ent reas­ons. The Na­tion­al Rifle As­so­ci­ation, for in­stance, re­cently joined the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on on a law­suit chal­len­ging the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­grams. The NRA’s con­cern is that sur­veil­lance could be used to cre­ate a na­tion­al gun re­gistry — a fear that crit­ics dis­miss as con­spir­at­ori­al — but whatever the motive, the ACLU is happy for the sup­port.

But while a con­stitu­ency might be there, no move­ment now ex­ists to chan­nel the en­ergy bub­bling up from the grass­roots in­to real polit­ic­al power. In­stead, the pop­u­list wings of the Left and the Right tend to or­gan­ize them­selves in par­al­lel and have little in­terest in join­ing forces — at least pub­licly. “When it comes to grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing, you see dif­fer­ent groups com­ing to­geth­er on cer­tain votes,” Kibbe said, “then go­ing back to their re­spect­ive camps when it comes time for polit­ics.”

Mark Meck­ler cofoun­ded the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots, the move­ment’s largest um­brella group, but stepped down last year and joined with an un­likely ally, Mo­ve­On.org founder Joan Blades, to fa­cil­it­ate “liv­ing-room con­ver­sa­tions” among people with dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al views. “There’s just a whole lit­any of is­sues where the people are on the same side, but the politi­cians and the me­dia are work­ing very hard to keep us apart,” Meck­ler said. He cited a trans-par­tis­an skep­ti­cism of “big­ness,” in terms of both gov­ern­ment and cor­por­ate power, and es­pe­cially when they team up. “You can go far right or far left, and you come full circle.”

Des­pite that con­ver­gence, Meck­ler said, it’s hard for or­gan­iz­a­tions that have to cater to bases — of­ten by beat­ing up on the oth­er side — to cross the polit­ic­al di­vide. He notes that the Tea Party Pat­ri­ots would some­times work with lib­er­al groups on is­sues where they had com­mon ground and even share re­sources, but al­ways through back chan­nels.

Per­haps someone could come along and cap­ture this bi­par­tis­an pop­u­list mo­ment, but who? No one has cred­ib­il­ity in both camps, which des­pise each oth­er on all but a hand­ful of is­sues.

And that’s the prob­lem. A move­ment made up of the ex­tremes of both parties will, by defin­i­tion, have a hard time find­ing middle ground. There’s simply no re­con­cil­ing pop­u­list lib­er­als’ de­sire to ex­pand the wel­fare state with pop­u­list liber­tari­ans’ de­mand to slash it. Un­less they find more to agree upon, the pop­u­lists of both parties will be stuck fight­ing from the same po­s­i­tion, but fa­cing op­pos­ite dir­ec­tions.

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