Intellectuals and Political Coalitions

Matt Yglesias points to this fascinating paper about the influence of intellectuals on political coalitions:

Following Converse’s advice that ideology is the product of a “creative synthesis,” conducted by a narrow group of intellectuals, this paper reports on attempts to study ideology at its point of creation. I develop a measure of ideology expressed among pundits, based on coded opinion pieces in magazines and newspapers from 1830 to 1990. I use this measure to test the impact of ideas on party coalitions. I argue that ideologies, as created by intellectuals, strongly influence the coalitions that party leaders advance. In three cases – the realignment on slavery before the Civil War, the Civil Rights realignment in the mid-20th century, and the party change on abortion more recently – there is evidence that intellectuals reorganize the issues before parties realign around them. This evidence suggests that the patterns of “what goes with what” that intellectuals design have an impact on the nature of political cleavages.

This is why I find it silly when people dismiss the possibility left-libertarian politics by pointing out that liberal and libertarian groups typically find themselves on opposite sides of contemporary political battles. Politicians, activists, and septegenarian billionaires are lagging indicators of ideological trends. The right-leaning politics of the Koch brothers are the result of intellectual arguments that happened in libertarian circles in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary libertarian politics is right-leaning because a previous generation of libertarian intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek, Rand) chose to focus primarily on “right-wing” issues like taxes and deregulation. But there’s nothing inevitable about this. If the present generation of libertarian intellectuals chose to focus on “left-wing” issues—war, civil liberties, immigration, urbanism, patent reform, gay rights, etc—then the next generation of libertarian donors, activists, and politicians would likely see the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, as natural allies.

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3 Responses to Intellectuals and Political Coalitions

  1. “a previous generation of libertarian intellectuals (Friedman, Hayek, Rand) chose to focus primarily on “right-wing” issues”….

    You left out Rothbard, who did indeed focus on the war question, and did indeed enter into a formal alliance with the Left — albeit not the “liberal” mushy left — around the issue of the Vietnam war and imperialism in general. He also sympathized with the early SDS in their critique of academia as an extension of the national security state. Check out the complete set of his periodical, set up with Leonard Liggio, called “Left & Right,” which is online over at the Mises Institute.

    In short, what you propose — a libertarian alliance with the left — has already been tried. Anyone who advocates such an alliance at the present time would be compelled, it seems to me, to examine this history.

    I would add: the web site I write for,, although founded by libertarians, has many more leftists and others one might call “liberals” as its primary audience. So here is an example of “really existing liberaltarianism,” and I’m surprised there has been no mention of it.

  2. Cog says:

    As someone who holds his nose and votes Democratic in every election, I find your assumption that Democrats will ever find their way back to the light on war, civil liberties, and IP reform stunningly optimistic.

  3. omen says:

    Nice to see you pop up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog again. As someone who supported Ron Paul in the primaries for the last presidential election, and then voted Green, I would say left-libertarians are certainly out there.

    Your old room mate and Los Angeles Urbanite,

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