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Think tank closure ends America’s libertarian moment

The Right has reversed course. Credit: Getty

May 9, 2024 - 8:00pm

In 2016, a number of prominent US conservatives gathered to formally debate whether the much-vaunted “libertarian moment” was merely a mirage. Nearly a decade later, the American Right’s libertarian contingent has seemingly been dealt its final blow.

FreedomWorks, the once-influential libertarian-leaning conservative organisation, shut down operations on Wednesday following a precipitous decline in revenue and years of internal strife over Donald Trump. The small-government ethos that defined FreedomWorks — and much of the GOP establishment — fell out of fashion as Trump and Republican voters embraced economic protectionism and more restrictive immigration policies.

The group’s president told Politico that a “huge gap” had grown between the organisation’s leadership and its members — a conflict emblematic of the conservative establishment’s struggle with the GOP’s populist drift since 2015.

Libertarian ideology at one point had strong institutional power and financial backing on the Right, with corporations having an obvious financial interest in promoting deregulation, free-market economics and low taxes.

The Tea Party movement, which grew to prominence under the Barack Obama administration, emphasised fiscal conservatism and limited government. The grassroots movement featured protests against government mismanagement attracting large crowds of ordinary voters, but it also enjoyed backing from libertarian-leaning think tanks and activist groups funded by corporate interests.

The ties between the economic libertarians of the Right and the corporate world didn’t end with the collapse of the Tea Party. Both Facebook and Google made sizeable contributions to conservative bulwarks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and State Policy Network in the late 2010s.

The Heritage Foundation, in particular, was an odd partner for these corporations, given its public feuds with Big Tech. The group acknowledged as much in 2019, when it rejected gifts from Google and Facebook in the first sign of a major shift that would unfold over the coming years. Since 2021, Heritage has taken on a new president and adopted a strain of conservatism that’s more open to the use of government power to advance its goals. And as FreedomWorks declined in recent years, populist conservative organisations such as American Moment and the Conservative Partnership Institute have grown more influential.

Americans tend to become more libertarian under Democratic presidents, according to Gallup’s annual polling. The belief that the government does too much peaked at 61% late in the late Obama years, and declined throughout Trump’s term, reaching an all-time low of 41% in the summer of 2020. At 54%, libertarian sentiment is now back in a normal range, and Republicans remain substantially more likely than Democrats to believe the federal government has too much power.

But this polling doesn’t capture the Right’s changing attitudes on individual policy issues. The Right has reversed course on the issues on which it was increasingly libertarian in the mid 2010s —most notably, immigration and economics. Republican support for free trade, for instance, fell from a strong historical majority which at times approached 80% to an all-time low of 44% in 2021.

The Republicans and the average GOP voter have both undergone a transformation over the past decade as working-class Americans, who have been most affected by the downstream effects of free trade and immigration, increasingly flock to the party. With the collapse of FreedomWorks, it appears that beltway institutions are finally catching up to these trends.


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 days ago

Don’t worry; I’ve been becoming more libertarian over the last several years to pick up the slack.

T Bone
T Bone
11 days ago

Free Markets are superior to Command Economics but Market Socialism boxes out Libertarians. When the entire economy operates through “public-private partnerships” than corporate deregulation itself becomes a tool of government.

Governments are directing Corporations and Corporations are directing governments. Libertarianism assumes a separate public and private sphere which simply does not exist any more.

David B
David B
10 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

I’m sure the Italians tried this “corporatism” in the 1930s. How did it go?

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
11 days ago

Competition with China and other countries, where the government and corporations are closely intertwined (not necessarily better in governance depending on how you look at it), presents a significant barrier to the ideals of the traditional free market. These nations can manipulate a failing market, whereas the principles of a free market often lead to unchecked declines, with no safety net in place which no one in their right mind wants anymore. The U.S. struggles because it often treats ideas as if they were reality, a notion that the rest of the world finds laughable, as reality is grounded in tangible, earthly matters. So I am not surprised this idea is dying, it was only a facade in the first place…the supporters did not truly believe it! If they did, it would not fail.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
11 days ago

Cry me a river. If you want your economic policies to be respected, then they have to work out as promised every once in a while.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
11 days ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I think libertarianism has become a little bit like communism in that respect, that its true believers say it’s never been tried properly.
Unlike communism, which has in fact been tried over and over again with the same dismal results, libertarianism hasn’t really, so claiming that economic policies don’t work is a bit premature.
I would describe myself as libertarian, but even I see a role for government in a modern state. Just a lot smaller than any modern country I can think of. Pre-handover Hong Kong perhaps.
It will be interesting to see how Mr Milei fares in Argentina. He’s about the only guy apparently trying to apply libertarian principles to the actual reality of governing a country.

Corrie Mooney
Corrie Mooney
6 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

Libertarianism has been tried- Somalia, Haiti, Sudan, the CHAZ…

May it never be tried again.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 days ago
Reply to  Corrie Mooney

I think the promise of libertarianism in its strong form at least is a mirage, but it is a bit of a ludicrous comparison to make with those failed states!

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
11 days ago

I never heard of Freedom Works. Did anyone?

R Wright
R Wright
10 days ago

I for one welcome the slow death of lolbertarianism. It was always little more than an excuse for large multiconglomerates to avoid regulation and taxes.

Rick Frazier
Rick Frazier
10 days ago
Reply to  R Wright

Libertarians seemed to prefer a corporate tax rate of zero. This always made sense to me, at least for the U.S. Corporate taxes don’t raise much revenue and the taxes are almost always ultimately paid by individual customers of those corporations.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
10 days ago

Another indication that libertarianism has lost is yesterday’s 6-3 re-affirmation of civil forfeiture by the SCOTUS.