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Rothbard’s Political Prophecy

By Daniel McCarthy

Shortly after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, Murray Rothbard penned a remarkable memorandum outlining the pitfalls awaiting the libertarian-populist-conservative revolution. He saw what was coming — he recognized, for example, that the revolution’s putative mastermind, widely hailed (or demonized) as a government-slashing right-wing radical, would quickly betray those who put their faith in him: “Newt Gingrich … often engages in fiery, revolutionary, rightist rhetoric,” Rothbard noted, “while actualy collaborating with and sidling up to the collectivist welfare state.” For that reason Rothbard was more concerned about Gingrich than about the transparently “moderate” Senate leader, Bob Dole — because the grassroots might actually be fooled by the speaker.

Rothbard was right, of course, and his memo is must reading not only for understanding what happened to that revolution in the 1990s, but for anticipating what might be coming in 2011. A great many pundits think this election season will be a repeat of 1994, but an equally vital question is whether next year will be a repeat of 1995.

Another section of Rothbard’s memo aptly anticipates the reaction we’ve seen from the political establishment — as represented by Karl Rove, the neoconservatives, and the mainstream media alike — to some of the “upset” outcomes in recent primaries. (“Upset” is the right word; the political class is upset indeed that they can’t always dictate who the people will nominate, even within the strict confines of the major parties.) Here’s Rothbard on the political class and democracy:

Have you noticed how the social democratic elites, though eternally yammering about the vital importance of “democracy,” American and global, quickly turn sour on a democratic choice whenever it is something they don’t like? How quick they then are to thwart the democratic will, by media smears, calumny and outright coercive suppression.

Since the ruling elite lives by fleecing and dominating the ruled, their economic interests must always be in opposition. But the fascinating feature of the American scene in recent decades has been the unprecedented conflict, the fundamental clash, between the ruling liberal/intellectual/business/bureaucratic elites on the one hand, and the mass of Americans on the other. The conflict is not just on taxes and subsidies, but across the board socially, culturally, morally, aesthetically, religiously.

In a penetrating article in the December 1994 Harper’s, the late sociologist Christopher Lasch, presaging his imminent book, The Revolt of the Elites, points out how the American elites have been in fundamental revolt against virtually all the basic American values, customs, and traditions. Increasing realization of this clash by the American grass roots has fueled and accelerated the right-wing populist revolution, a revolution not only against Washington rule, taxes, and controls, but also against the entire panoply of attitudes and mores that the elite are trying to foist upon the recalcitrant American public. The public has finally caught on and is rising up angry.

The revolt of which Rothbard writes was diverted by corrupt leadership in the 1990s, muted by so-called “compassionate conservatives” around 2000, and for a time co-opted by the war craze of the past decade. But all of those maneuvers by Washington’s powerbrokers could only contain the public’s anti-statist sentiments for so long — and now they’re returning full force. The task now is to make sure the mistakes of the 1990s aren’t repreated, and that there’s a bedrock of principle and political skill behind the anti-establishment emotion.

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