The conservative movement should look to its Depression-era roots.
Perhaps it’s time to bring back the American Liberty League.
Forgotten by everyone save a few history buffs, primarily on the libertarian right and the Marxist left, the League was formed early in Franklin Roosevelt’s first term by John Jakob Raskob, a former head of the Democratic party. Its leadership comprised mostly conservative small-government Democrats, including the party’s two previous presidential nominees — Al Smith, who ran in 1928 (the first major Catholic presidential candidate), and John Davis, who lost to Calvin Coolidge in 1924. It received considerable funding from some industrial titans, but it was also a legitimate grass-roots educational and political organization with more than 100,000 active members.
The League saw itself as a platform for constitutionalists and classical liberals who felt estranged from both Roosevelt’s Democratic party and Herbert Hoover’s Republican party.
The demonization campaign worked in the short term. But the League had some important long-term victories. It planted the seeds that would grow underground and blossom after the war. Diverse institutions such as the Club for Growth and the Federalist Society, Heritage Action, the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute (where I’m a fellow), even the Tea Party can trace some of their DNA back to that effort.
Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries, as well as socialist Bernie Sanders’s lesser but very significant success at dragging the Democratic party leftward, indicate that we may be in a 1930s moment again. Trump has made it eminently clear that his attachment to the Republican party — never mind conservative principles — is entirely instrumental. He says he wants to turn the GOP into a “worker’s party,” which, even without the sinister connotations, suggests something much closer to New Dealism than traditional conservatism.
Americans interested in neither nationalism nor socialism are once more entering an era of political homelessness. Trump won partly because too few took him seriously for too long; the “movement” needs to get moving and make fresher arguments for timeless principles.
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