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Hipsters Against the (Political) Machine

By Heather Wilhelm - July 5, 2011

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By Heather Wilhelm

In an opening scene of "Napoleon Dynamite," a 2004 film highlighting teenage perils and triumphs in a middle-of-nowhere Idaho town, the title character, a tall, gawky ostrich of a kid, disconsolately boards a school bus. He slumps into a seat, all nerd.

"What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" a kid nearby pipes up.

Napoleon, refusing eye contact, replies in utter disgust. "Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!"

This, to some Americans, is the essence of libertarianism -- and "Whatever I feel like I wanna do," they fear, does not involve soup kitchen volunteerism or Sunday churchgoing. Rather, many associate libertarianism with gun stockpiles, pot farms, questionable morals and weirdo rich guys who try to build their own free-floating, law- and tax-free utopias. (This actually happened in the '70s, by the way, but the touchy-feely libertarian Republic of Minerva was quickly taken over by the punchy, but clearly less enlightened, nation of Tonga.)

Some of these stereotypes, admittedly, aren't completely baseless. But as Reason magazine editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch point out in their new book, "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America," serious libertarianism is lot less crazy -- and can arguably have more merit -- than the tired, overcooked and sometimes gag-worthy main courses on the American political menu today.

Modern American politics, Gillespie and Welch argue, have devolved into a bipartisan farce. Together, Republicans and Democrats form a spendthrift duopoly fueled by "two-party tribalism" -- and while the parties may squabble on certain policy differences or grandstand about who gets to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, over the past decade they've shared three deep and passionate aligning interests: expanding bloated government programs, tossing around bailouts, and blowing the national budget through the moon.

Related story: A Q&A with Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch

Are there differences between Republicans and Democrats? Sure. But over the past few years, at least when it comes to big-picture financial issues, they're often just matters of degree. We are running out of money; something, it seems, has got to give. To paraphrase columnist Mark Steyn, we used to be rich enough to get away with this sort of malarkey. Now, as he wrote last year, "We're too broke to be this stupid."

And too broke, Gillespie and Welch argue, to maintain our current two-party lockdown. They write: "The same revolutionary forces that have already upended much of American commerce and society over the past forty years" -- such as "a loss of brand loyalty" and "the increasing assertion of independent individual choice" --are "at long last beginning to buckle the cement under the most ossified chunk of American life: politics and government." Americans are increasingly declaring themselves as political independents (38 percent of voters, by one count) and, Gillespie and Welch contend, many of them are drifting towards a "broadly libertarian vision of limited government and social tolerance."

"The Declaration of Independents" is a refreshing political book in that it kind of, well, hates politics, and it's worth reading on this issue alone. The authors compare the American political scene to an Edgar Allen Poe-style torture chamber, while declaring politics "a lagging indicator of change in America, the last person in the room to get the joke, the last man to buy the Nehru jacket or stock in Snapple." They argue, rather convincingly, that anyone who invests a great deal of time worrying about the minutiae of the two party platforms, or even taking them seriously, is likely on a fool's errand.

And, when you think about it, it's also a sad errand. "We need independence not just in politics but from politics," they write. "Contrary to the myths perpetuated by liberals and conservatives alike, the winning and losing of elections is not transformative of what matters most." The things that truly matter in life (our families, friends, churches, communities, teams, relationships, and culture) do not stem from state capitols or Washington, D.C. Most great things in life happen despite politicians, not because of them, which makes the pervasive nature of today's politics (from ceiling-mounted talking heads in airport waiting areas to mainstream churches pushing the federal government as a charitable arm) seem all the more creepy.

This is where libertarianism makes a great deal of sense, and it doesn't require privatizing roads or wiping out social safety nets. "Take the government out of nonessential questions," Gillespie and Welch write, "and the endless disputes that separate us become the subject of friendly dinner arguments, not life-and-death battles over our own confiscated money." The book also manages to fight back against one particular libertarian stereotype in that it offers solid recommendations for repairing, not eliminating, the current federal approaches to K-12 education, health care and retirement systems.

Certain portions of the book will turn some readers off -- for me, it was sections pooh-poohing the threat of global terrorism; approvingly noting the increasing number of crazy "choices" in Internet pornography and the rise of aggressive, something-to-prove individualism; and the implied grouping of abortion into the "nonessential questions" that government should leave alone.

But in the end, "The Declaration of Independents" is an important read with solid insight into today's political mess. Increasing freedom may be uncomfortable, and it can lead to vulgarity, moral depravity and more. But making the state the god of every issue ultimately weakens society's hold on the most important things in life. It also raises questions that should give any statist pause: Who decides? Who will, for instance, be the culture police? The morality police? The fashion police? (Me! Pick me!)

Gillespie and Welch are full of optimism for the future, predicting a world that keeps improving, year by year. But can their political vision -- one of independent, freedom-minded citizens pushing the parties around on an issue-by-issue basis -- even get off the ground? Upstart political movements, as they note, are often ridiculed.

But then again, they can also succeed. Look, for instance, at the tea party, lampooned as clueless hicks before propelling long-shot candidates like Scott Brown and Rand Paul into office. Look at the Czech revolution, sparked by, of all things, punk rock music.

And really, just how daunting is the concept of breaking through the current political mess? We live in a world where not just Al Gore but also Barack Obama can win a Nobel Peace Prize. Where Shia LaBeouf is not only rich and famous but also claims to have hooked up with Megan Fox. Where some Cubs fans, bless their hearts, have still managed not to crack.

Crazier things have happened. They might just happen again.

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Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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