When the folks behind the 2013 American Values Survey (AVS) went “In Search of Libertarians” for their latest national poll, they didn’t just stumble across a small, energetic, and increasingly influential group of people in politics, culture, and business who are dedicated to minimal government intervention in political and personal affairs. No, the researchers at the Public Religion Research Institute found themselves smack dab in the middle of an ideological civil war over control of the Republican Party and, quite possibly, the direction of the country as a whole. Given that everyone from The Washington Post to NPR to The Atlantic are talking about some variation on “America’s Libertarian Moment,” attention must be paid.
The American Values Survey is based on responses gathered in late September and early October from a representative group of about 2,300 adults. The researchers used answers to questions about national security, economics, and “personal liberty” to create a “Libertarian Orientation Scale.” By such measures, 7 percent of Americans are “consistent libertarians” and another 15 percent “lean libertarian,” meaning they oppose increased government spending on things such as military operations and domestic surveillance, raising the minimum wage, and environmental regulations.
Such fiscal conservativism is matched by social liberalism, with libertarians in favor of legalizing marijuana, protecting abortion rights, allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs, and keeping the Internet unregulated. Libertarians are much more likely than most Americans to be male, white, and under 50 years old. They are also far less likely than most Americans to be religious and to think that religion has a place in politics. This puts them at odds with “other key Republican base groups” such as the Tea Party movement and white evangelical Protestants.
As befits people who put a high value on individualism, libertarians don’t fit easily into existing political categories even as they are far more likely to pay close attention to politics than the average American (56 percent of libertarians versus just 38 percent) and to always vote in primary elections. “The Libertarian Orientation Scale and traditional measures of political ideology that run along a liberal-conservative axis are only weakly correlated,” according to the survey.
That means that the 22 percent of Americans who are consistent libertarians or lean libertarian are fully capable of throwing any election in their direction. That makes them the true wild cards of American politics. A majority of libertarians describe themselves as independent (35 percent), affiliated with a third party (15 percent), or as Democrats (5 percent), with the remaining 45 percent calling themselves Republicans.
Which is a big reason why calling oneself a libertarian – or allowing oneself to be described as such – has become so popular for politicians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul’s anti-drone filibuster in March became a massive, global Twitter sensation and jump-started a national conversation about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, President Obama’s “kill list,” and other civil liberties concerns.
It was explicitly libertarian in attacking unchecked state power and it drew plaudits from across the political spectrum, with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) actually participating and people from left-wing, anti-war groups such as Code Pink and left-wing journalists such as Glenn Greenwald voicing support. Similarly, Paul’s principled and consistent criticism of military intervention in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere similarly has wide appeal beyond the GOP even as it challenges the party’s pro-war bona fides.
Paul’s libertarian rhetoric suggests one path forward for the Republican Party, even if Paul himself is not a pitch-perfect spokesman. He is, after all, an outspoken opponent of abortion who believes life begins at conception and his views on pot legalization and same-sex marriage leave a lot to be desired from a minimal government perspective. As does his endorsement of and campaigning for Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, who has called for reinstating sodomy laws struck down by the Supreme Court and is not simply against gay marriage but declared in 2009 that “homosexual acts are wrong and should not be accomodated in government policy.” While evangelicals and even Tea Party types might rally around such notions, there’s just no way to spin such positions as in any way, shape, or form libertarian. Yet Cuccinelli, the Old Dominion’s current attorney general, insists that he is “indisputably the strongest liberty candidate ever elected statewide in Virginia in my lifetime” and Paul has critiqued Cuccinelli’s opponent and Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis for suggesting new forms of taxation. “Not a very libertarian idea,” sniffs Paul.
Still, according to the AVS, libertarians are far more favorable toward Paul than other leading Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and Rep. Paul Ryan. But Paul’s willingness to stump for candidates such as Cuccinelli and his willingness to pander to evangelicals surely makes many libertarians wary of either joining up with or staying inside a Republican Party whose rhetorical commitment to limited government has never been matched by its actual policies. If the Republicans can’t figure out a way to accommodate broadly popular, socially tolerant libertarian policies on gay rights, drug legalization, and more, they will not just lose the race for the White House in 2016, but quite possibly their status as a major party.
After a dozen-plus years of government mismanagement of the economy, foreign policy, and basic civil liberties under Republicans and Democrats, a record number of Americans rightly believe that the government has too much power. Libertarians are young, intense, principled, and highly engaged in politics. They are going to be around for a long time to come, and in ever-larger numbers. The only question left unanswered is who they will vote for.