The libertarian moment in American politics—foretold just last year in the New York Times magazine—is like the horizon; always retreating as we advance upon it.
The political events of 2015 are a brutal reminder about how far this country is from embracing libertarianism and how alien those ideas are even to the purported shock troops of the freedom movement. While libertarianism’s opponents can take heart, its champions are setting their cause back by pretending that all is well.
The collapse of the Rand Paul campaign speaks volumes. In a 15-person field, Paul is the only candidate who looks even remotely libertarian (social tolerance, foreign policy restraint, and limited government). He started the campaign with decent name recognition, a seat in the United States Senate, lavish media attention, a serious will to win, and a battle-tested, national political operation inherited from his father, Ron.
If there were any significant support for Libertarian ideas in the GOP—any at all—Rand Paul would be near the top of an otherwise crowded, fragmented field that is fighting over every non-libertarian voter in the party.
If real Libertarian votes were there for the taking, someone would have come along and done the harvesting.
Yet he’s polling at a mere 1 percent among Republican voters nationwide and has a higher unfavorability rating than anyone else in the GOP race.
According to an August survey by the independent polling firm Eschelon Insights, far and away the most popular candidate nationwide among libertarian-inclined Republicans is Donald Trump, the least libertarian candidate in the race.
Libertarians who can’t stomach Trump scattered their support without any ideological rhyme or reason (11 percent for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, 9 percent for Ted Cruz and John Kasich, 8 percent for Carly Fiorina, 7 percent for Paul).
The secret of Trump’s appeal to Paul’s base is that a large segment of the “Ron Paul Revolution” leavened its libertarianism with a pony keg of crazy. Birthers, 9/11 Truthers, a wide assortment of conspiracy theorists (many of whom believe the Federal Reserve to be a modern manifestation of the Illuminati), and naked racists rivaled the number of reasonably sober libertarian-ish voters among the faithful.
Trump won their hearts by throwing even more crazy into the mix and stirring up a white, working class populism last given political life by George Wallace.
Paul let these voters down because he was disinclined to offer the distasteful dog whistles that his father traded for extremist support, much less the louder, baser appeals that are Trump’s stock-in-trade.
The second voter bloc Rand Paul hoped to bring into his camp—Tea Partiers—has likewise rejected the Kentucky Republican. That’s because there are few Libertarians there, either.
According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than half the Tea Party is made up of the religious right while only 26 percent—the smallest ideological bloc within the group—can be loosely described as Libertarian. And Tea Partiers have always manifested a large degree of nativist populism.
It should be no surprise, then, that the candidates doing best with Tea Partiers are Donald Trump (37 percent support), Ted Cruz (19 percent), and Ben Carson (14 percent). Rand Paul? Two percent.
Sure, one can argue that Paul has run a sub-par campaign and that a more adroit effort would have produced better results. But given the above, it is hard to argue, as some do, that Paul would have done better had he run as more of a libertarian.
If real libertarian votes were there for the taking, someone would have come along and done the harvesting.
If there was truly a $20 (electoral) bill lying on the sidewalk, it’s hard to believe that none of the other 14 starving candidates would bother to pick it up.
Yet this is precisely the narrative that the prophets of the Libertarian vote would have us believe: an epic political market failure.
There’s good reason that political professionals—those with the most to gain from an accurate reading of the political landscape—do not pander to the libertarian vote: It doesn’t exist.
The most thorough search for libertarian sentiment was conducted last year by the Pew Research Center. They asked 10,013 adults 23 questions about a variety of social and political issues and then used cluster analysis to sort respondents into homogeneous groups. Pew found that Americans who “resembled libertarians” form a group that is “too small to analyze”: no more than 5 percent of those surveyed.
It’s true that if we avoid asking people about concrete issues and instead ask general questions, we can (if we squint hard enough) see a great deal of latent libertarian sentiment out there.
It has been noted, for instance, that 59 percent of the American public is, broadly speaking, libertarian in that they answer “yes” to the question “Would you define yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” Political scientists and campaign strategists, however, almost universally dismiss self-identification and general sentiment surveys as functionally meaningless. Both academic investigation and hard-earned political experience tell us that attitudes about specific governmental programs are far more telling than asking people what labels or characterizations describe them best.
Libertarians, however, can take heart from the fact that political sentiment is moving their way in some areas. Gay rights, drug decriminalization, increasing outrage over heavy-handed police tactics, growing concern over an unjust legal system, disgust over crony capitalism, and opposition to military deployments abroad all suggest that libertarian arguments can have political force. But just because people buy libertarian arguments when it comes to civil liberties or foreign policy does not mean they are more likely to buy them on taxes, spending, or regulation. If they were, then Bernie Sanders Democrats would be Rand Paul Republicans.
Libertarians love to preach the virtues of markets. Yet in the “marketplace of ideas,” their bundled product has been regularly and thoroughly rejected for over a century.
Until libertarians acknowledge that market verdict and re-think either what they’re selling, how they’re selling it, or both, they will remain on the margins of American political life. And for friends of liberty, that would be a tragedy.
Jerry Taylor is the president of the Niskanen Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the advancement of liberty and pragmatic policy solutions.