I’ve got these two friends.
One of them is named Danny. Danny and I met in preschool back in 1985. At the time I had a word retrieval problem and he had blindingly blond hair. We got into all kinds of things together as kids. We rode rollercoasters at Six Flags, bought musket balls in Colonial Williamsburg; we pretended we were airplanes and decided we were going to be garbage men when we grew up. Here’s what Danny looked like as a child:
These days Danny lives in Virginia Beach. He’s 30 and works at a McCormick & Schmick's. This is him now:
My other friend is named Matt. Matt and I met three years ago at a party that my girlfriend (now fiancée) took me to in Arlington, Virginia. Most of the kids there were friends of hers, so I was the odd man out. But Matt and I hit it off. We just took a liking to each other. Hi-fived a couple times, got drunk, took a bottle of Sambuca into my car and listened to Van Halen. Ever since then, when we hang, we hang Romano.
Matt is 26 and does improv comedy at Second City in Chicago. Here he is:
I’ve been talking with Danny and Matt quite a bit as of late. The topic of conversation has been politics. Danny and Matt are libertarians.
Most people, when they think of a libertarian, picture some kind of outsider, a weirdo – a lip-smacking Texas fireworks salesman in a ten-gallon hat, or someone like that sloshed constitutionalist whose DUI arrest video went viral last year. I’ve often heard liberals write libertarians off as “idiots.” But Danny and Matt are two of my best friends, and they aren’t idiots. They’re smart, thoughtful guys. I don’t exactly agree with their politics, but I understand where they’re coming from. Both voted for Obama in 2008. Now they can’t stand him. But they’re not so keen on Romney or the political right, either. Danny and Matt are fed up with everything, the whole political system.
“I see shenanigans,” Danny told me. “As an American, and even going back historically, being a Virginian – part of a legacy of people who stand up to power – I think the reality is that the government can’t solve our problems at this point.”
Matt, remarking on the federal government’s appetite for spending, said: “It’s like we have this plate full of food, and it’s just an enormous plate. It’s obscenely huge. We’re never going to finish it. But we just keep adding to it and piling on.”
While both of these complaints are standard republican talking points, Danny and Matt differ from the average GOP member in that neither is socially conservative.
“I think conservatives went to shit with Jerry Farewell and the Moral Majority,” says Matt.
And they aren’t into war.
“I went off the handle,” says Danny, “because I realised that we weren’t gonna’ pull out of Iraq, we weren’t gonna’ pull out of Afghanistan. I was so intrigued with Obama. I had champagne ready on election night. I thought America was back. But Obama, he didn't close Guantanamo Bay. He says we pulled out of Iraq but if you look into it you'll see we traded reserve soldiers for contractors. Guns for hire. And now they're ramping up rhetoric against Iran!”
Like it or not, more and more young Americans are thinking just like Danny and Matt. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that many young voters are embracing libertarian ideals, perhaps without even realising it.
Voters ranging in age from 18 to 29, the poll found, were neither here nor there on a traditional left/right political spectrum, and many displayed lukewarm feelings towards liberalism. Few, for instance, put faith in the government’s ability to stimulate the economy through spending (what’s known as Keynesian economics), less than half thought the government should provide free health care to those who can’t afford it and a remarkably small number – just 28 percent – thought the government should prioritise environmental concerns like global warming over economic concerns. At the same time, these voters backed away from social and neo-conservative ideals: they weren’t anti-gay, they didn’t like religion in their politics and they tended to pooh-pooh preemptive war.
What remained, political scientists and pollsters noted, looked an awful lot like the silhouette of libertarianism, a political philosophy that champions small government and tolerant social attitudes (think Soundgarden’s “My Wave”) and – that especially for youngsters – is fueled by a deep distrust of mainstream politics.
That distrust isn’t surprising, if you think about it. Over the past decade young Americans have been jerked around under the leadership of both political parties: They came of age in the aftermath of 9/11; watched the Enron and Catholic Church scandals unfold; saw two wars (one of which was premised upon a lie) roar into being and then drag on and on; witnessed the near-legalisation of torture; the jaw-dropping incompetence that was the federal response to Hurricane Katrina; the downgrading of our national debt, which continues to balloon; they struggled mightily, and continue to struggle, to get a start in life as a result of the depressed economy; they’ve seen culture wars rage; the middle class shrink; the death of Obama’s promise of hope; the government favour Wall Street over Main Street and the emergence of super corporations; they’ve even seen the Cheshire grin of Herman Cain. But will their angst and anger end up meaning anything? I posed the question to John Zogby, a veteran political pollster.
“It could spell trouble for Obama,” Zogby said. “Over the years, young voters haven’t been critical to national elections. But they’ve been critical as of late, certainly to Obama. They were essential in 2008 because their turnout increased dramatically, and he got their support by a factor of two to one. So it was a bigger pie in general, and Obama got a bigger piece of it.”
“But flip over to 2012,” he said, “and what you see is a lack of enthusiasm and a lack of confidence, not only in Obama, but in everybody, in everything. And so instead of Obama getting 66 percent of the young vote, the poll I did in May had him at 46 percent, and if that keeps up it could be disastrous.” Young voters won’t go for Romney, Zogby said. But it is possible that some could be siphoned off by Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate.
“The battle over the young vote is going to take place on college campuses, and isn’t going to be Obama vs. Romney,” Zogby said, “It’s going to be Obama vs. Johnson.” That’s the short-term. In the long run things are a bit foggier.
Emily Ekins, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and the director of polling at the Reason Foundation, has been studying the voting habits of young voters. "The old way of viewing the world as just being left and right,” she said, “with young people, it’s likely not going to continue being reality."
And where political reality could break down, she says, is over social issues. Ekins tracked self-identified conservatives under the age of 35 on social, fiscal and foreign policy issues using data dating back to 2004. Over time, they remained fiscally conservative, but grew more and more socially liberal – a classic libertarian mix. And if the precepts of political science have anything to say about it, she says, it looks as though they’ll stay that way.
“If people do change over time,” Ekins explained, “they tend to become more economically conservative. But that’s typically not the case with social issues. So what we've seen is something like a permanent shift, starting now, over social issues.” If Republicans want to get those votes, she said, they’ll need to soften their stance on social conservatism. If Democrats want them, conversely, “they’ll have to clamp down on being so economically liberal."
Bottom line, one party or the other will need to change the way it does business.