Republican senator Ted Cruz speaking to a conference of social conservatives. When this guy is considered a leading figure in your party, you're a long way from libertarianism. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
If you’re bored with the political news this summer – it’s not an election year and Congress is in recess after doing diddly squat for six months – you can always read about how the United States is having a “libertarian moment”. The idea is that after decades of being bandied about by eccentric middle-aged white men and collegiate stoners who made zines and unreadable websites, libertarian principles are finally entering the mainstream.
Most articles on the subject first bring up Rand Paul – son of Ron, hater of drones and the NSA, would-be friend of Silicon Valley’s money, painfully awkward ambassador of the white race and the most prominent libertarian-ish politician in the country. They then go on to mention that Paul’s antigovernment views and relatively liberal opinions on social issues make him a model for how Republicans can attract the young voters who have largely abandoned the party. (VICE itself took this tack last year.) The “libertarian moment” discussions will also invariably feature polls that show a majority of Americans favour legalieing weed and gay marriage, both issues that libertarians have been talking about for years. (Name something, and libertarians will be in favour of legalising it.) The final ingredient in the libertarian article recipe is the Tea Party’s influence in Congress. When the Kansas City Star wrote about this, the paper referred to senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and representative Tim Huelskamp (along with Paul, of course) as “libertarian Republicans” and noted their opposition to NSA wiretapping and Obamacare. If you’re keeping score at home, the equation generally works like this:
Young People Hold Antigovernment Views +
Rand Paul! +
The Tea Party’s Influence (a.k.a. Stranglehold) on Congress +
Americans Tolerating Weed and Gay People =
A Strain/Rising Tide/Explosion/Pick Your Metaphor of Libertarianism in America
The thing is, I’m not sure this math holds up in the real world. To start at the bottom of the equation, it’s true that America is a far more tolerant place for gay people who want to celebrate their legal marriage by lighting up a fat blunt. But though those causes have libertarian support behind them, the proweed and antihomophobia movements have been fueled by liberals; it’s Democrats, not right wingers, who have advocated for gay rights and tried to push marijuana legislation at the federal level. And many libertarians favour decriminalising all drugs in the name of individual liberty, which is several steps further than most pot activists are willing to go.
America’s increasing permissiveness toward what used to be called “alternative lifestyles” has nothing to do with the conservative Republican politicians elected thanks to the Tea Party. Many of the legislators who get referred to as “libertarian Republicans” by some media outlets are guys like Kansas’s Tim Huelskamp. Since his election in 2010, Huelskamp has backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and wants to “secure the border”, both positions that would involve the federal government becoming larger for the express purpose of telling people what type of love is valid and where they can travel. Hardly sounds libertarian, does it?
The most politically potent manifestation of the Tea Party is Texas’s Ted Cruz, who has allied himself with Paul in the debate over the NSA’s surveillance programs and will presumably be competing with him in the GOP presidential primary. (That is, if he can overcome the handicap of being Canadian.) Cruz is antigovernment in the sense that he hates taxes and everything Obama does or might do, but like most Tea Partiers he’s less “libertarian” when it comes to personal freedoms. He opposes gay marriage, wants to keep Guantanamo open and is fond of fear-mongering about “creeping Sharia” and Communists in Harvard’s law school. Not surprisingly he's a huge hit whenever he speaks to social conservatives who might help him in presidential primaries; these are the folks who want to get the government off the backs of straight white men, and they eat up all the red meat Cruz throws at them.
Rand Paul, by the way, is going to those same conferences for pretty much the same reasons as Cruz. In an interview with Wired from earlier this year, Paul said, “The way [the GOP is] going to compete is by running people for office who can appreciate some issues that attract young people and independents: civil liberties, as well as a less aggressive foreign policy, not putting people in jail for marijuana, a much more tolerant type of point of view.” But when he’s not talking to youth-friendly tech magazines, he’s making sure that evangelical Christians know he doesn’t want to end the war on drugs, and he’s even making neocon-ish noises about how evil Iran is and how special the US’s relationship to Israel is. Obviously, he needs the support of traditional social conservatives and the Israel lobby if he ever wants to become president, and that’s the core of the problem with all the narratives about the GOP becoming more libertarian.
The activists who vote in primaries—especially in important presidential states like Iowa and South Carolina—aren’t pot smokers who want the government out of people’s personal lives and think drone strikes amount to state-sanctioned murder. (Republicans are actually more likely than Democrats to approve of drone strikes.) The GOP base is made up of evangelical pastors and Tea Party conservatives who want candidates who will crack down on illegal immigrants, socialists, Muslims, voter fraud and whatever other bogeymen are in their heads. Ron Paul ran the most organised libertarian-ish campaign in years during the 2012 primaries and ended up being an also-ran as usual. Rand may really be more of a traditional conservative than his dad, or he might just be pandering to the GOP base in order to get closer to the White House. Either way, if he winds up being the Republican candidate for president he’s going to be running on a familiar platform: libertarian when it comes to being against taxes and regulations that could affect large corporations, but not when it comes to foreign policy, gay marriage, the war on drugs and immigration. Young voters who dislike the government will once again have to pick between two sides that want to expand the powers of the state, just in different directions.
To be clear, I’d like it if there were a major political party that was libertarian in nature (after all, I cast my ballot for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who wound up with about 1 percent of the vote). How great would it be if, for instance, the right responded to Democrats’ claims that government should expand in order to protect the rights of the poor and minorities by pointing out all the ways government policies destroy poor communities and calling for an end to the war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex? But that’s not happening. On a few issues, like internet censorship, the Republican Party has adopted a libertarian (or libertarian-ish) approach, and there are a few Republican Congressmen, notably anti-NSA crusader Justin Amash, who seem to hold a fairly wide range of libertarian beliefs. But these are isolated incidents – in fact, last month the Republican establishment opposed Amash’s antisurveillance bill.
Since the party’s 2012 defeat, there’s been a lot of talk in political publications about how to “fix” the GOP. Generally, writers have recommended that Republicans run candidates that have libertarian views on social issues so they can appeal to young people, which dovetails with an idea circulating in the blogosphere called “libertarian populism.” The latter is basically an ideology that is pro-free market, anti-interventionist when it comes to foreign policy and opposed to both big government and big corporations. Those might be good ideas, but they don’t seem to have a constituency beyond a bunch of bloggers who need something to debate in between elections, and there has yet to emerge a flesh-and-blood candidate who is running for office on a libertarian, anticorporate, antiwar platform. The Republican Party hasn’t embraced libertarianism for the simple reason that the people who belong to the party and vote in its primaries aren’t libertarians.
Maybe some of these young libertarians I keep hearing about will infiltrate the Republican Party and wrest it away from the social conservatives. But it doesn’t seem all that likely. We’ve been here before – in 1971, a pair of young writers announced in the New York Times Magazine that there was a new movement bubbling up on the right wing and that “liberalism, conservatism and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies.” Their big emergent new idea that would counter mainstream politics as they existed on both sides of the political spectrum? Libertarianism. Maybe we should check back in on the libertarian moment in another 40 years.
More on libertarians: