Why the libertarian moment fizzled

How did so many pundits misunderstand the Republican electorate?

No one was able to predict the deterioration of libertarians.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Let your mind drift back to a distant, barely remembered past — to the days before Donald Trump seemed capable of wrecking the conservative movement and breaking apart the GOP, before Jeb Bush proved himself to be the Little Candidate Who Couldn't, before Ted Cruz stopped being hated by just about every member of his party. Yes, there was a time, not quite a year-and-a-half ago, when journalists seriously suggested that the country was entering a "libertarian moment" and wondered whether Rand Paul's presidential campaign would serve as its vanguard and herald.

I'm thinking, of course, of Robert Draper's August 2014 New York Times Magazine cover story, and the debate it sparked (on the center-left and center-right) about the possibility of Paul's candidacy transforming the Republican Party into a vehicle for a consistently libertarian agenda. It would feature not just the standard GOP promises to cut taxes, spending, and regulation, but also a forthright embrace of open immigration, an end to the culture war and the war on drugs, and a foreign policy of much greater restraint than even Barack Obama has proposed and enacted.

Yeah, not so much.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The 2016 election cycle is certainly shaping up to be a transformational one for Republicans, just not in a libertarian direction. If anything, Trump's astonishing polling strength (combined with Paul's consistent weakness) has revealed how soft support is for the more libertarian positions favored by the party's elite and its leading donors. In place of open borders, Trump promises mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. In place of cuts in taxes and spending, Trump promises to protect Social Security and Medicare while jacking up taxes on the rich. In place of strategic retrenchment on foreign policy, Trump promises, well, very little beyond a shift to a hard-nosed calculation of national interest backed up by boasts about his personal brilliance and unwavering toughness.

So much for a libertarian moment. A quasi-authoritarian moment might be more like it.

Among libertarians themselves, the temptation will be to blame the messenger: Paul was doing great until he started supporting military intervention against ISIS, foolishly tried to have it both ways on the culture war, and went all crazytown with talk about conspiracies at the Federal Reserve.

Yet the fact remains that Paul is undeniably closer to the libertarian sweet spot than anyone else in the GOP field. He's repeatedly demonstrated this in the debates, going after his rivals for promising to cut spending while boosting the military budget, and mocking his fellow Republicans for courting World War III with talk of shooting down Russia military jets over Syria.

And the result? Nada.

It's important to try to understand why.

If we leave aside the die-hard libertarians staging a rather dramatic anti-government protest out in rural Oregon, the most powerful libertarian trend in recent years has dealt with social and cultural issues. When it comes to legal and moral strictures on drug use and sexuality (including but not limited to homosexuality), the opening decades of the 21st century really do look like a libertarian moment.

But these are issues on which Democrats tend to be more libertarian than Republicans. On the right, the GOP has officially declared allegiance to libertarian positions on taxes, regulation, guns, immigration, and a host of related issues — but the Republican rank-and-file has been a different story.

The Trump campaign has exposed both hostility and ambivalence to libertarian ideas among Republicans (and registered Democrats who usually vote Republican), especially on immigration, taxes, and trade. This anti-libertarian tendency has been picked up by pollsters for years but publicly concealed by the party's consistent fealty to its Grover Norquist/Koch Brothers wing. Even if Trump fails to secure the Republican nomination for president, the party is bound to revise its platform, just as its candidates for office are sure to adjust their appeals, in order to tap into the substantial bloc of voters that has rallied to the Manhattan mogul's populist campaign.

And this raises the intriguing possibility that, even on economics, Republican voters have never been quite as libertarian as their party's platform and candidates would lead one to believe — and that the party may soon begin to more accurately reflect this anti-libertarian reality.

So if you're a libertarian who cares mainly about furthering sexual freedom and eliminating criminal penalties for drug use, the Democratic Party is probably where you belong.

If, on the other hand, you're a libertarian who mainly cares about cutting taxes and regulations while also eliminating obstacles to the free flow of people (immigration) and products (international trade), then the home you've likely made in the Republican Party might become much less hospitable.

As for those consistent libertarians who believe in minimizing government across the board, they're used to feeling ideologically homeless in our political system, with each party upholding and rejecting different elements of the libertarian agenda. Now that the Trumpistas have begun to scramble the Republican Party in a way that further confounds libertarian hopes, the homeless will at least have more company.

Which means that, far from crossing a threshold into some new, distinctively libertarian moment, America remains deeply ambivalent about libertarianism.

Only now perhaps a little bit more than it used to.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us