Libertarians Still Wandering the Wilderness

Harold Meyerson is right, I think, that many, perhaps most, libertarians are put off by the seeming, sometimes seething, intolerance at work in today’s Southern-dominated GOP. With every gay-bashing innuendo that a Republican lobs, they surely lose more libertarian votes. For the latest instance of this (and evidence that it’s not just white, Southern Republicans who pull this pathetic trick), take a peek at the sad-sack campaign of the Republican Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, which is now suggesting that the Democratic frontrunner, Ted Strickland, is a closeted homosexual.

All the support in the world of the Second Amendment can’t erase that sort of crapola. (Which is crapola on at least two levels: First, the charge is clearly without basis. Second, who cares if Strickland were gay? The real sin of the nation’s only known gay governor, Jim McGreevey, wasn’t his sexual orientation but his idiotic tax regime.) And neither can rhetoric about limited government, lower spending, and reduced taxes–especially coming off the orgy of spending and intervention (both overseas and at home, in cases ranging from Terri Schiavo to legal medical marijuana dispensaries in California) the Republicans have orchestrated since taking full control of the federal government.

David Boaz and David Kirby are also correct that “the libertarian vote is in play” and that it is big enough to swing elections (indeed, in the next issue of Reason, we ask political operatives for the Dems, Reps, and Libertarians–including one Markos Moulitsas–why small ‘l’ libertarians should vote for their candidates). Back before the 2004 election, Reason did an admittedly unscientific and possibly unrepresentative survey of libertarian-leaning intellectuals, writers, and wonks. Titled “Who’s Getting Your Vote?”, the results were pretty striking: John Kerry did as well as, or maybe better than, George W. Bush. Unsurprisingly, the Libertarian Party candidate, Michael Badnarik, did very well as did the non-voting option. It seems clear that any longstanding libetarian leaning toward the GOP has been severely strained by, well, the GOP’s behavior as the party in power.

But what remains more striking to me is the sense of exhaustion and reluctance that pervades libertarian voters. In our 2004 survey, University of Chicago legal eagle Richard Epstein didn’t know the name of the LP candidate but said he’d vote for him — “anyone but the Big Two.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray, said, “Reluctantly — very reluctantly — George Bush,” a sentiment echoed by Reason Foundation founder Bob Poole. John Perry Barlow was pulling the lever for Kerry, “though with little enthusiasm.” The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman was mulling over a Kerry vote, though he expressed “only the dimmest hopes for a Kerry presidency.” Columnist Nat Hentoff refused to vote for anyone “at the top of the ticket.”

You get the picture. Such sentiments can only have been exacerbated over the past two years, as the Dems and Reps do everything in their power to alienate socially tolerant and fiscally conservative libertarians. These are not people without energy and enthusiasm for politics; these are people who care passionately about public policy on all levels. They are not ripe for the picking in the sense they’re looking for a team to join unthinkingly and unswervingly. But they recognize that politics is the art of the possible and they have shown a willingness to vote for candidates that, in the aggregate, promise to defend or increase cultural and economic liberty. Which raises the question for the two major parties, more or less deadlocked in terms of electoral success and desperately in need of votes either to maintain or regain power: What are you doing to win over up to 14 percent of the electorate in a political climate where many elections are decided by less than 5 percent?

What we’ve seen since the Republicans took control of Washington is appalling. What we’ve seen from the Democrats in this Cato Unbound debate (and on the campaign trail so far) is uninspiring. That suggests to me that libertarian voters will remain an underutilized resource in American politics.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of, argues that the libertarian Democrat’s time has come. Moulitsas says that GOP dominance has been a disaster for limited government and civil liberties, and that growing corporate power poses a grave threat to individual liberty and necessitates government action. “[W]e’ve seen that [the Republican Party] is now committed to subverting individual freedoms,” writes Moulitsas, “while the [Democratic Party] is growing increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which restrained government, fiscal responsibility and–most important of all–individual freedoms are paramount.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Moulitsas, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, does not try to claim the libertarian mantle: “[I]f you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic,” Reed recommends. But, Reed argues, there are reasons for more moderate libertarians to support Democrats. “Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government?” Reed asks. “Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?” Reed’s answer: The Democratic Party.

  • Washington Post columnist and The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson argues that Democratic overlap with libertarianism in matters of civil liberties cannot extend to the economic domain. “The central insight of 20th century liberalism,” Meyerson writes, “was that freedoms conflict, that a company’s freedom to dominate the marketplace was often in conflict with a consumer’s freedom to find a product at a fair price, or a workers’ freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process.” Today, Meyerson argues an increase in economic insecurity demands an increased role for the state. “Ultimately, the Democrats aren’t going to proceed very far down the libertarian road, for one simple reason that’s far more pragmatic than philosophic: It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

  • Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, likes the idea of libertarian Democrats, and notes that there are a few, but “when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.” Commenting on the previous essays, Gillespie writes that “even as Moulitsas is ostensibly trying to woo libertarians to vote for Democrats, he spends a good chunk of his essay lecturing his audience like a Hyde Park autodidact about the need for publicly financed roads and education, and railing against that great abstraction of ‘unaccountable corporations’ that lead us into war, make us breathe dirty air, and steal our retirement savings.” Gillespie finds Reed “even less engaging,” while Meyerson’s “uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006.”