It hasn’t even been a year and a half since journalist Robert Draper wondered at length in the New York Times Magazine whether America was about to begin a “libertarian moment.”
The question seems downright quaint just days before the first actual votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Rand Paul, the man whom Draper and many others anointed as the leader of the revolution, has been languishing in also-ran territory for a solid year in local and national surveys. Instead of being captivated by the Kentucky senator who Time magazine dubbed “the most interesting man in politics,” Republican voters seem to be enthralled by the pronouncements and recriminations of Donald J. Trump, a man whose political views (including his desire to ban all non-citizen Muslims from entering the country, his refusal to change Social Security or Medicare in any way, and his push to deport American citizens who are children of illegal immigrants) are about as far away from libertarianism as you can possibly get.
Trump’s prolonged durability and popularity is a signal indicator that the great libertarian moment not only has not arrived, it probably never will.
Obviously this is something about which self-identified libertarians ought to care but regular conservatives should as well given Ronald Reagan’s proclamation that the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.
There are two primary reasons that libertarianism in America has an uncertain future: 1) the most popular libertarian ideas have already been co-opted by both parties, and 2) the core economic positions of libertarianism are actually rather unpopular with Americans.
On the first point, libertarianism has some popular beliefs but they mostly have been subsumed by one or both of the major political parties. Republicans have begun shifting away from the aggressive foreign intervenionism of the Bush years, Democrats have been pushing for drug legalization, and both parties are now beginning to push for reforms of sentencing guidelines that have had the net effect of imprisoning disproportionately large numbers of black men for petty offenses.
On the second point, it certainly is true that younger adults share a few viewpoints with conventional libertarians—accepting LGBT people and decriminalizing various narcotics—but when it comes to economic issues, survey after survey shows that Millennial voters don’t lean libertarian except on generic questions such as “is government doing too many things” (whatever that means). A significant majority, 68 percent, of adults ages 18 to 29 told Gallup last November that they believed government has a responsibility to provide free medical care to citizens.
As a whole, Americans generally are rather uninterested in libertarian economic ideas. A November 2015 poll from CBS and the New York Times found that 63 percent of respondents favored increased taxes on businesses and high-earning people in order to reduce income inequality. In September, Quinnipiac University found that 69 percent of Americans, including 46 percent of Republicans, believed that our country’s economic system favored the wealthy instead of being fair. That number was not too far removed from surveys discussing the same topic by CBS and the Times, the Pew Research Center, and the Washington Post/ABC News.
Despite such seeming public consensus, (and the above surveys are just a small sampling), some Republican elected officials have tried to push back—probably in response to the fact that while Democrats and independents seem to overwhelmingly favor more taxes and spending, there are some polls which indicate a generic Republican preference for lower taxes and spending—but their specific efforts at doing so in recent years have proved deeply unpopular, even among their own voters.
In November of 2014, President Obama issued an executive order effectively blocking some illegal immigrants from being deported. The order has proved controversial and has been declared unconstitutional by an appeals court (a Supreme Court ruling is expected soon) but some congressional Republicans wanted to do more than just file suit against it, they wanted to temporarily close the entire Department of Homeland Security in response. Others in the GOP wanted a shutdown in order to stop federal funds being disbursed to abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
That shutdown never happened, largely because the congressional GOP leadership was aware of how disastrous previous shutdown efforts had been for the Republican Party. But for the bungled launch of healthcare.gov, it’s likely the congressional GOP would have seen significant losses in the 2014 election. The American public simply does not look fondly on government shutdowns, regardless of whether they’re due to divides over immigration, abortion, spending, taxes, or anything else. Even Republican voters seem to dislike shutdowns. When asked last September by Quinnipiac whether the government should be temporarily closed due to differences over Planned Parenthood funding, 56 percent of GOP voters opposed the idea. A Republican-led shutdown was also foolish because conservatives have basically no advocates in the press, despite the seeming success of Fox News and talk radio.
But temporarily closing portions of the federal government isn’t the only issue where conservative and libertarian activists are at odds with Republican voters. While the GOP base is strongly in favor of lower taxes, it does not favor decreased spending. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2013, Republican-leaning voters were in favor of less spending on only two budget areas, foreign aid and unemployment assistance. Among the public at large, a majority wanted to keep spending the same or increase it on these two issues. Even supporters of FreedomWorks, a libertarian activist group, were uninterested in spending less on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
In the face of such widespread public disagreement, politicians with libertarian economic views have had to bundle their agenda items with other issues in order to build support for themselves. In more extensive research conducted by Pew, people who described themselves as libertarian held several viewpoints that are anti-libertarian such as favoring a more activist foreign policy. In a 2014 survey, Pew found that 43 percent of respondents calling themselves libertarian said it was better for America to be active in world affairs compared to 35 percent of the general public. The differences between the self-proclaimed libertarians and the general public on tolerance for homosexuality and police usage of “stop and frisk” policies were negligible as well. According to Pew, only about 5 percent of Americans can be accurately said to have libertarian viewpoints.
Jerry Taylor—president of the Niskanen Center, one of the few libertarian organizations willing to think differently—describes the situation rather bluntly:
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.
Rather than asking about how libertarianism or economic conservatism could possibly be reformulated to have greater mass appeal, the response of the Right’s intellectual establishment has been to continually delude itself reciting useless shibboleths about the rise of voters calling themselves “independents.” To the great frustration of small-government activists, wave after wave of Republican politicians have been elected promising to massively shrink the federal government despite the fact that their predecessors promised to do literally the same thing years earlier.
After decades of the cycle repeating, it was inevitable that something was bound to happen. The absurdity of an economically conservative Republican elite continually promising the moon to Republican voters who are not particularly libertarian simply could not last forever. That something is Donald Trump, a man whose wealth and fame make him completely unbeholden to the libertarian billionaires who have set the American Right’s policy agenda for decades.
Untethered by the economic conservatism that has held back the less-ideological conservatism of lower-middle-class whites who’ve grown tired of lectures on globalism and lower taxes even as they struggle to find decent jobs, the garrulous reality star’s campaign has consistently led in the polls since July of last year. It’s been the source of great frustration and befuddlement among more ideological conservatives, especially supporters of Ted Cruz, who can’t believe that a man they regard as a arrogant blowhard seems invulnerable to verbal miscues. His many dissents from libertarian desires to privatize or decrease Social Security Spending have similarly irked the right’s intellectuals.
Being both self-aware and shameless, Trump taunted his conservative critics about his supporters’ loyalty last Saturday, joking that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Most stalwart conservative activists seem incapable of understanding that their economic views are unpalatable to most Republicans. One person who has understood the situation is radio host Rush Limbaugh who has been speaking at length about the Trump phenomenon and trying to explain the reality star’s appeal to many of his audience members who just can’t grasp what’s happening.
On his Thursday program, Limbaugh argued that the brash reality star had discovered the Republican Party isn’t based on conservatism:
You may not like it, but it isn’t complicated. I think the reason a lot of people on the right are angry is because you have some hard bitten, thorough, through-and-through, rock-ribbed, totally principled conservatives, and they want the Republican conservative base to be based on a thorough, total, complete understanding and agreement with conservative principles and beliefs as these have been announced by the people that believe in them, the blogs, the think tanks, or what have you.
And what they’re learning here is that, again, not to overdo the phrase, but the degree of conservatism in the Republican Party has been overestimated. It’s not just conservative principles that hold people who are conservative together. There are many different things, and the full-blown conservatives are a little bothered by this because it makes ’em think maybe they’re not that important. It could be bothersome. […]
It isn’t about conservatism. They want to believe that the conservative movement exists because everybody understands the letter of the law on conservatism. Every policy, every philosophy, all the great conservative thinkers, and that’s clearly not why people are calling themselves conservative.
There’s all kinds of other reasons that have nothing to do with the smartest conservatives in the room. So conservatism is not specifically the only glue that’s putting this coalition of people together, and it’s not why Sarah Palin signed up with Trump.
Though Limbaugh would surely hate being looped in with him, the radio host’s monologue has a lot in common with the thoughts offered by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat who argues that the Republican elite is hopelessly and deliberately outmoded: “A large part of the Republican donor class would rather lose with ‘you didn’t build that!’ than compromise on upper-bracket tax cuts,” he wrote last week.
“It would rather try to win Hispanics with immigration reform a hundred times over than try to win them once on pocketbook issues. It prefers to campaign as though it’s always 1980, and has little to say to people who have lost out from globalization and socioeconomic change.
Despite having never run for office before, Trump understands this intuitively. Conservative elites constantly invoke Reagan not just because they admire him but also because they haven’t learned anything new since 1984. The core of Ronald Reagan’s message was libertarianism. The core of Donald Trump’s is nationalism.
Win or lose, his presidential candidacy has changed the Republican Party forever. The anti-libertarian moment has begun.