The Libertarian Party is largely a refuge for protesters and others on the fringe of the nation’s political life. It garnered less than 1 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, and will probably remain irrelevant.
Even if the main parties left a door open for a neophyte party, it’s doubtful that amorphous, conflicted “libertarians” could manage to take the opportunity. Besides, neither Democrats nor Republicans are likely to release their firm grip on election laws and the shared system of spoils that make the two main parties dominant.
Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that libertarian sensibilities are not big and growing bigger, especially among youth and younger adults.
That political trend is not lost on the main parties. One can fairly conceptualize much of present national politics as a competition between the Republican and Democratic parties for the attentions and allegiance of the growing libertarian sector, however defined. The dominant parties recognize that independent libertarian views are swinging many national, state and local debates.
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So just what is a libertarian view, anyway? It’s commonly said to be socially liberal but economically conservative, but it’s more complex than that. When addressing practical policies, libertarian sensibilities can lead down diverging roads on social and economic issues.
Consider the abortion debate. Democratic libertarianism focuses on the individual woman’s right to keep the government’s hands off her body and out of her reproductive decision-making. Republican libertarianism focuses on protecting unborn life from slaughter in a callous, amoral, governmentally-designed abortion system.
As strange as it may seem, both wings of the abortion debate share a common element of libertarianism -- distrust of government’s concern for, and ability to protect, individual interests.
We also see a complex stew of libertarian reactions to gay marriage. Some see the question as one of personal liberty for those with nontraditional sexual preferences to be treated equally by government. Others view it as an unwarranted incursion by government into private morality, religion and social norms. From both perspectives, the general goal is to restrain government from one kind of interventionist mischief or another.
Libertarian perspectives also come into play in security and foreign affairs. Although Libertarians are mainly skeptical about big government adventurism abroad, libertarian-leaning folks are conflicted about the extent to which external threats to our system of liberties are sufficiently serious to warrant some loss of Americans’ privacy, convenience and other liberties.
Some are so concerned by the Islamic jihadists’ onslaught against those liberties that they’re willing to sacrifice some of those liberties to protect the system of liberties. On the other hand, some believe the jihadists win automatically if we allow our traditional liberties to be compromised in the name of defense. So we just can’t say for sure where Libertarians will come down on things like widespread government eavesdropping to catch terrorists, drone strikes against terrorists, and prisons like Guantanamo.
On economic matters, Libertarians are sometimes said to be great fans of free markets, but that misses something important -- at least to many Libertarians who acknowledge a necessary role for government in keeping the playing field level, the financial system in order, and debt in check. Libertarians also tend to eschew over-reliance on permanent welfare, but don’t favor wholesale abandonment of the safety net or exclusion of “illegal” youth from citizenship.
The practical frontiers of independent libertarianism remain shifting, indistinct and up for grabs, increasingly critical to the main parties.
Will Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio make the Republican Party more amenable to the emerging libertarian independents?
Will Democrats continue their recent appeal to those independents leaning libertarian, as evidenced in various post-mortems of the 2012 election?
At the Supreme Court, the justice who most leans libertarian, Anthony Kennedy, has remarkable sway over the Court’s direction. The same will likely be true in the nation as a whole for independent voters who lean libertarian. They will soon become, if they are not already, a bloc that can and probably will decide many national directions.
Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School and counsels politicians of both parties on election law and politics.