How The Libertarian Resurgence Collapsed


Say… do you remember Rand Paul? No, not Ron. The other one with the Senate seat from Kentucky. Yeah, what ever happened to that guy?

Jason Farrell has an interesting essay this week at Western Journalism called Why Libertarians Are Failing At Politics and it offers a fairly good explanation of how Rand wound up at the bottom of the GOP primary battle. In the end, it actually has little to do with the man’s likability or his basic appeal as a candidate or his skill set in the American Game of Thrones. In some other alternate universe Paul would probably be a potent competitor. But in the end, it wasn’t that Rand Paul the person was rejected by rank and file Republicans… they just couldn’t handle all the libertarianism.

The lack of a broad-based movement, despite a number of high profile campaigns and events, is a bitter pill for libertarians who believe in electoral politics. Having libertarians in office may help raise the profile of issues like overcriminalization, tech freedom, and the insanity of the drug war. But those who await a libertarian takeover of the GOP misunderstand the fundamentally radical nature of libertarian ideas and how deeply that radicalism conflicts with the perceptions most Americans have about the role of government.

Trump supporters are a grim reminder that millions of voters view the government as a hammer that can be wielded to smash opposing values or groups and force their beliefs on others. Educating the electorate about libertarian ideas misses the fact that they have no real incentive to learn; most don’t care about the relationship between man and state and likely never will, as long as the state continues to provide the stability they have come to expect. Ron Paul’s success in 2008 and 2012 can largely be credited to the mortgage crisis; once the sting faded, so did support for his radical ideas.

Libertarians have had their fleeting moments of success and seen periods when some of their policies have enjoyed broad support. The idea of a non-interventionist America gained a lot of steam as people became more and more weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dream of freeing people from the oppressive grip of Big Brother when it comes to things like decriminalizing certain drugs also gained majority support. Further, the libertarian tendency to reject political power and a large central government makes for a good ad campaign at a time when the popularity of Congress is roughly the same as that of scabies. But as Farrell notes, the true roots of the libertarian movement in that regard is the poison hidden inside the pill. We’re talking about a political ideology seeking a seat at the table in electoral politics when they fundamentally abhor political power to begin with.

Their wild oats proclivities don’t sit well with liberal in too many cases, but they were never going to take over the conservative wing of the GOP either. The fact is that both conservatives and libertarians like to talk about the virtues of small, limited government, but that’s only the icing on top of the cupcake. Underneath it all, the libertarians are far more hardcore and would actually prefer no government if such a feat could be managed. Modern conservatives, on the other hand, talk a good game about small government but they still like to employ the federal hammer provided it’s aiming at the right nails.

So what was Rand Paul to do? He couldn’t go all full bore, Big L Libertarian on us or he’d scare off too many voters. But by moderating his positions into a sort of cafeteria libertarianism, he turned his mantra into what Farrell describes as, “a flimsy millennial conservatism: Fiscally conservative, socially liberal and completely powerless, a mashup of existing ideas better espoused by other parties and ideologies.”

That sort of describes Rand Paul’s platform to a T when I come to think about it. He was faced with two choices when he sought to take his show to the national stage and neither of them were ever going to succeed. He could stay fully true to his libertarian roots and turn off everyone or cherry pick a few subjects to focus on under the guise of the conservative flag and have to compete with some armed-for-bear, three legs of the stool, rock ribbed conservatives like Ted Cruz. Much of this probably explains why he’s hovering somewhere around the background noise level in the polls today.

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