What Everyone Misunderstands About the ‘Libertarian Moment’

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Pew Millenials

David Frum – shock – doesn’t think the “libertarian moment” has arrived:

Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans’ post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.

This, of course, entirely misses the point of Robert Draper’s recent New York Times Magazine piece on libertarians. For all the Ron and Rand Paul mania, there’s little evidence the GOP has taken much of a “post-2009 libertarian turn” at all. So Frum is right that Republicans haven’t been ushering in some sort of libertarian era, I’m just not sure who’s arguing they have.

Draper’s piece—and those quoted in it, including Reason.com editor-in-chief (and my boss) Nick Gillespie—mostly suggests that, with rare exceptions, Republicans are stubbornly resisting embracing more libertarian ideals, despite the fact that it’s pretty much killing the party. “The Republicans will definitely have to move to the left on social issues,” my colleague Emily Ekins, polling guru for the Reason Foundation, says in Draper’s article. “They just don’t have the numbers otherwise.”

More than ever before, young people are defining themselves as politically independent, according to Pew Research Center and just about everyone else who polls them. But millennials identify as Democrats in similar proportions to older generations; it’s the GOP that’s bleeding young voters into the independent ether.

When libertarians talk about this generation’s potential, it’s not that we’re counting all these independent millennials as libertarian (as some have suggested). Nor do we think that most would identify as libertarian if only they read more about it on Wikipedia. Sure, I think libertarianism might have a bit more appeal to a generation raised on the seemingly endless and indistinguishable Bush/Clinton empire, but I’m not expecting young people to start adopting the libertarian label in droves.

Yet there is possibility for new consensuses, many of which would be appealing from a libertarian standpoint. In an electorate that doesn’t necessarily subscribe to old party divides, there’s potential to rally young liberals and conservatives together on issues like same-sex marriage, privacy, drug policy, and criminal justice reform, to name just a few. These aren’t “libertarian issues”—we’re not trying to own them (as critics also suggest)—but they are areas we’ve been keen on addressing, and it’s great to have allies of whatever stripe.

Frum snidely suggests that “the ‘libertarian moment’ will last as long as, and no longer than, it takes conservatives to win a presidential election again.” And if we’re talking about mainstream modern Republicans dressing themselves up in the label, no doubt. But again, that seems to be something only Frum is talking about. The “libertarian moment”, in so far as any of us think it exists, is about looking beyond party lines. It’s about working and coming together in new ways.

“I have no idea who will be the next president of the United States,” wrote Gillespie Sunday, but it “will matter far less than the broad currents in American society”:

That’s one of the main trends that Reason picked up in its poll of Millennials—not some self-congratulatory discovery that the kids today are junior-varsity libertarians—and folks who don’t want to grapple with that and all its implications will have less and less relevant to say about politics, culture, and ideas.

Or, as Jack Hunter wrote at Rare: “There is a significant difference between trying to make every American a libertarian and making America more libertarian. The former is impossible. The latter is happening.”