The Active Fantasy Lives of Libertarians

by John Sides on March 24, 2008 · 10 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political science,Public opinion

In this Politics magazine piece, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch of Reason magazine envision a future when a candidate like Ron Paul is President:

And when that future arrives—and it will, sooner or later—we’ll all look back at the failed campaign of a guy who said he didn’t want to run our lives, the economy, or the world, and wonder what took us so long.

How does one get to such a conclusion? Follow these easy steps:

#1. Extrapolate political trends from cultural trends. Use hackneyed cultural references when possible:

The key to such an optimism is recognizing that politics is a lagging indicator of American society, which has been moving with broadband-like speed [hackneyed #1] into an era of Do It Yourself culture and not-so-rugged individualism. Think of what Americans have come to expect and insist upon in their social and economic lives: increasingly individualized service, culture and consumer products at every level (“You want soy with that decaf mocha frappucino?” [hackneyed #2]); more and more control over education, healthcare and retirement; and a nearly full-throttled embrace of lifestyle tolerance and pluralism that was unimaginable in a pre-Netflix, pre-”Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” pre-iPod America [hackneyed #3, 4, and 5].

Gillespie and Welch will have to explain to me the connection between individualism and “Queer Eye”—perhaps that’s what “not so rugged” implies?—but in any case I can give them one piece of disconcerting news. Every year since 1982, the National Election Studies has asked this question:

Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

The percentage who wanted government to provide many more services has increased in the past 10 years to 43%, while those who want the government to provide fewer services has decreased to 20%. The data are here. Maybe “not so rugged” just means “not.”

#2. Fetishize exotic measures of political success and downplay the ones that count.

To be sure, by every conventional measure Paul’s presidential presidential campaign bid has been an abject failure—not a single primary win and only 14 delegates as of press time. Yet Paul managed to raise more than $20 million, virtually all of it online, and inspire an army of hyper-devoted and mostly youthful followers using a pitch—and a style—that will have much more to do with 21st century politics than whatever models of Buick and Oldsmobile the Democrats and Republicans eventually crank out this year.

Gillespie and Welch go on to mention that Paul had 67,000 people at MeetUp (20 times more than Obama! OMG!) and that Paul won raves from George Will, Johnny Rotten, and a group called “Strippers for Paul.” Yes, clearly the Democrats and Republicans are doomed if their candidates keep earning the support of delegates instead of aging punk rockers and strippers. Delegates are far less sexy, it’s true (although maybe not much less sexy than Johnny Rotten is now), but they actually provide political power. The question to ask is not, “How can the Democrats and Republicans be more like Ron Paul?” The question to ask is, in essence, “How can a candidate like Ron Paul learn to drive a Buick?”

#3. Fail to read political science.

The major political trend of the past 40 years is the inability of the two parties to grow, much less maintain, market share.

Gillespie and Welch cite Harris Polls showing that the percentage of people identifying with the Republican and Democratic parties has declined (from 80% of the public in 1970 to 63% in 2006). But lots of people who purport to be “independent” actually lean toward one of the two parties. Only about 10% of the population, as of 2004, is purely independent (see here). Moreover, the “independent leaners” behave like closet partisans. In 2004, 90% of Democrats voted for Kerry, as did 87% of independents who lean toward the Democratic party. Similarly, 95% of Republicans voted for Bush, as did 89% of independents who lean toward the Republican party. The “myth of the independent voter” has been well-known in political science since at least 1992; see here.

#4. Fail to see the lessons of your own analysis.

Gillespie and Welch cite Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail.

In terms of goods and services, Anderson argues, we are turning “from a mass market into a niche nation.”

This is because half of Amazon’s sales comes from books that are ranked outside the top 130,000 titles. Etc. And here is the contradiction for Gillespie and Welch. Even if Anderson is correct, true political power is not to be found in the niches. Yes, passionate minorities can influence politics, but fundamentally, American politics is organized and structure by the two dominant parties, who of course collude to maintain their own power, as any self-interested political actor would. And parties are composed of diverse groups; they are coalitions, not niche organizations. Libertarians are not going to matter much unless they can transform themselves from a niche catalyzed only by the occasional candidate like Paul to a key player in either the Democratic or Republican coalition (or both!). (I’ve made a similar point in a previous post.)

How boring, I know. But sometimes an Oldsmobile is all you’ve got.

{ 10 comments }

Seth Masket March 24, 2008 at 12:25 pm

Nice post. Did you just call George Will an aging punk rocker? Or a stripper?

Naadir Jeewa March 24, 2008 at 4:36 pm

How long before the first comment that involves a mid-sentence upper-case letter that isn’t part of a noun or name?

tagryn March 24, 2008 at 8:52 pm

Ah, yes. That must explain why POTUS’s proposal to privatize a very modest proportion of Social Security had such overwhelming support by the populace. /sarcasm

Matt Jarvis March 25, 2008 at 5:23 pm

The conclusion, by itself, isn’t THAT far-fetched. We do well to remember that Goldwater got slaughtered in 1964 running on a VERY similar platform to Reagan in 1980.
However, to argue that it’s “going to happen” is tough to do, as you point out. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, but not necessarily for the reasons Gillespie and Welch state.

contrafrutexus March 25, 2008 at 6:11 pm

Well, Libertarianism had better get somewhere sometime soon, or else it stands as being seen as either self-contradictory or in a light most people won’t like.

The self-contradiction would be if the L.P. simultaneously asserted that people can be credibly counted-on to pursue their best interests, and admitted that overwhelmingly people don’t seem to want to vote Libertarian.

The only way out of this is to insist that voting is an inferior way of making decisions when compared to an unfettered market…where rich people (and unnatural “persons”) have much more power than most people do.

This might be true, but it won’t be popular, and would be less and less popular the more on which it were insisted. Everyone is glad that voting isn’t used to decide on what colours we’ll paint our rooms, but mostly people have come to believe that democracy is a good guarantor of a better life (generally construed), and that one of its virtues is that in some things their vote counts exactly as much as that of William Gates III.

(A good Marxist might claim that this is a sham designed to lull people into not protesting too much. I, a Social Democrat, point out that if property rights are subject to less or more of a democratic check, the rich have incentive to see that enough other people have enough property that they’ll continue to support property rights.)

Robert March 25, 2008 at 7:00 pm

The ANES polling is very interesting, thanks. First, it follows the stereotype that males want more gov’t than females, blacks than whites, the poor than the rich — showing that the stereotypes are far from baseless!

Second, it shows what seems to be an oscillation with what might be a regular period. If we’re at the peak now for desire for gov’t services, then that would predict we’re about to start back down toward nadir; there doesn’t seem to be much movement since 2000, which would seem to indicate its having reached an extreme.

XXX March 25, 2008 at 8:47 pm

“…follows the stereotype that males want more gov’t than females…”

I thought that in the US there was a gender gap, and females were more left wing than males.

Which one is it?

John Sides March 25, 2008 at 9:57 pm

Women are more in favor of government spending than men, using the NES question in the original post. But the difference is not huge: in 2004, 47% of women vs. 39% of men.

The results are here:
http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/2ndtable/t4a_5_2.htm

anonymous March 26, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

Do you think the results of this survey would be different if it said this:

Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce taxes. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in taxes. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?

TGGP March 26, 2008 at 5:52 pm

The source of their error is that they are part of the cosmopolitan wing of libertarianism, in love with their own hipness. The more paleo wing recognized that we are utterly and truly screwed, the sytem is rigged against liberty, and voters will never support it (which is why democracy is a bad idea). The only hope is to maintain a remnant for when the whole house of cards comes down.

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