In November 2008, it wasn’t only the Democrats who cheered as the Republican Party suffered electoral catastrophe. Across the country, pockets of people huddled around TVs and computer screens, celebrating the defeat of John McCain, and scores of other Republicans lower down the ticket. They were the libertarians.
Strangely, 2008 was a good year for the defenders of liberty. This may sound ludicrous, given that the hard-left won control of both Congress and the White House, but the global economic downturn spurred a rapid mobilization of libertarian activists dedicated to paring back the power of government. The two major political parties had easily dismissed the libertarians as a radical fringe, but with profligate congressional spending reaching record levels, large numbers of people were drawn to the banner of liberty.
Two years later, and the revolution shows no sign of abating. Libertarian Rand Paul – son of Congressman Ron Paul – will likely win a Senate seat in November, and elsewhere incumbent legislators are being threatened by challengers committed to smaller, less intrusive government.
That this is the case can be attributed in large part to the decay of the Republican Party, which by 2008 was devoid of policy innovation. Libertarian critics charged that the GOP was corrupted by power, and had been high-jacked by a small cabal of neoconservatives bent on American imperialism and bloated government spending. Small wonder some voters were driven into the arms of Ron Paul and Bob Barr when the Republican leadership gave America the Iraq War, Medicare expansion, and banking bailouts.
The question libertarians must now ponder is how to capitalize on their successes. If the gains glimpsed over the last two years are not sustained, the critics of the libertarian movement, who charge that it is merely a political sideshow, will be proven correct. Given that unfunded entitlement programs are growing exponentially under the Obama administration, the next few years could prove an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for libertarians to articulate their ideas.
Alternatively, libertarians may be swept away by an unfettered march toward federal government expansion.
For ideological purists, future success lies far away from the GOP. The Tea Party movement or a collection of local parties with a regional base are the best vehicles to drive a message of small government.
According to this argument, the Republican Party is morally bankrupt, devoid of ideas, and on an irreversible electoral decline. The GOP, the party which expanded the federal deficit to eye-wateringly high levels and engaged in aggressive adventurism abroad, can no longer be counted on as the party to defend individual freedom.
Yet this course is fraught with difficulty. The Libertarian Party, a long-standing American third party, has a pitifully small base of only 200,000 hardy souls, a figure totally unreflective of the degree of libertarian sentiment in the land. Its membership is largely comprised of policy wonks, students, and ideological purists, who hardly make ideal foots soldiers in the ground game that is politics. Their lack of numbers translates into consistently poor showings at election time, and the Libertarian Party suffers from a chronic shortage of cash.
Even if such problems were surmounted, an independent Tea Party or other similar party would still have to contend with older, better established rivals who have cultivated a brand loyalty among millions of voters. Barring some once-in-a-lifetime event, these bonds between voter and party will be all but impossible to break. In 2008 for example, the nadir of Republican electoral fortunes, 46% of people still cast their ballots for Senator John McCain. Even the most zealous of libertarians would concede that that is an impressive showing for a candidate laboring under the disasters of the previous administration.
The lack of a viable alternative leaves the libertarians in the unenviable position of having to work within the Republican Party apparatus. This will not be an easy task. A tainted brand, a culture of corruption, and a tendency to ramp-up government programs in the desire to sustain power are but a handful of the problems that beset those seeking to change the GOP. But by far the greatest problem is the fact that the Republicans may be on a course of permanent decline.
President Obama won two-thirds of the youth vote, an achievement mirrored only by Ronald Reagan in 1980. That election ushered in a period of Republican hegemony. Likewise 2008 may have been the opening act in what may be a generation of Democratic supremacy. With the wind behind the Democrats back, libertarians hoping to reshape the GOP into a viable political party face a daunting task.
Libertarians will also find it difficult to engage some of the Republican’s core constituencies. The acolytes of neo-conservatism still retain a strong presence in the GOP, despite delivering the United States two expensive, protracted, foreign wars. Likewise certain social conservatives, still lobbying for intrusive constitutional amendments in order to protect marriage and the unborn, will sit uneasily with a libertarian movement dedicated to states rights and personal freedoms. Tempers often fray when libertarians point out the ideological inconsistency of those who advocate for federal regulation of a woman’s body while opposing federal regulation of such things as CO2 emissions.
Yet despite these difficulties, the situation is not beyond rescue. In fact, a libertarian movement properly disciplined, focused, and motivated would be ideally placed to lead the GOP back from the wilderness.
Already tea party activists have chosen strong defenders of liberty as their candidates in a string of Republican primaries. Whatever the outcome of the elections in November – one thing is clear: there will be many more libertarians in next Congress.
The principle reason why the libertarians can and ought to assume the leadership of the GOP is clear – demographics. Older voters are dying off, replaced by a zealous and youthful electorate enamored by Barack Obama and his leftist friends. The establishment GOP has utterly failed to connect with these types of voters. To compound this, socially conservative leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson are either dying or retiring. In their stead a new generation of religious voters are emerging, who place less emphasis on foreign aggression and homosexual persecution, such as California’s Rick Warren.
Given such irreversible long term trends, it is likely that a strong libertarian grassroots network could challenge established hierarchies in the GOP and lobby for overdue policy changes. The swarms of libertarians who descended on the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last February under the banner of the Campaign for Liberty is evidence of the people-power the libertarian movement now commands.
For the libertarians to succeed in reintroducing the nation to the Jeffersonian principles of limited government and personal responsibility, they need a party. The GOP is that party. Neo-cons and DC hacks should not be allowed to vandalize the Republican brand any longer. If the libertarian movement is to thrive over the coming years, it must move beyond its distaste of the GOP and work within its proven party apparatus. Libertarians should take their lead from Ron Paul, who remains a registered Republican. If the good doctor from Texas can remain part of the GOP, his supporters ought to follow his lead. With momentum behind them, the libertarians just might turn out to be the life, soul, and future of the Republican Party.
Dan Whitfield is a writer living in Washington, DC, specializing in the conservative routes of America’s founding. Previously Dan worked for the Leadership Institute, America’s largest training organization for conservative activists.