Two issues highlight the growing libertarian strain in the country.
The first is legalizing marijuana. For the first time in more than four decades of polling on the subject, a Pew Research Center survey found in April that a majority of Americans (52 percent) favored legalizing it. Among millennials — those born after 1980 — the numbers were significantly higher, with 65 percent supporting legalization.
The second is same-sex marriage. In a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent of all respondents said that gay marriage should be legal, including a whopping 81 percent of those ages 18 to 29.
Polls aside, an analysis of actual votes in the 2012 presidential election also suggests that libertarianism is on the rise. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2012 presidential nominee and the former Republican governor of New Mexico, received nearly 1.3 million votes on Election Day — the first time the party’s nominee had ever taken more than a million votes. (Johnson won 0.99 percent of the overall votes cast, the all-time second highest for a Libertarian candidate, behind Ed Clark in 1980, who took 1.06 percent.)
More telling, however, was then-Rep. Ron Paul’s showing in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Paul, who was the Libertarian Party’s 1988 presidential nominee and continued to espouse the party principles in 2008 and 2012 despite running as a Republican, was the fourth-highest vote-getter in last year’s primary process, winning more than 2 million votes in a campaign fueled by the active support of young voters. Perhaps as important, the Texas congressman raised $41 million for his campaign, the vast majority of that total coming from online donations.
Now, consider all of those data points in light of the still-breaking news of the widespread collection of phone records and Internet data by the National Security Agency, a series of programs that President Obama and his top advisers have described as a necessity to combat terrorism. Combine the growing libertarian strain in the country with the controversy over the government’s encroachment into all aspects of our lives and you begin to see the potency of the message heading into 2016.
All of which brings us to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), son of Ron and the elected official who most clearly embodies the rising tide of libertarianism within the country and within his party.
Paul is responsible for the single most memorable moment in politics this year when he took to the Senate floor in March to filibuster
John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director. Paul’s goal was to highlight the U.S. policy on drones and to raise questions about the possibility of the government targeting U.S. citizens on American soil.
Before it was all over, roughly 13 hours after it had begun, Paul had been joined on the Senate floor by a who’s who of Republican Party luminaries, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the party’s 2016 favorite for president; Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader in the chamber; and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the most recent head of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. Libertarianism had won a victory on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
For his part, Paul has been careful to avoid being labeled as a flat-out libertarian — a categorization that badly hurt his father’s chances at actually being a contender in 2012, considering his strongly stated noninterventionist foreign-policy beliefs. Instead, Rand Paul has sought to create a sort of Republicanism with libertarian principles that fits more comfortably within the bounds of the GOP.
“The way we’re going to compete is by running people for office who can appreciate some issues that attract young people and independents: civil liberties, as well as a less aggressive foreign policy, not putting people in jail for marijuana, a much more tolerant type of point of view,” Paul told Spencer Ackerman during an interview for Wired magazine late last month. (Paul went on to predict that embracing such a view would make Republicans politically competitive in California, which seems a bit far-fetched, at least at the moment.)
Paul’s 2016 candidacy — and he will run for president in three years’ time — will test just how much libertarianism Republicans want in the Grand Old Party. But for a party badly in need of finding new voters open to its message, embracing libertarianism — at least in part — might not be a bad avenue to explore.