For a long time now I've been confident that libertarianism, or at least its basic concepts, were the future of American politics. That the blend of fiscal restraint and personal liberty was popular and appreciated by most Americans, and the party that embraced that would be the one that had the most success.
Others seem to be coming to this conclusion as well. Recently in the New York Times, Robert Draper wondered if the "Libertarian Moment" has arrived:
Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.And despite an avalanche of bad publicity, figures such as Koch Brothers, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz are fairly well regarded except by the hard left in America. People admired Ted Cruz for his filibuster because that's how most Americans envision a Senator should behave. Agree or not with what he was trying to do, Americans like a legislator who personally puts it all on the line and actually fights for what they believe in, even at personal cost.
But I have changed my mind. There is and will be no libertarian moment. Americans aren't embracing the movement and its ideals. Sure it kind of looks like maybe the country is in some ways, but looks are deceiving.
I figured this out recently in a discussion on Facebook with a leftist. I posted something by Megan McArdle and noted she leans left (she voted for Obama, is a big homosexual marriage supporter, etc).
The guy immediately rejected my statement and what she said because she was, as he put it, a Libertarian and hence "hard right." He went on to use words like "extremist" to describe her super right wing leanings.
I noted that libertarians are typically conservative on spending and economics, but leftist on social issues. He rejected this as well, stating that while they claimed to be on the left on social issues, they want to cut the government and therefore cannot be leftist. For him, and I suspect most on the left, the litmus test is not what you believe or the issues you hold, but the size of government you believe in.
And that's when the little bell went off in my head. Its true that most Americans want less spending and lower taxes. That's almost universally supported to one degree or another by Americans. Every single American you ask will list areas they think the government should spend less (or nothing) on, and most believe taxes should not be raised and perhaps should be trimmed in some areas at least.
Its also true that many if not most Americans tend to lean somewhat left on many social issues such as drug legalization, abortion, homosexual marriage, etc. If you ask the average American how much the government should be involved in their private life, almost all will say "as little as possible" or "not at all."
But what they mean by that and want is not the same as what Libertarians want and mean. Ultimately, the basic philosophy of libertarianism is "I can do it better than government" and for far too many Americans, their basic philosophy is "government can do it better than me." Libertarians are throwbacks to a previous century, a hundred years or more ago when Americans were best known for being "can-do" and seeing problems as opportunities. When the well ran dry, Americans started looking for ways to get water somewhere else, not begging the federal government for aid and airlifts of water.
This comes up over and over; ask any given American if politicians are any good, and every single one says "they're awful, you can't trust them, they lie all the time, they're corrupt" and so on. But if you ask them about their politician, well suddenly they find reasons why they aren't so bad. Its why congress can have an approval rating of less than 10% but incumbents keep winning reelection.
Cuts to spending tend to be along the same lines. People want spending cut, but they always list spending other than what they benefit from. Everybody wants the spending in other districts and states cut, but not their own. People call for stupid junk like shrimp on treadmill studies to be cut, but Libertarians want things like the department of education and the federal reserve to be cut.
The two sort of sound like they are meeting up, but in reality, they're parallel trains. They both head roughly in the same direction but never match tracks. What Libertarians want and what Americans want sound similar, but when it comes down to actual policy, they diverge significantly.
Which means that libertarian candidates can get great sound bites and initial support from voters, but when it comes down to the long campaign and voting, Americans become disenchanted with the candidates. Talking about cutting the massive size of government down to size appeals to most Americans, but when you get to specifics suddenly they become less appealing.
So we get a situation like now, where Libertarianism seems hip and attractive to young people because they sound like they're singing the same song. But those same young people are the most likely to appeal to government rather than themselves for any solution, and cutting any of that will drive them away.
So yes, Libertarian and American political interests do intersect in some areas: legalizing some drugs, getting the government out of the size of soda cups, etc. But they are like lines drawn on two sheets of stacked glass: from a certain perspective they seem to meet up, but they're still quite a ways apart.
There is no Libertarian moment on the horizon, not until the culture shifts dramatically.
*PS for extra laughs and an astonishing display of political ignorance, check out this story at Talking Points Memo about how Libertarianism's popularity is all an evil scheme by - get this - the Christian Right.