How to win libertarians to the GOP (and how not to)
As the election approaches, backers of both major candidates are doing their best to round up any potential uncommitted voters. For the Republicans, one of these target blocs seems to be libertarians, many of whom are planning to not vote, or to support Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson (myself being the latter). However, as Jason expressed earlier this week, these attempts are often counterproductive because conservatives, by and large, do not understand how libertarians think, and thus conversion efforts fall flat.
Now, for my purposes I don’t particularly care who wins this year, because both candidates are frankly awful. As I expressed in my post last week the GOP has in many ways become a joke, dominated by people who add nothing to the intellectual marketplace, and in fact often dumb it down and polarize the country for their own gain. When Mitt Romney expressed his now infamous “47%” theory, he was regurgitating the sort of fact-free nonsense that is rampant on the right. However, there are also those who believe the party has some hope, and offers the best chance for libertarian voices to be heard. If that is the case, though, the party as a whole needs to understand some things about us crazy libertarians, and the current tactics used to convince us are in fact going to do the opposite.
First of all, one needs to understand that libertarians are, almost by definition, fiercely independent. The libertarian worldview is based upon the idea of maximum individual liberty, and the idea that each person ought have the ability to control all aspects of their own lives. So when conservatives try to appeal to us by saying we need to be “team players,” that tends to not work at all. Most of us have tried to work with conservatives, and many are still open to doing that when appropriate. But we don’t see ourselves as members of either “team,” because we largely see both as the same. Furthermore, many libertarians see the “going along with the team” strategy as being a big part of our current problems. We’re tired of accepting the lesser evil.
In order to appeal to libertarians, then, the right needs to understand that most libertarians see themselves as “free agents” who are not tied to any one party. After all, libertarianism is by definition more about ideas than parties, so it makes sense that those adhering to the philosophy would be far more moved by ideas and arguments than collectivism. Conservatives need to make the case for why their party is best, not simply try to bully libertarians into playing along. And, make no mistake, both left and right are highly organized around the collective and the idea of “my side” and the “other side”. This is simply not how myself and most other libertarians see the world (yes, there are some who do, like some of the Paul crowd, but that’s for another post).
Secondly, we genuinely believe in liberty. Certainly conservatives like to say they do, but as Jason pointed out, what they actually believe in is “ordered liberty,” which in many ways is an oxymoron. The conservative concept of liberty still requires a powerful state to “order” it and keep us all within certain boundaries. For example, while the right is generally okay on economic liberty (to a point), they are often wildly wrong on personal liberty. They promote low taxes and cut back regulations, but then argue that I should not be able to use drugs or marry someone of the same gender. To libertarians, these two things are inextricably linked. It matters not that I can spend my money freely if I can’t buy what I want to buy, even if that item is not approved by the moral police.
So in order for the GOP to make progress here, it must make some adjustments. These changes have been suggested by bloggers far and wide, but they still bear repeating. The GOP stance on social issues simply must become more in tune with liberty and less about adhering to religious doctrine. Republican foreign policy still clings to the imperial mindset of the Bush administration, and there are numerous other areas where the GOP platform not only does not stand for liberty, but seeks to actively damage it. They may be better on the economy at least in rhetoric, but on many other issues the GOP record is just as bad as the Democrats, and in many cases worse. The party needs to show that it values liberty in areas beyond unfettered corporations and low taxes.
Finally, conservatives need to spend some time actually learning what libertarians believe, and why we believe it. Take for example libertarian opposition to the War on Drugs. The common assumption I hear from the right is that libertarians are simply potheads who want to smoke weed out in public, and that we view drugs as entirely harmless to society. While there are certainly some who do feel this way, for most of us it’s truly a liberty issue. Many of us have never smoked any kind of drugs and never wish too. Some, like myself, personally hate drugs and choose in our own lives to avoid them as much as possible. But others may choose differently, and putting them in jail helps no one and results in a substantial loss of individual liberty. Yet we cannot even discuss it without being mocked.
Libertarians are not simply conservatives who are socially moderate or liberal. That’s a dramatic cheapening of the ideas and philosophies behind the ideology. We’re coming at things from a different perspective than either the right or the left. Some are Libertarian Party members but many, like myself, see it as rife with its own problems. We’re not at all happy with Obama and most of us have no desire to see him in power for another four years. The thing is, we’re simply not convinced at all that Mitt Romney is any better. That seems to be lost on our conservative friends who would are so filled with hatred for Obama, they would vote for anyone - even the flip-flopping moderate that they all fiercely opposed just months ago. But for those who want to vote FOR something rather than against the other guy, “Not Obama” is simply not enough.
Whether or not Republicans will make the effort to win over libertarians is yet to be seen. I’ve found scant few who are willing to drop the false assumptions and actually have a discussion. They certainly exist, but for the most part we seem to elicit nothing more than frustration from conservatives over our annoying little tendency to be consistent, even if it means not voting or choosing a third-party candidate. For my part I see some reason for hope, but I am very guarded. I tend to agree with my colleague Jeremy who points out that most conservatives treat libertarians with mockery and derision except when they need our votes. They will have to go a long way until I consider them to be anything more then conditional allies.