If They Want to Win, Libertarians Need To Rebrand

A debate featuring many of the candidates seeking the Libertarian Party created some ruckus within libertarian inner circles.

Party front-runner Gary Johnson, who was the 2012 nominee, shrugged off a question regarding the “non-aggression principle” and its relationship to the United States Constitution. This specific principle purports that aggressive coercion should never be initiated by individuals or the state; it can only be used in self-defense. Many libertarians consider this to be the keystone of their political philosophy.

Josie Wales—a libertarian activist and editor at the Free Thought Project who served on the panel—challenged Johnson’s response to the question, calling NAP a “basic libertarian principle” and suggested that he should be able to address the question if he wants to be considered a legitimate candidate for the party. She later followed up with a Facebook post claiming Johnson was “either lying or an idiot” based on his response.

It’s easy for any school of thought to turn into an echo chamber of ideological purists and “true Scotsmen.” Libertarians are no exception to this pattern of behavior. But at what point does a devout dedication to political dogma simply become a form of cannibalism?

Libertarians are in dire need of a reboot.

Since the failed presidential campaigns of Ron Paul, the popularity of libertarianism has been on the decline. In August 2014, The New York Times speculated about the critical mass of an emerging “libertarian moment,” characterized by the senatorial career of Ron’s son, Rand. However, as can be observed by his abysmal 2016 presidential performance, Rand’s moment has come and gone.

At what point does a devout dedication to political dogma simply become a form of cannibalism?
Libertarians pride themselves on their unparalleled dedication to the free market. Businesses that cannot effectively compete do not deserve to exist in the marketplace, according to libertarians.

If this is the case, then why aren’t libertarians recognizing the same principles are occurring in the marketplace of ideas? Gary Johnson received less than one percent of the national vote in 2012. Both Ron Paul and Rand Paul—though not “big L” libertarians, but still key figures in the liberty movement—unsuccessfully ran national campaigns several times.

This begs the question: In the marketplace of ideas, is libertarianism a worthless commodity that nobody is buying?

A cursory read of these failed campaigns would suggest so. According to a Reuters poll, only one in five American voters self-identify as libertarian.

However, a deeper look into the trends and patterns regarding national opinion on key issues would indicate that American voters share common ground with libertarians.

On drug policy, 54% of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized, 63% believe state governments should abandon mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations, and only 4% believe that the United States is “winning the War on Drugs.”

In regards to domestic surveillance, 54% disapprove of the NSA’s collection of metadata, 74% believe that privacy and civil liberties shouldn’t be compromised for safety and security, and 61% are not confident that the program is serving the public interest.

Furthermore, 57% oppose sending ground troops to battle ISIS, 74% support auditing the Federal Reserve, 60% want to protect marriage equality, 52% oppose stricter gun laws, 87% oppose the use of eminent domain for redevelopment, 88% claim property rights are just as important as speech and religion, and 54% believe that the government meddles with too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals.

As Gary Johnson often hypothesizes, more and more Americans are “closet libertarians, but don’t know it.” In fact, based on the results of respondents to iSideWith—a “match maker” website for voters and political candidates—voters were more ideologically inclined toward Gary Johnson and Ron Paul than Mitt Romney. Extrapolating the iSideWith data into a nationwide election in 2012, Gary Johnson would have finished second to President Barack Obama.

2016 may be the ideal time to strike for libertarians. With the assumption that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the nominees for the two main parties, a majority of Americans are not satisfied with their choices for presidential candidates. Exit polls completed during the Republican primaries also reveal an increasing interest in voting for a third party candidate.

One problem that libertarians have to address is establishing a user-friendly definition of their ideology. Claiming to be a libertarian is the same as saying you are a heavy metal fan. Imagine inviting a hundred metalheads of all ages into the same room, and asking them to pick the band that defines the genre. The answers will vary from White Snake, Slayer, Iced Earth, Black Sabbath, Opeth, and Three Inches of Blood—bands that all loosely fit in this category, but sound very different from one another if you listen closely.

A conversation involving a roomful of libertarians would reach the same inconclusive end. There are those who think the best strategy is to develop a libertarian wing of the Republican Party, such as Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Mike Lee, and Thomas Massie. There are those who want to strengthen the Libertarian Party, such as Johnson, Austin Petersen, and other LP candidates. And there are a multitude of nuanced ideological libertarians who self-identify as some offshoot of the philosophy: voluntarists, mutualists, anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, anarchists, agorists, paleolibertarians, panarchists, etc.

As demonstrated by the Wales-Johnson spat, if you get all of these individuals into the same room, you will see a heated debate of what truly defines libertarianism.

This strategy not only demands that all of the aforementioned disjointed self-ascribed libertarians be on board, but also independent-minded leaders, reformers, activists, and everyday voters who are eager to address the same pertinent issues as libertarians.

Based on the diversity of its platform, libertarianism does have appeal across the traditional left-right political spectrum. And libertarian candidates pull votes from both Democrats and Republicans equally, which removes the “spoiler stigma” often associated with third party politics. Rather than harping on some of its more extreme edicts such as “taxation is theft” or “government is slavery,” libertarians should be marketing themselves as the “socially tolerant, fiscally responsible, and peacefully inclined” alternative to the two-party system.

The in-fighting that often bogs down the libertarian movement does little to attract independent and unaffiliated supporters. It only bolsters the puritanical nature of ideologues who are more concerned about moral high grounds, rather than winning the good fight.