Hot Tub Libertarians

Ryan Sager has a piece at RealClear Politics wondering what the Republicans have done to lose libertarian voters and trying to figure out how they can woo them back. He bases his analysis on polling results and definitions provided by Gallup, “which labels as libertarian voters who say they oppose the use of government either to ‘promote traditional values’ or to ‘do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.'” He also cites a Pew survey which “finds 50 percent of libertarians identifying as Republicans, 41 percent as Democrats.”

Given that libertarians’ traditional home has been in the conservative base of the Republican Party for about five decades, as part of a strained partnership with social conservatives, their almost 50-50 split between the two parties today is big news.

Ryan thinks the answer is that too many libertarians would rather sit in their hot tubs than get out to vote. This strikes me as quite unlikely. Indeed, the idea that libertarians should naturally be Republicans is bizarre and ungrounded in reality.

Yes, there is a large group of economic libertarians who are likely to be most comfortable in the GOP. Call them “Phil Gramm-” or “Jack Kemp Republicans.” (Of course, the fact that the most obvious names to mind are of retired Republicans may say something about the decline of that wing of the GOP.) But there are also lifestyle libertarians who are chiefly motivated by drug legalization, sexual freedom, gay rights, and similar issues. Those people are much more affiliated with the Democrats. And always have been.

Indeed, the fact that libertarians don’t neatly align with one party or another is the reason there is a Libertarian Party. The fact that they only comprise 9 percent of the population explains why the Libertarian Party is spectacularly unsuccessful.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jazz says:

    Libertarians (at least *some* of them who have a lot of visibility) will always be looked at as a “fringe group” by some old school conservatives with large pulpits because of their support for drug legalization and alternate lifestyle freedoms. It’s sad, because they have so much to say which seems to be so “common sense” (if that’s even a valid phrase any more) to me. I’d join up with them myself if I wasn’t so totally disallusioned with *all* political parties at this point. One of my guest bloggers is a libertarian and has a lot of refreshing ideas.

    By the way, I think the phrase “Jack Kemp” Republicans can be taken out of the lexicon now. I think the last one died on a quail hunt with Cheney in ‘o3.

  2. ICallMasICM says:

    This is one of the first times I’ve ever agreed with you. The places where Libertarian principle and GOP agenda intersect are coincidence not plans. I don’t undestand the 50% of libertarians identifying GOP and 41% identifying DEM because if they’re Libertarians they aren’t either. In the LPA literature there is something called the world’s smallest political test which identifies your leanings and if you are a fiscal conservative and social liberal they consider you a Libertarian but they mean social liberal in the sense of accepting individual rights and responsibilities not nanny statism. Since the LPA slogan is ‘The party of principle’ obviously they aren’t going to fit with either the GOP or DEMs.

  3. KipEsquire says:

    The social conservatives under President Bush have made it clear beyond all doubt that they have no desire whatsoever to embrace libertarians and that the Republican Party is now by, for and about them and them alone. One small example here.

    The idea that the current situation in the GOP is the fault of the libertarians is preposterous.

  4. Kent says:

    I regard Libertarianism as fundamentally a movement of the Left. The overlap of some conservative and Libertarian positions is largely a historical accident.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I can’t recall where I first read this but someone once characterized “left libertarians” as people who want to take drugs and “right libertarians” as people who don’t want to pay taxes. Presumably, “centrist libertarians” are those who want to do both.

    The good folks at QandO Blog are sufficiently disaffected with the term “libertarian” to term themselves “neo-libertarians”. For a good example of why this might be check your next post.

    IMO this is just part of the ongoing debasement of political language: “conservatives” are radical; “progressives” are conservative; liberals aren’t.

  6. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘I regard Libertarianism as fundamentally a movement of the Left. ‘

    Certainly not of the modern left. Whatever ‘neo-Libs’ are they certainly aren’t Libertarians in any recognizable way.

  7. Dave says:

    In my opinion, libertarians are the opposite of conservatives. Conservatives believe that man is flawed and must be controlled by tradition and institutions such as the state.

    Libertarians believe that the minimal state is optimum.

    Liberals hate unfairness.

  8. LJD says:

    The challenge, then — for those who don’t want to see the Republican Party succumb once and for all to big-government conservatism and who don’t want to see it become overrun with populists lacking in respect for taxpayers’ money and individuals’ right to be left alone — is either to organize existing libertarians more effectively to vote and contribute time and money as a bloc or to identify new constituencies with an overriding interest in remaking the time bomb we call the New Deal (everyone under 40 comes to mind).

    I don’t think it is about getting them to vote. I think it is about getting them to stop voting against ‘the other guy’ and/or to keep them from ‘throwing their vote away’ on a wacky third party candidate that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

    The challenge is for both parties to distance themselves from spending to placate ‘squeaky wheel’ constituents. Lately, the trend on both sides has been not IF money should be spent, but WHERE.

    Until either the parties change, or voters take a leap of faith on a third party candidate, we will continue with the status quo. That seems the most likely outcome, in light of Dave’s comment above.

    In response I would say that LIBERALS believe that man is flawed and must be SUPPORTED by institutions such as the state. The divide between Democrats and Libertarians is their deep dedication to expensive programs that accomplish nothing but provide colorful teary-eyed campaign trail rhetoric and allow the Dem canidaites to happily pat themselves on the back.