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Goldberg may have been onto more than he realized. Yes, Americans are designing their own politics, just as they are designing their own hyphenated identities online, in the workplace, and in the marketplace. Every sector of modern life outside the dead zone of governance has seen long-entrenched incumbents take a battering, as individuals seize every opportunity to create a personalized, consumer-first interface with the world. Powerful duopolies of yore, as Fujifilm’s onetime dominant rival, Kodak, can surely tell you, are on the run.
Rise of the Libertarians
Since 1987 the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has conducted surveys every six years to determine the various “typologies” within the greater body politic, such as “liberals,” “bystanders,” and “social conservatives.” In May 2011, Pew discovered a new tribe, comprising 9 percent of the electorate, which it christened “libertarians.”
The Pew survey characterized libertarians’ “defining values” like this: “Highly critical of government. Disapprove of social welfare programs. Pro-business and strongly opposed to regulation. Accepting of homosexuality. Moderate views about immigrants compared with other Republican-oriented groups.”
How “Republican-oriented” are Pew’s libertarians? A whole lot, yet not much. Fully 77 percent “lean” toward the GOP, compared to just 11 percent toward Democrats. Yet 67 percent of libertarians self-identify as independents, compared to 28 percent as Republicans and 5 percent as Democrats. “A growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse,” Pew concluded. “Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.”
Pew’s findings track with what the Cato Institute found in its 2010 study titled “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” which, using American National Election Series data, estimated the bloc of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters at 14 percent (while noting other methodologies that put the number as high as 59 percent). Authors David Boaz and David Kirby found that libertarians are detaching themselves from the GOP and becoming more of a swing vote. Their margin for Senate Republicans over Democrats dropped from 59 percentage points in 2002 to just 4 points in 2006, for example, then jumped back to 49 points in 2008. Boaz and Kirby also cite the work of UCLA’s Sylvia Friedel, who found that libertarians voted Republican for president 69 percent of the time from 1972 to 1988, but just 46 percent of the time since the end of the Cold War. Young libertarians in particular skew independent, and (unlike older libertarians) preferred Obama to John McCain by a wide margin.
Interestingly, Boaz and Kirby suggest that many libertarian voters do not fully recognize or name their own tendencies. “Why is this substantial and growing libertarian strength not better recognized?” they ask. “Political scientists have taught for more than 50 years that politics is arranged on a liberal-conservative continuum, so we’re all used to that. And indeed, political activists and elected officials do seem to have arranged themselves into those two camps, rather than a more accurate reflection of the total electorate. Because of the constant repetition of the liberal-conservative spectrum, most libertarian-minded voters don’t identify themselves as libertarians, and they aren’t organized in libertarian groups.”
The All-American Backlash
We know that independents are sick of the political status quo, that the libertarians among them want to reduce the size of government, and that both blocs are growing as a share of the electorate. But what about the rest of Americans? Well, they’re pissed.
During the November 2010 election, CNN exit polls found that 74 percent of voters were “dissatisfied” or even “angry” with government. Approval ratings for Congress keep reaching all-time lows. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in January 2010 found that 58 percent of adults generally favored “smaller government with fewer services,” compared with only 38 percent who preferred “larger government with more services”; those numbers were 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively, in June 2004. A 2009 Ayers-McHenry poll asking the same question showed 69 percent of Americans calling for a smaller government and only 21 percent rooting for a bigger one.
The first Reason-Rupe Poll (see “Cut the Debt By Cutting Government,” page 42), conducted in March and April, revealed a country that is far more radical than its political leaders. An overwhelming 96 percent of respondents deemed reducing the national debt either “important” or “very important,” and the most preferred solution by far was to cut government spending while leaving taxes as they are. Independents and libertarians are arguably the vanguard of American public opinion, an advance scouting party hinting at where and how hard the country as a whole will turn against its leaders.
The numbers put statistics behind what we’ve all seen with our own eyes. Since the very first days of the financial/political crisis in September 2008, there has been a yawning chasm between popular opinion and the actions of politicians. This gap was apparent when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan political elite put down a House of Representatives rebellion against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, when solid majorities of Americans disapproved of Barack Obama’s new health insurance overhaul, and when the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives tried to backpedal from campaign promises to eliminate earmarks and cut spending. When the gap between voter desire and government policy—between the way people actually live their lives and the way government wants them to behave—grows too wide, a situation that looks stable can turn revolutionary overnight.
You do not have to love or even like the Tea Party movement —to cite the latest (though not the last) example of a decentralized network of alienated citizens using technology to overturn the applecart of American politics—to appreciate its tactical success. To our minds, Tea Party loyalists are too inclined to indulge in military intervention, anti-Shariah paranoia (see “Fear of a Muslim America,” page 20), and constitutional amendments to prohibit activities they do not like. But the movement remains potent in large part because it generally has refused to take the bait on divisive social and foreign policy issues, focusing instead with admirable single-mindedness on a fiscal crisis brought on by reckless government spending. Check out the message discipline contained in the Tea Party’s 2010 “Contract From America”:
1. Protect the Constitution