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"We need to be white, we need to be brown, we need to be black, we need to be with tattoos, without tattoos, with pony tails, without pony tails, with beards, without," Rand Paul told a New Hampshire audience earlier this year. He's no hippie, that's for sure, but at his best moments, he knows what America looks like and wants to be part of its future. That means embracing the diversty you see shopping the aisles of Walmart, where goth crosses on UFC paraphernalia and once-forbidden AC/DC CDs fill the discount bins.
"If you allow people to make their own decisions, you actually get good outcomes for society," Justin Amash told me earlier this year. As an observant Orthodox Christian, he's no fan of same-sex marriage, but his response to recent Supreme Court rulings sanctioning the practice is something most of us can live with: "Marriage is a private institution that government should not define. To me and millions of Americans, marriage is also a religious sacrament that needs no government approval.... I will continue to push for less government interference in our personal and economic affairs."
These are very different sensibilities and principles than those of the status-quo conservative wing of the party, which is dedicated to increasing spending on defense and other favored constituencies (such as Medicare beneficiaries and farmers in the form of subsidies) and to running off at the mouth about immigrants (at least if they come from south of the border), the gays, and abortion. That establishment GOP pols talk more about the last three topics rather than things such as entitlements, spending, and overseas war is a sign they are not serious when it comes to governing. Cillizza and others are probably right that a dedication to crusty old conservative values will not ever again win national elections. Especially if those values seem to long for the good old days of closeted gays, immigrants from the slums of Southern and Central Europe, a blank check for seniors (and nothing but aspersions for senors), and a willingness to bear any burden in the fight against international communism (news flash: we won that battle!). But that's not what is getting people hopped up about libertarians these days. What does it tell you that observers from George Will to Julian Assange are swooning for the libertarian Republicans? As Assange put it recently, he is "a big admirer of Ron Paul and Rand Paul for their very principled positions in the US Congress on a number of issues...[and] the libertarian aspect of the Republican Party is presently the only useful political voice in the US Congress."
It's worth noting that Chris Christie's latest round of press came about only because he bashed "this strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines." That tells you something about what's on the rise and what isn't (so do attacks on Rand Paul from National Review types who sniff that a guy calling for smaller government "doesn't offer much to conservatives." Christie called libertarianism "a very dangerous thing" because...because...because...9/11? Hurricane Sandy aid (which ended up coming in droves to the affected areas and being deployed with exactly the same inefficiencies as disaster aid always does)? Because as a former prosecutor, Christie doesn't give a fig about civil liberties and, as a foreign-policy naif, he blindly follows the leads of the latter-day McNamaras and Bundys cooling their jets at the American Enterprise Institute and The Weekly Standard?
In a way that standard-issue Republican conservatives, including folks such as Christie (who has increased spending each year in office), and even most Democrats can't, the libertarian Republicans are embracing the ongoing shift to a looser, more decentralized America. The libertarians can make peace with the too-long-delayed acceptance of marriage equality, marijuana legalization (Rand Paul is pushing sentencing reform and has argued that drug laws should be state matters), and they can articulate a vision of open borders that encompass the free movement of goods and people ("We will find a place for you," Paul has said of illegal immigrants).
In this, it's worth stressing, the libertarian Republicans are not leading but following public opinion. A majority of people think government has long been doing too much and they want less spending. A plurality wants to see more independents in national office. However many parties there are, the ideological duopoly is in its dying days.
Pols following the public's lead is precisely how it always plays out and one of the reasons that the Libertarian Moment is upon us. As Matt Welch and I argued in 2008 - and later in our 2011 book The Declaration of Independents - politics is a lagging indicator of American society:
It’s wrong to look at politics as anything other than the B.A. Baracus of American society, the last one through the door and the last member of The A-Team to get the joke. And a simple study of incentives will tell you that political parties will use whatever is at their disposal to stay in power, particularly the government they control. Expecting Washington to cut back its main instrument of power after a capitalism-bashing political campaign is like expecting Michael Moore to share his Egg McMuffin with a homeless man.
But when the gap grows too wide between voter desire and government policy, between the way people actually live their lives and the way government wants them to behave, then a situation that looks stable can turn revolutionary overnight. Richard Nixon may have been sitting pretty in 1971, but he was sent packing to San Clemente by 1974.
After a dozen years of expanding government at every possible level across every possible front and a seemingly endless series of new and ever-more furshlugginer policies large and small (Medicare expansions, No Child Left Behind, TARP, stimulus, NSA surveillance, soda bans, cheese bans, you name it), there are real victories for libertarian themes on the drug and lifestyle fronts, real per-capita federal spending has flattened (though not for lack of trying to jack it up), and there's widespread and growing dissatisfaction with a DC crew that seems forever out to lunch when it comes to everything (some polls have Congress' approval rating in the single digits; Obama's disapproval rating hovers near its all-time high). Affiliation with two major political parties continue to sag like network ratings and self-described Independents are a large plurality, comprising 43 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup survey.
Far more important - and far away from the muddy field of politics - ongoing experiments in living proceed apace, with individuals, communities, and entrepreneurs plowing ahead with new and different ways of getting on with their big thing. Amazon.com founder (and Reason Foundation donor) Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post, experimenters unveil vat-grown beef, thousands flock to Burning Man, and more kids attend schools of choice (public, private, nonprofit) than have in decades. In a world you can get an infinite number of drinks at Starbucks and a dozen or more strains of weed at your local medical marijuana dispensary (the very ones Obama has raided like a drug-war Republican), choosing between column A and column B just doesn't cut it anymore.
If the long-term, decentralist trends described in books as different as Moises Naim's The End of Power, Grant McCracken's Plenitude, and The Declaration of Independents are at all true, we can forget about the Libertarian Moment and start jawing about the Libertarian Era. At least it will give the legacy media something to fill their pages while they're still around.
[Related Update 8/21: #Winning: Progressive Think Tank Demos Targets "Libertarian Right"]