Viewpoint: 1978—The Breakthrough Year


1978 as the breakthrough year for libertarianism—the year in which this new creed broke through the inertia of social attitudes to become an influential movement in American politics. The breakthrough may be analyzed in two parts: libertarian ideas in political life, and the narrower but equally important escalation of influence as a self-conscious and consistent political party. The former—an increasing libertarian mood among the voters—came as a one-two punch in 1978: first, in the victory of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 in California, and second in the November elections.

I have already in these pages (September) hailed the tax revolt kicked off by Prop. 13, so I need not return to that theme here. The November elections puzzled many analysts (Was it a "shift to the right" or not?), but much of the puzzle can be cleared up if we interpret the election as a marked shift toward libertarianism.

In those cases in which conservatives won, they did so by stressing the libertarian issue of tax cuts and tax limitation, one that had not really distinguished conservatives until last year. The famous Panama Canal issue was conspicuous by its absence in November, despite the hoopla raised by conservatives not very many months earlier. Even when conservatives stressed "social issues," they tended to be libertarian. Thus, conservative Edward J. King, who swept to victory as governor of formerly left-liberal "Taxachusetts," concentrated on opposition to environmentalist restrictions on production as well as on tax and spending cuts. And conservatives were helped in smashing their opponents in left-liberal Minnesota by the outrage of rural northern Minnesotans at the attempt of wealthy liberals to outlaw motorboats and snowmobiles in favor of sleds, canoes, and backpacks. Even the troubled abortion issue—stressed by King, Iowa's new Senator Roger Jepsen, and most other conservatives—centered far more on opposition to tax-funded abortions than to abortions per se. At least two of the successful conservatives—Jepsen and Gordon Humphrey for the Senate in New Hampshire—were not afraid to maintain that Social Security should be privatized.

When liberals won, they did so by leaping rapidly and deftly on the tax-cutting, expenditure-slashing bandwagon. The most conspicuous example was Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who flip-flopped openly in favor of Proposition 13 the very night of its victory and has been leading the parade ever since—successfully outfoxing his reluctant Republican challenger, Evelle Younger, and sending Younger to a smashing defeat in November.

There are also two examples of seeming anomalies in November that can only be explained as part of a libertarian trend. In California, the "liberal" Proposition Five, which would have banned smoking in most public areas, and the "conservative" Proposition Six, which would have ousted any public school teachers who advocated or "encouraged" homosexuality, were both roundly defeated. The common thread in these defeats—as discerned by the San Francisco Examiner—was that both proposals were seen by the voters as unjustified interference in people's lives by Big Government. The highly intelligent "No on Five" TV commercials hammered away at this theme night after night: "What are they going to regulate next?"

The other curious result was in New Hampshire, where Gov. Meldrim Thomson, popular as the man who kept income and sales taxes out of the state, was defeated; while the equally ultraconservative Gordon Humphrey ousted an incumbent senator in a stunning upset. But the mystery can be solved if we realize that Thomson's opponent, Hugh Gallen, himself pledged to keep out these taxes, also hit hard at Thomson's decision to force consumers to subsidize a nuclear power plant by means of higher gas and electric rates for their state-regulated utility. Once again, a libertarian trend can explain a seeming puzzle.

1978, then, began as the year when the astute and prestigious political analyst Alan Baron, himself in no sense a libertarian, told his readers that "if any trend in opinion is evident, it's toward libertarianism—the philosophy that argues against government intervention and for personal rights. Conservatives welcome that trend when it indicates public skepticism toward federal programs; liberals welcome it when it shows growing acceptance of individual rights in such areas as drugs, sexual behavior, etc., and increasing reticence of the public to support foreign intervention." 1978 ended as the year when an unsympathetic writer in the New York Times Magazine noted that "radical libertarianism, a view that promotes individual rights and freedom of action—business and sex alike—…defies the simplicity of customary 'liberal-conservative' categories. It is not obviously right or left—although it is obviously immoderate. It justifies no single contemporary political current—although it seems to embody the curious mixture of ideologies that political commentators were at a loss to explain after November's elections."

But the year was not only notable for libertarian views among the broad electorate; it was also the breakthrough year in the fortunes of the Libertarian Party. In 1976, the typical LP candidate across the country was lucky to gain one percent of the vote; now five and six percent were quite common. Not only that: the Libertarian Party won its first election to a state legislature—in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Dick Randolph was elected to the State House of Representatives.

But the single most meaningful leap forward in the LP came once again in California, where Ed Clark, soft-spoken and intelligent attorney from Los Angeles, garnered an incredible 5.5 percent of the vote for governor, totaling over 370,000 votes. This was by far the largest vote ever received by a Libertarian candidate and was more than double the vote received by presidential candidate Roger MacBride in 32 states in 1976.

It was an exciting thing to live in California and see the Clark momentum build. From the beginning, he clearly "captivated the media," as the San Francisco Examiner put it. He did it by demonstrating the ability to cleave to consistent libertarian principles, while applying those principles to important political issues in a way that seemed cogent and reasonable to the media. One example was Clark's call for abolition of the state sales tax; another was his proposal, not only for income tax credits for private school tuition as a means of moving toward privatization of the public schools, but also for the same tax credits for paying scholarships for other parents' kids.

In the September polls, Clark—in a first for a major Libertarian candidate—showed up as a separate line, not merely lumped with minor party candidates under "other"; he received two percent of those "likely to vote." By October he had jumped to three percent. The trend was up, but even those of us who were both optimistic and knowledgeable only guessed that he would get about 250,000 votes.

Less than a week before the election, the Bakersfield Californian, the daily newspaper for a city of 80,000, endorsed Clark for governor, stating its belief that Clark was "the wave of the future." On election night, as the incredible Clark vote came rolling in, sober CBS analysts began to repeat the phrase in some wonderment.

Libertarian Party strategists see their next task clearly: to nominate someone for president who can capitalize on and intensify the mood of the public and who can emulate Clark and Randolph in putting the party on the presidential map as definitely one of the three major parties in the United States.