The specter of libertarianism is haunting America. Advocates of sharply reducing the government's size, scope and spending are raising big bucks from GOP donors, trying to steal the mantle of populism, being blamed for the demise of Detroit and even getting caught in the middle of a battle for the Republican Party. Yet libertarians are among the most misunderstood forces in today's politics. Let's clear up some of the biggest misconceptions.
1. Libertarians are a fringe band of "hippies of the right."
In 1971, the controversial and influential author Ayn Rand denounced right-wing anarchists as "hippies of the right," a charge still leveled against libertarians, who push for a minimal state and maximal individual freedom.
Libertarians are often dismissed as a mutant subspecies of conservatives: pot smokers who are soft on defense and support marriage equality. But depending on their views, libertarians often match up equally well with right- and left-wingers.
The earliest example of libertarian principles in partisan politics might have come in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,when Anti-Imperialist League Democrats rejected empire and war — and believed in free trade and racial equality at a time when none of that was popular. More recently, civil libertarians such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) supported Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in his filibuster on domestic drones and government surveillance.
Libertarians are found across the political spectrum and in both major parties. In September 2012, the Reason-Rupe Poll found that about one-quarter of Americans fall into the roughly libertarian category of wanting to reduce the government's roles in economic and social affairs. That's in the same ballpark as what other surveys have found and more than enough to swing an election.
2. Libertarians don't care about minorities or the poor.
As the recent discovery of neo-Confederate writings by a former senior aide to Sen. Paul shows, there sometimes is a connection between libertarians and creepy, racist elements in American politics. And given the influence of Ayn Rand among many libertarians, it's easy to think that they care only about themselves. "I will never live for the sake of another man," runs a characteristic line from Rand's 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged.
But at least two of the libertarian movement's signature causes, school choice and drug legalization, are aimed at creating a better life for poor people, who disproportionately are also minorities. The primary goal of school choice — a movement essentially born out of a 1955 essay about vouchers by libertarian and Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman — is to give lower-income Americans better educational options. Friedman also persuasively argued that the drug war concentrates violence and law enforcement abuses in poor neighborhoods.
Libertarians believe that economic deregulation helps the poor because it ultimately reduces costs and barriers to start new businesses. The leading libertarian public-interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, which has argued Supreme Court cases for free speech and against eminent-domain abuse, got its start defending African American hair-braiders in Washington from licensing laws that shut down home businesses.
3. Libertarianism is a boys' club.
While the stereotype of a libertarian as a male engineer sporting a plastic pocket protector and a slide rule once had more truth to it than most libertarians would care to admit, the movement is in many ways the creation of three female intellectuals.
As Brian Doherty details in his 2008 book, "Radicals for Capitalism," the modern libertarian movement was hugely influenced by best-selling novelist and writer Rand; writer and critic Isabel Paterson; and author Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of "Little House on the Prairie" author Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose work she edited. The first national ticket for the Libertarian Party, in 1972, had a woman, Toni Nathan, as its vice-presidential candidate, and from its inception, the party has supported reproductive rights and full equality under the law for women.
Newer groups such as the Ladies of Liberty Alliance are growing by emphasizing the benefits of economic freedom to an expanding class of female entrepreneurs.
4. Libertarians are pro-drug, pro-abortion and anti-religion.
Charges of libertinism are, alas, exaggerated. Virtually all libertarians believe that the prohibition of any consensual activity breeds far more problems than it solves. But a key tenet is that just because something is legal doesn't mean you have to endorse, much less practice, it. Ron Paul drew laughs during a GOP presidential primary debate in 2011 when he asked audience members if they would try heroin if it were legal.
About 30 percent of libertarians — including many libertarian-minded politicians such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) — are staunchly pro-life. But most believe that the best way to change behavior is through moral suasion, not versions of prohibition that don't work.
The same goes for religion: It should be free and celebrated as long as participation is voluntary. After all, proto-libertarian Roger Williams co-founded the first Baptist congregation in America and created Providence, R.I., as a haven of religious tolerance and fully secular government at a time when that was unheard of.
5. Libertarians are destroying the Republican Party.
In 1975, Ronald Reagan saw a kinship between libertarians and his party: "If you analyze it, I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism," he said.
There seems to be little sense of a shared soul now, though, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says things such as: "This strain of libertarianism that's going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought." Christie was referring primarily to Rand Paul, a potential rival for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has attacked Rand Paul, Amash and other critics of the surveillance state as "wacko birds," and defenders of the GOP establishment are worried about the party's growing libertarian streak.
Yet Republicans acknowledged the need for a major reboot after the 2012 election, and that's precisely what libertarian-leaning politicians are offering. Rand Paul has proposed a budget that cuts about $500 billion in annual spending, and he has called for reform of unsustainable entitlements and an end to overseas military adventurism. What's been dubbed his "hipster outreach program" is an attempt to appeal to a wider slice of voters than middle-class whites. Republicans "need to be white, we need to be brown, we need to be black, we need to be with tattoos, without tattoos, with ponytails, without ponytails, with beards, without," he told a New Hampshire audience in May.
That's a message that might rankle stand-pat Republicans but is likely to appeal to younger voters who, according to a recent College Republican National Committee study, want government to be smaller and more inclusive.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post.