Conservatives Could Learn from Robert Sarvis and Libertarians

"Open-Minded and Open for Business" wins votes where retrograde social views don't.


Robert Sarvis
Robert Sarvis

Here's the party line in the conservative movement's blogosphere/talk radio echo chamber:

Despite being possibly the most strident and unregenerate social conservative on the GOP's national stage, Ken Cuccinelli really, really was—way down deep—a small government, libertarian, free marketeer.  Virginia's activist conservative Attorney General was America's last, best chance to install a "liberty-minded" man in a governor's mansion, a redoubt from which he could take his states' rights stand against the impending ObamaCare/Hillary socialist takeover.

And he could have won, too, if it weren't for those self-absorbed, narcissistic Libertarians and their "spoiler" of a candidate, Robert Sarvis.  But libertarians, you see, are so self-indulgent they just can't pipe down about all that embarrassing, irrelevant social "libertinism," from which the mass of socially sober Middle Americans rightfully recoil.

So, with so much supposedly at stake, why did Sarvis run?

First, with national media focused on this first post-2012 "off-off year" contest, a candidate as substantive as Sarvis waging a mainstream, professionally run Libertarian campaign could chart a course for more serious LP races to follow in elections to come.

For another reason, look to Sarvis' campaign motto. In the Old Dominion of 2013, Sarvis' Libertarian vision of a Virginia that's both "Open-minded and Open for Business," is one shared by voters in the groups that are at once "purpling" the state and driving its economic growth.  Sarvis himself, with a tech background and the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mom, is a product of those trends.

But conservatives insisted—often histrionically—that libertarians who failed to back Cuccinelli were voting against their true interests.

One of the more responsible voices advancing that argument was Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney who decided that any votes for Sarvis, based on qualms with Cuccinelli's outrageously unlibertarian social positions, were acting "tribally," refusing to back a candidate outside their own parochial zone of ideological purity. End result? Sarvis' Libertarian voters threw away the chance to elect "probably the most libertarian statewide official in Virginia in recent history."

Carney, it's crucial to keep in mind, is sometimes libertarian-leaning, but also decidedly a social conservative. And he's one of those arguing that social issues shouldn't matter, at least when they concern libertarians. (Here at Reason, Scott Shackford cogently put forth why many libertarians simply aren't swayed by that argument.)

This argument was dumbed down in the right wing twitterverse and on talk radio. Sarvis in the race could only "spoil" it for one of "us" (read: Tea Party/conservative Republican "good guy" Ken Cuccinelli) and throw it to one of "them" (Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate who brags of his years raising dough for the Clintons).

Those cues were taken from the conservative movement activists who continue to insist that it's still "morning again, in America."

If Libertarians could just drop that "wacko" social stuff, and join with social conservatives, "we" could win election after election in landslides, just like Ronald Reagan did…in 1984.

But's not 1984 any more; it's 2013.  It's been almost three long decades since Ronald Reagan's reelection coalition was cobbled together, and its crown jewel demographic—the fabled Reagan Democrat—is no longer an electoral kingmaker.  

Reagan Democrats—socially reactionary, economically populist—have died off, and they no longer dwarf their demographic inverse: libertarians are who socially tolerant and pro-market.

Social libertarianism is ascendent. The notion is de rigueur among "ideas industry" workers who are driving economic growth. Among young voters, gay marriage, for instance—which libertarians supported when it was only backed only by a tiny sliver of opinion-setters—is now supported in huge numbers by younger, affluent and educated Americans.

Sarvis strongholds reflects this. The Libertarian won as high as 17% of the vote in affluent, socially moderate precincts in suburban Henrico County (the home base of the U.S. House GOP's second-in-command, Rep. Eric Cantor.)

On the same day, in an area nearby with a sharply contrasting electoral history, Sarvis pulled in percentages that high in part of Richmond City, pushing Cuccinelli down to third place in some artsy, student-centric, "boho" precincts.

Exit polls demonstrate that Cuccinelli's morality meddling so appalled most of those voters that they would back the Dem, or not vote at all, if Sarvis weren't an option. A Libertarian on the ballot let them cast a vote for markets and small government, to complement their social tolerance, that they wouldn't have cast otherwise.

Glenn Beck, and his muckracking bloggers had Tea Party types ablaze on Twitter with a supposed "scoop" of an "Obama bundler" who "secretly financed" Sarvis, and "pushed" the Libertarian into the race to "throw" the election to a Clinton crony.

Flooded with emails attacking us, we on the Sarvis campaign couldn't help but muse: what if Cuccinelli was the real "leftist plant," "pushed" into the most-followed, post-2012 statewide election, to stain free markets with unsalable extreme social conservativism for a generation? Wouldn't a committed lefty blogger salivate at that prospect?

Because many of those true believers are getting desperate. Here's WaPo's wizened socialist columnist Harold Meyerson excoriating voters who back Dems, but don't bash markets. This sort of voter, he complains, "believes in such socially liberal causes as gay marriage but is skeptical of unions and appalled at economic populism."

It's a Libertarian like Robert Sarvis, crafting a message that reminds us we need to be "open-minded" if we want to be "open for business," who can win those voters when the Democrats "Tea Party" themselves in primaries, letting inflexible teachers unions, professorial populists like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Occupier fellow travelers scare them off.

Free markets are too important for us to permit them to remain shackled to one "tribe" that refuses to jettison a retrograde and demographically losing social agenda. Markets are more important than the future of the Republican Party or the health of the conservative movement.  

If conservatives and Republicans truly care about free markets and limited government, they should give up their "tribal" habits and consider backing a forwarding-looking socially tolerant, market-oriented Libertarian (and libertarian) like Robert Sarvis instead.