Election 2016

The Fight for the Millennial Voter

Change happens on the battlefield of ideas, not as the result of elections.


For many libertarians, it's a recurring frustration: Why do candidates who seem attractive before the race begins suddenly sound so much squishier once they hit the campaign trail?

Take Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator with high hopes of becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. He's far more libertarian on foreign policy and the surveillance state than most members of his party. But in recent weeks, he has taken a harder-line stance on using military force, even calling for an increase in overall military spending. Likewise, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis.), 2012's closest thing to a Republican champion of entitlement reform, suddenly reversed course and delivered a passionate speech in defense of Medicare spending at the Republican National Convention once the vice presidency was on the line.

A concept from economics called the median voter theorem provides one explanation for this wobbliness. In a video for Learn Liberty, the Creighton University economist Diana Thomas explains that our majority-rule system means candidates are forced to position themselves strategically to try to win more than 50 percent of the vote. Since a Democrat in a two-party race knows she can more or less count on the support of everyone to her left, for example, it behooves her to put as many people as possible to the left of her.

"Even if a candidate starts out on an extreme end of the political spectrum, he ultimately will aim for the middle [because he needs] to convince the 'median voter' to vote for him," she says. That is why politicians try so hard to reflect the preferences of the "average" American.

an "I voted" sticker
Vox Efx

The same-sex marriage issue provides a great case study of this phenomenon. Until recently, an overwhelming majority of voters thought marriage ought to be reserved for heterosexual couples only. As long as the public took that position, most politicians—on both sides of the aisle—were happy to follow suit. But the last decade saw that trend reverse. Support for marriage equality has remained above 50 percent in most polls since 2010.

As public opinion changed, so did the public stances taken by many politicians. President Barack Obama, who insisted in 2008 that marriage should be between one man and one woman, did an about-face in 2012. Hillary Clinton has also "evolved" on the issue since deciding to run for president again in 2016. Even some Republicans have come out in favor of gay marriage.

Libertarians' goal, then, should be to make the median voter more like them: that is, more inclined to vote for people who want to get government out of the way. The great news is that this is already happening. The fact that the "libertarian-ish" Rand Paul is considered a major contender for the GOP nomination proves that, as does the growth in what CNN calls "indicators of libertarianism."

Since 1993, the news network has been asking people whether they think the government does too much or too little and whether they think the government should or shouldn't promote traditional values in society. Libertarians generally believe that the government does too much and that it should refrain from promoting any particular set of values.

The latest data, from last December, show that between 1993 and 2014, the percentage of people who believe the government does too much increased from 45 percent to 58 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who believe it's government's job to promote traditional values decreased from 53 percent to 41 percent. On both questions, the shift has accelerated since 2010.

Numbers like these led the statistical-minded political commentator Nate Silver to write in The New York Times in 2011 that "there have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views."

Silver doubled down on that claim recently at FiveThirtyEight in an article titled "There Are Few Libertarians. But Many Americans Have Libertarians Views." He wrote that "the rigidly partisan views of political elites should not be mistaken for the relatively malleable and diverse ones that American voters hold." In fact, Silver estimated that more than one-fifth of Americans hold the libertarian position on both gay marriage and income redistribution. And there's reason to think the number of people falling into that camp is on the rise.

That's especially true for issues like pot legalization. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. That's a 29 percent increase just since 2010. But in this case, as with many issues where public opinion has been changing fast, the fault line isn't between the two parties. It's a generational split.

Millennials have overtaken baby boomers as the single largest bloc in the country today. Their views are helping to drive changes in public opinion across a range of topics. But young people aren't consistently libertarian. A Reason-Rupe poll from spring 2014 found that while they're libertarian on social issues and immigration, millennials are not great when it comes to economic matters. Though a majority agree that government is ineffective and incompetent, they also think it should do more to "help" people. As a result, they support a host of not-at-all-libertarian policies, such as the federal provision of health care.

The real question for the future is not whether Rand Paul wins the nomination but whether millennials will, over time, take up libertarian views on economic matters to complement their existing libertarian philosophy about people's lifestyle choices. Remember, the way to get politicians to become more libertarian is to get voters to become more libertarian. Every transformative policy change can be traced to ideological change that came first—to people embracing a new set of beliefs and giving politicians permission, or even a mandate, to do the same.

Turning millennials into a generation of libertarian median voters means winning the battle of ideas. In Friedrich Hayek's words, "We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure and a deed of courage." We also need to strive to present capitalism with a human face-extolling how it helps real people, particularly the poor. And we should continue making the case that while the market isn't perfect, it allows for more and better choices than government does, all while fostering tolerance and peace.

The battle may be easier than we think. In the Reason-Rupe poll, 55 percent of millennials say they want to start their own company one day. Sixty-four percent understand that profit "encourages businesses to provide valued products to attract customers." And two-thirds prefer a free-market economy to one managed by the government. In other words, millennials aren't free market ideologues, but they aren't stupid either.

More importantly, they grew up in a world where both Democrat- and Republican-led governments have failed to do much more than increase the national debt that today's young people will have to pay down. Meanwhile, private sector companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have made great contributions to their quality of life, delivering incredible goods and services quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and at the touch of a button.

Young people claim to support many government services. But when push comes to shove, I doubt a generation raised on texting and Amazon Prime will actually tolerate a system that expects them to wait in long lines for postal service and subpar government health care.

As libertarian views continue to take hold among millennials and others, we can hope to see a more amenable median voter in the long run.

NEXT: Brickbat: Look Away, Look Away

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Libertarian moment!

    1. For me, it’s been almost a four-decade Libertarian moment.

    2. With polls!

  2. Young voters don’t mind the proposition of government run healthcare as even badly run ones in England and Canada (which seems better than most) give healthcare without charging copays, outrageous premiums, and let you receive care without the fear of going bankrupt.

    If the private market had any sensible regulation on it at all instead of being the egregious money grab it is, then young voters would be more inclined to support private options as they exist today.

    1. Not a very good troll. No heart in it; just regurgitated pablum. Even the most timid of proggies puts more rant in their rants.

    2. Being young people it is most likely they don’t really experience healthcare as provided, as a demographic least likely to need medical care. They depend on what others tell them, whatever the goal of the speaker is, is what they believe.

      Also, healthcare is not health insurance. All we have done is (arguably) provide health insurance to more but healthcare is still the same. If the ignorant youth want to see what US government run healthcare would be look they have no need to look further than the VA.

    3. Funny you say that, but medical industry is one of the most regulated ones out there, and vast majority of hospitals in US are non-profit.

      Actually, government run hospitals outnumber for-profit hospitals slightly these days, but no, its all evil private markets fault!

      Meanwhile, relatively deregulated private health services (plastic surgery, LASIK etc) have been pretty good with costs. But ignore all that and agitate for for more government run healthcare.

    4. Behold the progressive mind. No matter how much the government controls the market, any and all problems are the responsibility of whatever freedoms they didn’t crush.

      1. “… all problems are the responsibility of whatever freedoms they didn’t crush.”


    5. The problem for advocates of healthcare freedom is that a large majority of people are healthy most of the time and so don’t realize how craptacular government run healthcare actually is. However, those same people are exposed to the high cost of health insurance in our 3rd party payer system. So most of the time they are in fact not getting what they are paying for.

      Of course government involvement makes the latter situation worse, but has a great deal of opacity which obscures the situation for the healthy majority.

  3. Private market…egregious money grab. Now is not the time to make profits!

  4. Money grabs, even at their most egregious, are preferable to power grabs. See, even the worst business in the world can’t do anything more than offer shitty service at outrageous prices and then stand their while their customers leave for a competitor and badmouth them all over social media.

    Government, even at its most benign, is a power grab. You can’t refuse to participate unless you want to get shot or locked up. You can’t support a local competitor, as that’s called treason and will also get you shot or locked up. And you best not badmouth them all over social media either, as that can mean a subpoena.

    Thanks for playing, but you lose. I’d rather take my chances with a money grabber than a power grabber any day.

  5. Turning millennials into a generation of libertarian median voters means…

    …Rand Paul getting a tatt sleeve and loading up on hair gel.

    1. Rand Paul is a member of the ban-abortion Republican Party. He is useful there, and much better than the ban-abortion, kill-potheads, bomb-everyone, subsidize-my-contributors, entangling-alliances, prohibition-exporting televangelist republicans (95% of his colleagues). But still a mystical republican who will never fool women who own their own selves.

  6. Free iThings.

  7. “If there is hope”, wrote Winston Veronique, “it lies in the proles millennials.”

    1. Winston was also aware that both parties, the inner Party and the outer Party, wanted him in Room 101.
      But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies.
      Then again, arbeit macht frei, or freedom is slavery.

  8. One of the big issues that libertarianism faces is that there is not nearly enough advocacy for free markets. The free minds thing is a whole lot easier to grasp and it is no surprise that the youts are more likely to favour gay marriage and drug legalization than a free market healthcare system or big cuts to gub spending.

    1. Yep.

      Not only do libertarians inconsistently support free-market ideas, but they spend way WAY more time advocating on behalf of social conservatives than advocating on behalf of libertarian ideas.

      I’ve been a registered Libertarian since 1996, and in that time, I’ve heard maybe two people point out how nondiscrimination laws around religion — which have resulted in tens of thousands of lawsuits since that time — are a bad idea and a violation of free association.

      Just this year, with a mere two “gay wedding cake” lawsuits, the same people who have been utterly silent on decades of conservative free-association-crushing legislation and litigation have suddenly discovered their voices — but ONLY on the gay stuff.

      Which makes libertarians look intolerant, clueless, and inconsistent.

      Much better to talk about real economic opportunity and the free market of ideas than carry water for a conservatism that’s destined for demographic extinction. But too many “libertarians” can’t let go of their apologia for conservatism… which makes it difficult to distinguish any sort of differentiated message in contrast to a progressive or conservative authoritarian economic agenda.

      1. One way out is to infiltrate the conservatives and observe them firsthand. Once it becomes clear their entire circus tent is a glad-handing of holy rollers in support of hate laws so that the organizers and corporate flacks can keep their hands in the till and get jobs for their boys, there is no way to blink it away and dress it up. Austin libertarians dressed as Minutemen in the seventies and were recently copied by desperate gay-baiting televangelists. All it accomplished was to create a new fake label dismissive of the LP. Just as commie profs chuckled in subsidized classrooms abt the Vegetarian Party in the seventies, so today they chuckle abt the equally fictitious Tea Party. Votes are what is changing the laws–our votes.

  9. Just as Lucille said I didnt know that anyone able to get paid $7158 in four weeks on the computer .You can look here????????????? http://www.workweb40.com

  10. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.online-jobs9.com

  11. ‘Winning the battle of ideas’?

    That has been irrelevant in elections since probably Edward Bernays and the advent of polling. We are fearmongered and herded around because that’s what works better than dry boring ideas that require time/attention. And honestly, the very categorization of people into a group called ‘millennials’ has that as its objective.

  12. The case for voting libertarian is that every significant legislative change in the past century of US politics has come from the platforms of political parties based on some sort of principle. Most of the principles have been absurd–the might-makes-right of looters and prohibitionists with guns. But the observation is inescapable from a reading of the platforms of political parties. The Constitution makes no mention of parties, but campaign laws first pressed by Richard Nixon when the LP began undermining his military-industrial complex are all about keeping libertarians out of Congress. Veronique’s essays will shed fatuous nonsense once she realizes that ideas with votes behind them–as pointed out by no less of a looter than George Washington Plunkitt–are what change the laws.

  13. A bit off-topic, I spotted this article on Breitbart about Obama Millenials http://www.breitbart.com/big-g…..y-created/

    And liberal clowns in South Africa who said the ANC must go. http://mikesmithspoliticalcomm…..ought.html

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.