The Ron Paul/Bernie Sanders Connection

Under-30s dig both socialism and libertarianism more than the average American does. What does that mean?


A gentleman with whom I was in a punk rock band decades ago, Ivan Osorio, wrote an amusing bit of political absurdism in the form of a punk song whose lyrics went, in their entirety: "I'm voting for George Wallace. He's the one who represents me and the silent majority. Gus Hall's my second choice. (4X)"

That lyrical hat tip to absurd political choice irrationality has been on my mind lately as I contemplate the strange phenomenon of the Paulista for Bernie.

As discussed briefly earlier today at Hit and Run, I interpreted the "Ron Paul Revolution" of 2007-12 as showing a growing mass acceptance of at least a rough version of libertarianism. This election cycle seems to be indicating I overestimated that.

As was true when I wrote my book about Ron Paul's campaigns in 2012, and is still today as far as I know, nothing like rigorous social science survey data exists on the world of Ron Paul fans and what they believe.

But my rough empiricism by meeting and communicating with hundreds of them in the real world and online is that they were at least dominated by a coherent set of libertarian beliefs even if they wouldn't use the term and weren't as rigorous about their thinking from first principles as a movement libertarian veteran usually is.

Today those data journalists at Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight site deliver, not quite the data we might be hungry for, but some interesting discussions about Bernie Sanders mania and its possible overlaps with Ron Paul mania of elections gone by.

Sadly, it turns out that under-30s in a recent YouGov survey are more positive toward (whatever they think of as) socialism than they are (whatever they think of as) capitalism.

But still, Silver at FiveThirtyEight finds that the young aren't actually that much more excited about serious wealth redistribution (really more what Sanders is pushing than socialism classically conceived) than Americans as a whole—with about 60 percent of the under-30s supporting it—and the percentage into redistribution hasn't increased much with time.

And the young are also confusingly a little more enthusiastic about the term libertarian, as Silver goes on to explain, and:

the demographics of Sanders's support now and Ron Paul's support four years ago are not all that different: Both candidates got much more support from younger voters than from older ones, from men than from women, from white voters than from nonwhite ones, and from secular voters than from religious ones. Like Sanders, Paul drew more support from poorer voters than from wealthier ones in 2012….

This seems confusing, no?

If both "socialism" and "libertarianism" are popular among young voters, could it be that younger voters have a wider spread of opinions on economic redistribution, with more responses on both the "0" and "100" ends of the scale? It could be, but that's not what the data shows. In fact, on the General Social Survey question I mentioned earlier, younger Americans were more likely than older ones to be concentrated toward the center and not toward the extremes on the redistribution issue.

How does one make sense of this?

The cynical interpretation of this is that the appeal of both "socialism" and "libertarianism" to younger Americans is more a matter of the labels than the policy substance. Relatedly, it's hard to find all that much of a disagreement over core issues between Clinton and Sanders, who voted together 93 percent of the time when they were both in the Senate from 2007 to 2009.

Silver points out, rightly, that the American two-party system doesn't do much to encourage political science rigor in how Americans apply labels to ideas. Both major parties "are not all that philosophically coherent, nor do they reflect the relatively diverse and multidimensional political views of individual Americans. Instead, the major American political parties are best understood as coalitions of interest groups that work together to further one another's agendas."

Thus, Silver guesses that youthful statements of approval of the "socialist" and "libertarian" labels is just another sign of a growing and expanding sense of ideological independence from existing two-party structures, an idea you may have read about around here. via our own Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie's book Declaration of Independents.

In a more colloquial sense, as I learned from interviewing some people involved in Rand Paul campaigning in Iowa this season, there is a certain general sense of "the system as it stands is rigged and screwed and needs serious changing" that animates people toward, in many cases, first Paul and then Sanders. Clearly, such a voter is not as rationalistic about preferred policy solutions as most libertarians are. Clearly, most voters are not.