Election 2016

The Libertarian Moment Is So Over That Libertarians Are Now The Single Largest Group: Gallup

Don't mistake presidential races for broad-based changes in attitudes that will ultimately shape public policy.


Yeah, yeah, with the rise of Der Trumper and the ascendance of Ted Cruz to serious candidacy, the Libertarian Moment is deader than Nancy Reagan's dream of a drug-free America. Right?

Um, no.

In fact, as Cato's David Boaz has pointed out recently, the libertarian electorate is on the rise, according to Gallup's annual Governance survey from last fall. Gallup uses two questions to separate respondents into one of four categories: conservative, liberal, libertarian, and populist. The two questions are:

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?

Gallup finds that libertarian voters (those who think the government is doing too much and should NOT favor any particular set of values) account for 27 percent of respondents, followed by conservatives (26 percent), liberals (23 percent), and populists (15 percent).

Boaz notes that 27 percent is the highest percentage recorded for libertarian sensibilities. In 2000, for instance, the figure was just 18 percent. So if libertarian sentiments are on the rise, then why are characters such as Trump, Cruz, and even Bernie Sanders doing so well? Boaz runs through various reasons, many of which involve the simple fact that neither the Republican nor Democratic Party does a decent job of representing libertarian values. If you take the two questions above equally serious, for instance, you couldn't in good conscience vote for any of the candidates running for president. And so we find ourselves in a situation where across many policy questions that define libertarianism—increasing immigration, say, or legalizing pot and gay marriage, deregulating business, and liberalizing gun laws—the country is becoming more and more libertarian even as the major political parties get more and more reactionary in their views.

As the Republican Party begins its great implosion (thank you for that, at least, Donald Trump), the question in front of us isn't why hasn't the GOP ever been as libertarian as its rhetoric (40 years ago, for god's sake, Ronald Reagan famously told Reason, "I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism"). It's whether the Republican Party will reconstitute itself along libertarian lines. If the party elders are serious about taking the party into the future, or even dragging it in the near-present, they should be breaking toward what Reason, founded in 1968, was calling "Free Minds and Free Markets" back when Reagan was still in his first term as governor of California.