TCS Daily

What Next for Libertarians?

By Ryan H. Sager - November 9, 2004 12:00 AM

Libertarianism is in a bad way following the 2004 presidential election -- and not just because Libertarian Party candidate Michael Badnarik failed to overtake Ralph Nader for third place (though, if it's any consolation, he tied the erstwhile consumer advocate in the Electoral College).

No, the problem is that both parties proved themselves able to ignore libertarian ideas almost completely this year and are only likely to do so increasingly going forward.

Now, make no mistake about it, this was an election mainly about foreign policy (a topic to which libertarian philosophy has traditionally been difficult to apply). While much has been made of the fact that 22 percent of voters chose "moral values" as their "most important issue" when asked in exit polls -- making it the most popular of the options given -- that was only because "terrorism" and "Iraq" were listed as separate choices. Together, those foreign-policy topics, inextricably linked in the minds of many, were the deciding factor for 34 percent of voters.

But the utter irrelevance of libertarian ideas this year can't be written off simply because of the nation's current foreign-policy concerns. It's impossible to ignore the fact that the domestic agendas of both parties this year were based firmly on expanding the power of the state.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign, in its only small-government gambit, opposed certain provisions of the Patriot Act; but, for fear of looking soft on terror, that position was, shall we say, deemphasized.

Otherwise, the Democrats pushed a pretty standard, statist line: "rolling back" tax cuts (otherwise known as "raising taxes," be it only on the rich), nationalizing health care, leaving Social Security to fester, spending more on education, increasing the amount of environmental regulation and putting a flu shot in every pot.

The Bush-Cheney team had its version, a little lighter on economic statism but heavier on cultural statism: leaving in place its own move toward socialized medicine (a.k.a., the colossally expensive Medicare prescription drug benefit), cracking down on "indecency" and banning gay marriage. Tax cuts were also promised, though not paired with any cuts in programs to pay for them. Social Security reform may have been the only bright spot.

So, what can we expect from the Republicans going forward? More of the same -- but worse.

Karl Rove is already out in the press promising President Bush's evangelical base a renewed push to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. And there can be absolutely no doubt that such an amendment, if not passed soon, will become a central issue in the 2006 midterm elections, used as a wedge issue to paint any Democratic senator or congressman who doesn't go along as a hopelessly out-of-touch liberal.

And what can we expect from the Democrats?

It's too soon to tell definitively, of course, but there are really only two directions the party can move, neither of them terribly favorable to the libertarian-minded.

The party could begin playing to its liberal base --, Michael Moore, etc. -- but that would only pull it further out of the mainstream, leaving the Republicans to run the country unchallenged.

More likely, we'll see a serious move by the party to close the "values gap" that supposedly cost its candidates so dearly this election cycle. There are any number of ways this could happen.

Suddenly, Democrats in Congress could join Republicans in supporting a flag-burning amendment. They could suddenly become quite attached to the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. They could roll over on the anti-gay marriage amendment.

And it would be completely unsurprising if Americans woke up suddenly to find the Democrats initiating new hearings into violence and sex in the music industry, television, movies, video games, Web pages, comic books or wherever.

Libertarianism never flourishes during times of war, but that's exactly why people concerned with economic liberalism and social freedom should be concerned. With the War on Terror likely to be the defining issue of a generation, libertarians must begin to grapple with it seriously instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

The forces of statism in this country have grabbed onto this war to move the center of gravity in our politics to the left economically and to the right socially. Karl Rove and the forces of "national-greatness conservatism" embodied in places such as The Weekly Standard have seen the chance to create a "permanent Republican majority" -- a platform combining traditional Republican strength on national security with a radical expansion of the size of the federal government, designed to rob the Democrats of their natural constituency.

The Republican Party under Bush, in short, has ceased to be a hospitable environment for libertarians, and the alternative looks no better.

The party that came in second isn't the only one with some thinking to do right now. Those of us in fourth need to wake up as well.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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