Libertarians Find Their Audience In 2012 Race
Somewhere on the path to the White House this year, a powerful set of ideas began to creep into the mainstream debate over which direction the country will take.
These are ideas that not too long ago were written off as marginal, or even worse, a little kooky. They come from Libertarians: free and open markets and extremely limited government. Those ideals are now becoming more mainstream and are influencing the Republican Party.
This weekend, Libertarians were in Las Vegas to nominate their candidate for president, Gary Johnson. NPR's David Welna was there to cover both the Libertarian convention and the state Republican convention, and he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he found a lot of overlap.
"At the state [Republican] convention, Ron Paul supporters vastly outnumbered Mitt Romney supporters," Welna says. "Their point, they say, is that they want to influence the Republican Party with the thinking of Ron Paul [and] with his Libertarian ideas."
Those ideas include pulling out of Afghanistan and going back to the gold standard.
At the Libertarian convention, Welna says it was an occasion for Libertarians to think about how they can get their message out.
"What they're really betting on is that Gary Johnson's standing in national polls will rise if Ron Paul drops out of this race," he says. "They're hoping many of Ron Paul's supporters will jump over and support Johnson."
A National Libertarian Message
Now a lot of those Ron Paul supporters that Gary Johnson is hoping to attract are young. A recent poll put out by Harvard's Institute of Politics suggests Libertarian ideas are gaining traction with those age 18 to 29.
Ron Paul has been running for president on a message of limited government in all spheres, but Paul has been running on the Republican ticket, however, and Mitt Romney is the likely nominee.
That message is one Gary Johnson hopes to continue spreading on the national stage as the Libertarian nominee. He says part of his platform is ending wars the U.S. in involved in, marriage equality and drug reform.
Johnson tells NPR's Raz that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have the right ideas for America.
"If either one of them get elected, four years from now government is going to be more intrusive and cost more" Johnson says.
Based what he sees as a negative record for the president in Afghanistan, the drug war in the U.S. and the economy, Johnson thinks he'll pull more votes from Obama than he will from Romney.
"I think a lot of Democrats really do recognize the notion of being fiscally prudent ... [and] this is not sustainable," he says. "If we don't fix this, there are going to be unintended consequences."
If Johnson gets 15 percent support in national polls, he would qualify for participating in the presidential debates in the fall and would be able to give the Libertarian message a lot of exposure.
Alexander McCobin, a grad student at Georgetown University and member of Students For Liberty, a national Libertarian organization, thinks Johnson might just get that support.
"This is the most libertarian generation that has ever existed," McCobin says. "I just think it's taking a little bit longer for people to realize ... but in 10 or 20 years, once our age group starts to have more of an influence in society, we're going to see very significant shifts in what's happening."
Libertarian Ideas Going Mainstream
Dave Weigel, a journalist for Slate Magazine, says that due in large part to the economy it's not just young people who are increasingly embracing libertarian principals — it's mainstream members of the Republican Party.
"The Tea Party movement came up at first out of conservative media, but it also came out of the activists," Weigel says, "and the activists early on were Libertarians."
At early Tea Party rallies, Weigel recalls seeing many Ron Paul supporters. Paul had long criticized the Federal Reserve, ideas once seen as "crankery," Weigel says, but with the economic crisis those ideas suddenly took off.
"When someone has a catch-all, silver-bullet reason why the system failed us, people listen to that person," he says. "In this case, Ron Paul had been talking about central banking and the lack of sound money for decades."
A lot of positions now seen as conservative have Libertarian origins. The Republican Party's fight against the individual mandate portion of Obama's health law has been a staple of the Libertarian message: that government can't force you to do anything, Weigel says.
Any outrage against the system only lasts as long as the crisis lasts, Weigel says, and unfortunately the economic crisis in the U.S. has lasted a while. Whether or not the rise of Libertarian ideas is just an anomaly will remain to be seen.
"As long as there's high unemployment and a high sense of fear about the entitlement state and the things we've gotten comfortable with, you're going to have anti-government sentiment," he says, "and a lot of it is going to be Libertarian."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
French voters have spoken, and they've ousted their president, Nicolas Sarkozy. We'll go to Paris in a few moments, but first to our cover story.
Somewhere on the path to the White House this year, a powerful set of ideas began to creep into the mainstream debate over which direction the country will take, and these are ideas that not too long ago were written off as marginal or, even worse, a little kooky. And those ideas come from Libertarians - free and open markets and extremely limited government in economic and social policy.
Now, while GOP candidates were squabbling and attacking each other earlier this year, most of them, including Newt Gingrich, were fawning over another one: Ron Paul.
NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, as you say in your own - normally in your own speeches, the housing bubble came from the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply. Now, that's the core of the housing bubble, and I happen to be with you on auditing the Fed and on - and frankly on firing Bernanke.
RAZ: Our cover story today: the mainstreaming of libertarianism and how it's influencing the Republican Party. Congressman John Campbell from California hands out copies of Ayn Rand's libertarian bible "Atlas Shrugged." Senator Rand Paul has spoken of her work as the foundation for his political beliefs. At Tea Party rallies, it's not uncommon to see signs reading: Who Is John Galt, a reference, of course, to that book. And the man widely seen as the intellectual architect of the new Republican spirit is Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan who said this a few years ago.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.
RAZ: This weekend, Libertarians have been in Las Vegas to nominate their candidate for president. His name is Gary Johnson, and we'll talk with him in a moment, but first to our correspondent David Welna, who is in Nevada and is covering both the Libertarian convention and the state Republican convention this weekend. And he's finding a lot of overlap.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In Nevada, there is a very strong streak of libertarianism. And, in fact, at the state convention here in Sparks, Ron Paul supporters vastly outnumbered the Mitt Romney supporters, and they managed to win most of the delegates to the national convention. Now, many of them are going to have to vote for Romney on the first round. But their point, they say, is that they want to influence the Republican Party with the thinking of Ron Paul with his libertarian ideas. And they feel that they've already won in a sense.
They say you hear other Republicans now talking about pulling out of Afghanistan and getting back to the gold standard and such things. They feel that their thinking has infected the party, and it seems in many ways that's their goal.
RAZ: Let me ask you about the Libertarian convention that you attended this weekend as well. What was the atmosphere like there? Was it energetic? Do people think, you know, we have a shot here?
WELNA: Well, I think that the convention in Las Vegas was an occasion for them to sort of look out and think about how do we get our message out more than how do we get our candidate to the White House. And I think that what they're really betting on is that Gary Johnson's standing in national polls could rise if Ron Paul drops out of this race. They're hoping that many of Ron Paul's supporters will jump over and support Gary Johnson.
If he gets 15 percent support in national polls, he would qualify for participating in the presidential debates in the fall and would get lots of national exposure. That is their fondest hope right now.
RAZ: That's NPR's David Welna in Reno, Nevada. Now, a lot of those Ron Paul supporters that Gary Johnson is hoping to attract, they're young. And a recent poll put out by Harvard's Institute of Politics suggests libertarian ideas are gaining traction with 18- to 29-year-olds. This week, we spoke to a few members of Students For Liberty. That's a national Libertarian organization.
Do you support gay marriage?
TODD HOLLENBACH: Absolutely.
ALEXANDER MCCOBIN: Yes.
MARIAH COSTA: Yes. Of course.
RAZ: So there we have Todd Hollenbach.
HOLLENBACH: I'm a MBA student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
RAZ: We also have Mariah Costa...
COSTA: And I'm a junior at Arizona State University.
RAZ: ...and Alexander McCobin.
MCCOBIN: Currently a graduate student at Georgetown University.
RAZ: Alexander's 26; Todd is...
RAZ: And Mariah...
RAZ: And we also asked them, would you end the war on drugs?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Are you religious?
HOLLENBACH: I'm agnostic.
MCCOBIN: I'm not. I'm atheist.
COSTA: I don't consider myself religious in the traditional sense, but I do believe in God.
RAZ: And, of course, there's this. Do you expect to see a Social Security check?
COSTA: No. No.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Now, for all those reasons and more, they're big fans of Ron Paul, a guy who is for limited government in all spheres. Ron Paul, of course, is still running for president on that message.
GARY JOHNSON: But I don't think he's going to win the Republican nomination, and so what happens to this message at that point?
RAZ: That is Gary Johnson. As we mentioned, he was nominated for president yesterday at the Libertarian Party convention in Las Vegas. And his platform?
JOHNSON: We're still engaged in the wars, marriage equality. I support marriage equality. I support drug reform. I mean, come on. Let's inject some common sense into all this. I don't think President Obama does so well when it comes to the pocketbook. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, you know, zero on civil liberties.
He talks about balancing the federal budget, but we're going to increase spending for the military, we're not going to do anything for Medicare? Well, that's just impossible. If either one of them get elected, four years from now, government is going to be more intrusive, and it's going to cost more.
RAZ: From which one do you think you will draw away more votes?
JOHNSON: Actually, I think it's going to be President Obama, and it's going to be from the standpoint of, you know, let's get out of Afghanistan tomorrow. Federal government's cracking down on medical marijuana facilities in California when he specifically promised, hey, if a state legislature or citizens vote on a medical marijuana program for their state, I'm not going to authorize a nickel to be spent getting in the way of implementation of those programs. So - and I think a lot of Democrats really do recognize the notion of being fiscally prudent. That, wow, this is not sustainable. If we don't fix this, there are...
RAZ: Gary Johnson is hoping to attract at least 15 percent in national polls. That'll make him eligible to appear in national debates with Mitt Romney and President Obama. Alexander McCobin, the student activist we heard from earlier, thinks Gary Johnson has a shot.
MCCOBIN: This is the most Libertarian generation that has ever existed. Growing up socially tolerant, questioning the impact of government intervention in the economy, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. I just think it's taking a little bit longer for people to realize that this is the Libertarian generation. But in 10 and 20 years, once our age group starts to have more of an influence in society, we're going to see very significant shifts in what's happening.
RAZ: Dave Weigel, who covers politics for Slate magazine, agrees to some extent, but he says it's not just young people who are increasingly embracing elements of Libertarian thinking, it's mainstream members of the Republican Party.
DAVE WEIGEL: You can date this, I guess it's useful to date it maybe in early 2009. The Republicans had lost everything. The Tea Party movement came up, and at first it really came out of conservative media, but it also came out of the activists. And the activists early on were Libertarians. So the first signs you would see, I guess at a February 2009 Tea Party I went to, I saw multiple Ron Paul signs, I saw multiple Ayn Rand quotes on signs.
RAZ: Who is John Galt?
WEIGEL: Who is John Galt? I mean, that picked up immediately. And I think the first thing they did was to kind of reinforce the fiscally conservative backbone of Republicans, gave them more arguments. The arguments they moved them on, I think to a lot of people's surprise, were the Federal Reserve and, in some ways, foreign policy. I mean, the Federal Reserve - this is an issue Ron Paul had been talking about in his two presidential runs before this one, talking about in Congress incessantly.
RAZ: And people thought he was nuts.
WEIGEL: It was seen as crankery because there was a community of economists who talked about this stuff and were put off to the side in a separate room, almost like that one room in "Animal House" where you're directed if you're not cool enough to get to pledge the frat. It took off, and I think it has a lot to do with just the economic crisis. When someone has a catchall silver bullet reason why the system failed us, people listen to that person. That's been the case multiple times.
In this case, Ron Paul had been talking about central banking and the lack of sound money for decades. His son used it successfully to win a Senate primary. When Newt Gingrich was dropping out of the race, Ron Paul thanked him for adopting his idea of auditing the Federal Reserve. I think it just goes to something very elemental that's been popular at various times in American history.
I mean, Andrew Jackson won in part because he wanted to dismantle the central bank. Some of the backlash to Woodrow Wilson had to do with this, and some of the backlash to FDR. I mean, it's - there is something in the American DNA that doesn't trust big central power and central banks. And this is that iteration of it, but it's not something Republicans 20 years ago thought much about at all.
RAZ: Speaking of 20 years ago, I mean, in the 1990s, support for the individual mandate was a conservative position.
RAZ: Of course, today, that is not. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the expansion of executive power was a conservative position. Today, of course, that's not. Payroll tax cuts - it was supported by John McCain and others on the right. Today, that puts you on the left. So it seems that a lot of the ideas now that are seen as conservative really are Libertarian.
WEIGEL: Yeah. The individual mandate is a good example because that was the market based Heritage Foundation response to a national health care system. That is now the standard Republican position. Mitt Romney, who with every advantage he had, had to scrape through four months of primaries in large part because he had to defend that position because the Libertarian idea that the government can't force you to do anything becomes so enforced in the party.
RAZ: Do you think it's a blip?
WEIGEL: I think kind of any outrage against the system only lasts as long as the crisis lasts. This crisis is lasting quite a while.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WEIGEL: I think if you're looking at the politics in other countries, actually where libertarians have previously been popular, if they were in the government, they've fallen off the cliff. Where they haven't been, they're kind of rising. I mean, you're seeing pirate parties in parts of Europe take off in popularity. They're very libertarian in the ways that we're talking about.
So I think as long as there's high unemployment and a high sense of fear about the entitlement state, the things we've gotten comfortable with, you're going to have anti-government sentiment, and a lot of it is going to be libertarian.
RAZ: That's Dave Weigel with Slate magazine. By the way, we asked Gary Johnson if he were on a medieval rack and being tortured, and he had to vote for either Mitt Romney or President Obama, who would he pick?
JOHNSON: Guy, I have summited Mount Everest. So they got me on this stretch machine, and I'm going to die, and I have to choose between these two guys - take this to the bank: I'm going to die. I'm going to die.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Stay with us for the latest on the French elections, new music from Jason Mraz, and the legendary Dick Cavett. That's coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.