Natural Libertarians, a Virginia Majority

Natural Libertarians -- leaving other Virginians alone since 1776.

Natural Libertarians — leaving other Virginians alone since 1776.

It’s the holiday season, the news is slow, and I’ve been thinking about things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about.  One is how to convert the latent “small L” libertarian potential of Virginia’s electorate into a meaningful political force.

A large percentage of the Virginia population, I firmly believe, is what writer Lee Harris has termed “natural libertarians” — libertarians by inclination, not ideology. In 2011 he wrote prophetically:

The natural libertarian, whenever he feels that his self-image as a free and independent individual is under assault, will turn to a defense mechanism that is not listed in the classic Freudian inventory: he will become ornery. … Orneriness is often a highly effective defense mechanism against bossy people and bullies. …

One of the most striking characteristics of ornery people is that they don’t want to boss other people around any more than they want to be bossed around themselves. … The ornery man’s idea of liberty is the liberty to be left in peace, to tend to his own affairs, to pursue his business, make his home, raise his kids, without being told what to do or how to do it by other people.

Without question, orneriness fueled Donald Trump’s electoral victory — although I am not sure how natural libertarians will feel about their new president after he has governed a couple of years. Be that as it may, the live-and-let-live, leave-me-alone-and-I’ll-leave-you-alone impulse is a strong one in Virginia.  Natural libertarians skew toward Republicans and conservatives on issues relating to fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less regulation but they lean toward Democrats and liberals on cultural issues such as gay rights and abortion. The Republican-Democratic duopoly offers no haven for natural libertarians.

A February 2016 Wason Center poll indicates how much of the population is up for grabs. Here’s how the Virginia electorate broke down by party loyalty:

Republican — 21%
Independent, leaning Republican — 20%
Independent — 16%
Independent, leaning Democrat — 14%
Democrat — 24%

More than half the electorate describes itself as independent to greater or lesser degree.  The Wason poll also provided this breakdown by liberal/conservative ideology:

Strong liberal — 5%
Liberal — 13%
Moderate, leaning liberal — 15%
Moderate, leaning conservative — 25%
Conservative — 23%
Strong conservative — 10%

Moderates outnumber both liberals and conservatives (although by a smaller plurality than independents outnumber Rs and Ds.) I would bet that if you queried most moderates and independents, you would find them to be natural libertarians. If the natural libertarians had a party that fully represented their priorities, it would dominate state politics.

Given the make-up of the electorate, I cannot help but wonder why the “Big L” Libertarian Party hasn’t made bigger gains in the Old Dominion. Robert Sarvis won about 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, a record, but he was running against duopoly-party candidates with high negatives: Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli. It’s far from clear that a Libertarian candidate would fare as well in 2017.

One reason for Libertarians’ limited electoral success might be be that the party duopolists have stacked the rules of the game against third-party upstarts. Strict balloting rules compelling third-party candidates to gather 10,000 signatures to run for statewide office is one example. Gerrymandering safe districts for Republicans and Democrats is another.

A third explanation for limited Libertarian Party success in Virginia is the widespread perception that Libertarians are a fringe group of crackpots and dope smokers preoccupied with nutty ideas such as legalizing drugs, abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, or eliminating the military. Many voters regard Libertarians as dreamy utopians with little inclination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of governing. I believe that view is unfair, but without question the view must be overcome.

To achieve electoral success in Virginia, Libertarians must identify issues that will gain traction with the huge number of “natural libertarians” out there and build a broad coalition of like-minded constituencies. They also must advocate a politics of the possible. Repealing the income tax, a fiscal impossibility in Virginia, is not an option. Libertarians have a lot of thinking to do. While news is slow during the holiday season, I will sketch out some ideas.

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7 responses to “Natural Libertarians, a Virginia Majority

  1. Does anyone know where Sarvis did particularly well in Virginia? My thought would be for the Libertarians to start there and build local office holders.

  2. I’d agree – but such a person would find themselves voting time and again in opposition to what other elected both Dem and GOP, even hard core conservatives would vote for on a consistent basis.

    I know of almost no place – in this country or other countries where the populace votes “libertarian”. It’s almost as if it’s a symbolic vote when a self-professed “true” Libertarian gets a substantial number of votes.

    The actual Libertarian “position” is somewhat vague on some things and on others like abortion – they’d automatically lose a substantial number of would-be voters since their position is that the govt should not be involved in that decision ( at least what I’ve read that was purportedly the position of the Libertarian party. Then on the Health care side – they’d undoubtedly lose those who depend on Medicare or even employer-sponsored insurance if the govt rule for pre-existing conditions was to be repealed.

    I just don’t see the Libertarian party – that stays true to it’s core principals as gaining the support of very many people.

    The support they have is sort of “cafeteria” with variable serving sizes. Some things folks might support partially to a certain extent, but others would be a deal-breaker so in the end, I suspect, Libertarians get the “I don’t like the other choices” vote.

    I would be curious to see if there are places on the planet – where Libertarians are strong… and the govt minimal and weak.

  3. “Many voters regard Libertarians as dreamy utopians with little inclination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of governing.”

    Well, yes, compared with someone who’s come up through the ranks of local government and won the endorsement that comes from all those endless meetings, they have no experience to show, or brag about, and showing up just to run for a top office without prior experience means the poor guy has to talk about something different, something simplistic and startling, something outrageous even. And what, pray tell, gets the attention of activist college kids these days but utopian dreams and legal dope and all that other Sanders-style stuff.

    Gary Johnson was a former Governor, and Bill Weld also, but they got elected at the State level as Republicans not as Libertarians. I feel you are correct, the game is stacked against third party candidates, and that leaves most of us trying to decide whether column A or column B is closer to the whole of our views. “The Republican-Democratic duopoly offers no haven for natural libertarians.”

    But that begs a question: why aren’t there more “natural libertarians” as you call them among those who run for local Republican office? Why do we end up with these hard-right social-agenda neo-con types dominating the only party that talks (or used to, anyway) basic economic sense. Is it the party conventions, the shrill chorus from Fox News, the Jerry Falwells, a difference in levels of education, the unattractiveness and impracticality of isolationism, or what, that gives the non-libertarian crowd such a dominant voice on the right?

    There are libertarian tendencies on the left, sure, particularly as to social issues, but they’ve always seemed to me to be overwhelmed by the basic preference on the left to get the government involved — not only in allowing enlightened arrangements but in forbidding criticism of them.

    So I guess I come out, very reluctantly, in agreement with LarryG, “I just don’t see the Libertarian party that stays true to its core principals as gaining the support of very many people.”

  4. You never know how politics will turn out. It’s always SEEMED like the Libertarians had more in common with the GOP than the D’s.

    But if you’ve been reading Libertarian blogs and message boards since Election Day, you’d think the Libertarians and D’s are about to merge. Most Libertarians seem to be hostile to, if not scared of, Trump. They tend to view free trade and a market-oriented global order as much more important than exchanging GOP repeal of some domestic regulations for protectionism and tariffs and a mercantilist global order.

    Politics is always changing and weird. 30 years ago, would anyone have imagined that the Democrats would be the party of free trade, globalization, and global markets? And the GOP would be the party of protectionism, isolationism, and tariffs? That would have been unthinkable in 1986.

  5. well I think a few simple questions will separate the herd:

    1. should the govt be involved in health care?
    2. should the govt regulate insurance?
    3. should the govt insure that food and drugs are safe?
    4. should the govt provide public education?
    5. should the govt prevent pollution – as opposed to people being able to sue after the fact?

    I have about 20 more of these but I you hold Libertarians feet to their “principles” – you’ll find they are not at all like Dems in a lot of areas and, in
    fact, not like Conservatives either – when it comes to things like abortion, National Defense, Immigration, etc.

    I think Libertarian candidates purposely keep these issues low key and vague because they know if they truly run on their explicit principles.. they have not got a chance. So they basically run to get the votes that folks don’t want to give to Dems/GOP but they’re not seriously supporting Libertarianism either.

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