It’s official: Rand Paul, the libertarian conservative Republican senator from Kentucky, is running for president. He doesn’t have a chance.
Rand’s lack of prospects says a great deal about the political limitations of his libertarian creed and its relationship to its big brother, conservatism.
Libertarians, like conservatives, assert a passionate belief in individual freedom, which they see threatened by “big government.” Like traditional American conservatives, libertarians deplore government intervention in economic life, but they see threats to freedom in places where conventional conservatives are quite comfortable with big government. Unlike most conservatives, libertarians oppose high levels of military spending and the associated proclivity for military interventions overseas. Libertarians also warn against official intrusions on privacy and civil liberties undertaken in the name of national security. And libertarians oppose the legislation of morality in areas like abortion rights and gay marriage. In short, while libertarians appear relentlessly consistent in their defense of freedom, conservatives really are mainly concerned with economic freedom; specifically, the freedom to make and keep money without government interfering.
Rand Paul hopes to get to the White House by obtaining the presidential nomination of his party, a party dominated by conservatives and reactionaries who have little use for his libertarian eccentricities. It is hardly surprising, then, that Paul has shown himself to be something less than a pure libertarian. He has long opposed abortion rights, and is amenable to constitutional or legislative proscriptions of gay marriage. Most recently, he has walked back from his previous strong opposition to big military budgets and overseas adventurism. Paul knows that a pure libertarian cannot hope to win the Republican nomination for any high office. That’s not going to change.
Libertarianism is doomed to a minority status within the Republican Party because it doesn’t offer a programmatic formula for success in American politics, as conservatism does. Both libertarians and conservatives embrace economic policies that disproportionately serve the interests of a relatively small segment of the population. But conservatives have come to understand—experientially, if not consciously—that economic elitism doesn’t win votes. They know that they must find other bases of political appeal–so-called “wedge” issues–that override or distract from economics in people’s minds. And so, with varying success at different times, conservative Republicans have exploited anti-communism, nationalism, racism, “family values” and fears of terrorism to augment their naturally limited appeal. To be clear: I’m not saying that Republicans consciously choose wedge issues to distract, only that over time they have found that strategy to work and so have adopted it habitually. And, since people have a psychological need to actually believe what they find they must say, Republicans have come to adopt the very same views and values that underpin their strategy of distraction.
Libertarians, by contrast, are hobbled by their principled consistency. Most of the conservatives’ wedge issues are unattractive to libertarians, who really do believe in freedom,* not just economic freedom. So, attacks on civil liberties or abortion or gay rights or calls for a garrison state to fight foreign enemies aren’t part of the libertarians’ political arsenal. Unwilling to resort to wedge issues, libertarians are left basically with an elitist economic program plus some sensible proposals, like curtailing the war on drugs, that just don’t do the political job that wedge issues do for conservative Republicans.
Paul understands this; hence his departures from libertarian orthodoxy. But even his libertarianism lite remains suspect to the traditional conservatives and reactionaries who dominate his party. The NY Times’ Nate Cohn has pointed to polls that show that only 8% of self-identified Republicans consistently support libertarian issue positions: “The libertarians remain too young and too few to present Senator Paul with a realistic path to the nomination.” Cohn speculates that this could change “perhaps in a decade or two.” I don’t think so. Libertarianism will never be more than a small current—essentially, an intellectual cult–within American conservatism and its Republican party. Libertarians don’t have a faux populist social agenda to distract people from their elitist economic agenda. Politically, that puts them close to nowhere.
* even though, as I have argued elsewhere, theirs is a highly constricted and myopic understanding of freedom.