Pew: What If The Libertarian Movement Doesn’t Really Exist?

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during an event at the University of Chicago's Ida Noyes Hall in Chicago on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles)
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New York Times Magazine boldly wondered this month if the “Libertarian Moment” had finally arrived. They splashed their cover with an image of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), widely seen as the man precipitating that moment and the most talked-about 2016 presidential candidate outside of Hillary Clinton.

But what if there is no movement for the moment? Who are the libertarians, really? That was the question posed by the Pew Research Center in a Monday blog post. And their findings could create some skepticism about whether there actually is any libertarian movement to speak of.

“There are still many Americans who do not have a clear sense of what ‘libertarian’ means,” Pew’s Jocelyn Kiley wrote, “and our surveys find that, on many issues, the views among people who call themselves libertarian do not differ much from those of the overall public.”

Some of the tell-tale signs were there. Self-described libertarians who could actually define the term — about 11 percent of Americans, Pew found — were more likely than the general population to support marijuana legalization and to believe government aid does more harm to the poor than good. That corresponds with their expected small-government philosophy.

But they then deviated on some of the issues with which the libertarian cause, and its personification in Paul, are most well known. “Libertarian” conjures anti-interventionism in foreign policy and absolutism in civil liberties. Think of Paul’s now-famous filibuster of the nomination of CIA director John Brennan over the possibility of military drones being used on U.S. soil.

But Pew’s research showed striking departures from the expected party line. Libertarians were more likely than the general U.S. population to say that it is better for the United States to have an active role in world affairs, according to the Center.

They even favored stop-and-frisk — the controversial policing tactic — a touch more than the average American, despite civil rights supposedly being one of the cornerstones of the libertarian movement.

Pew dug further into the numbers by looking back at its political typology report from June. Tellingly, out of the seven typologies that Pew identified within U.S. politics, “none closely resembled libertarians, and, in fact, self-described libertarians can be found in all seven,” Kiley wrote. In some of the early versions of the report, there was a group that looked like libertarians. They made up about 5 percent of the U.S. population.

That group was later discarded under Pew’s methodology, in part because the sample size was too small. But even that group was not a perfect manifestation of libertarians, Kiley noted.

“Many members of this group diverge from libertarian thinking on key issues,” she wrote, “including about half who say affirmative action is a good thing and that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost.”

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