The PJ Tatler

A Sober Takeaway from Rand Paul's Decline

Rand Paul polls at 1% among Republican voters. His campaign has failed to live up to expectations set just a year ago. This was to be the libertarian moment, when a broad groundswell of support rendezvoused at the intersection of libertarian ideas and pragmatic campaigning. Alas, it seems no such intersection exists.

Jerry Taylor wrote for Fox News earlier this month of “the collapse of Rand Paul and the libertarian moment that never was.” Jason Farrell recently followed-up at Western Journalism, writing:

The lack of a broad-based movement, despite a number of high profile campaigns and events, is a bitter pill for libertarians who believe in electoral politics. Having libertarians in office may help raise the profile of issues like overcriminalization, tech freedom, and the insanity of the drug war. But those who await a libertarian takeover of the GOP misunderstand the fundamentally radical nature of libertarian ideas and how deeply that radicalism conflicts with the perceptions most Americans have about the role of government.

That’s a hard lesson for liberty activists, but an unavoidable reality manifesting in a variety of ways. Taylor cut to the heart of the matter in his earlier piece:

It’s true that if we avoid asking people about concrete issues and instead ask general questions, we can (if we squint hard enough) see a great deal of latent libertarian sentiment out there.

It has been noted, for instance, that 59 percent of the American public is, broadly speaking, libertarian in that they answer “yes” to the question “Would you define yourself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal?” Political scientists and campaign strategists, however, almost universally dismiss self-identification and general sentiment surveys as functionally meaningless. Both academic investigation and hard-earned political experience tell us that attitudes about specific governmental programs are far more telling than asking people what labels or characterizations describe them best.

By that standard, when you ask people for their sentiments toward Social Security or pre-existing conditions, it becomes clear that libertarianism remains a fringe ideological niche rather than an consequential political movement. Farrell expects that will not change any time soon, and suggests single-issue activism as a more effective use of libertarians’ time than fielding presidential candidates.