For half a century, the microgovernment movement known as libertarianism has lapped at the beach of American politics.
Sometimes, the tide rolls slowly; other times, it’s a bigger wave.
This summer, the surf is up.
From issues like same-sex marriage and legal marijuana to restrictions on government spying and U.S. intervention in foreign affairs, the nation is engaged in a new “libertarian moment,” politicians and political scientists say.
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“The libertarian mindset – just leave me alone, get government out of my way, government shouldn’t tell me what I can or cannot do – that is definitely a larger and more active group than I’ve ever seen before,” said Missouri Sen. Brad Lager, a Republican from Savannah.
Brink Lindsey, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, sees the same phenomenon.
“The libertarian impulse is especially prominent right now and getting attention,” he said.
That impulse isn’t aimed at dramatically increasing support for the existing Libertarian political party. Approval for that has been stuck in the low single digits for decades and is likely to stay there, observers said.
It’s also likely to have little impact in the Democratic Party, which shares libertarians’ enthusiasm for civil liberties, but little else.
Instead, “small-l” libertarians have turned their attention to the Republican Party, where a fierce battle for message control is now underway.
• Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul, a leading libertarian voice, recently engaged in a nasty public battle with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over government surveillance policy: Paul wants more limits on secret surveillance; Christie, also a Republican, does not.
• Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, libertarian Republicans, threatened to shut down the federal government over funding for the Affordable Care Act. The suggestion worried more mainstream Republican office holders, who prefer other approaches to repeal or reform Obamacare.
• In July, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas voted against a new farm bill, earning applause from libertarian groups but frowns from the House GOP leadership. Huelskamp cast a “no” vote despite representing one of the biggest agricultural districts in the nation.
• Huelskamp recently joined with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and other liberal Democrats to support new libertarian restrictions on government eavesdropping.
• This spring, libertarian Republicans in statehouses across the country, including Kansas and Missouri, approved new expansions of gun rights, a popular libertarian goal. Libertarians also are pursuing gun rights at the city council level.
• Missouri lawmakers rejected calls to expand Medicaid in the state and opposed Agenda 21, an obscure environmental initiative that they said threatened property rights.
• Lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri, worried about libertarian privacy concerns, considered bills this spring limiting drone aircraft.
In these cases and others, GOP libertarians fought mainstream, business- and compromise-oriented Republicans in an effort to promote their views.
“It’s animosity towards government,” said Jim Staab, a University of Central Missouri political science professor.
Libertarian movements aren’t new, of course. In the 1970s and again in the 1990s, many small-government conservatives drifted toward the libertarian approach whenever they believed GOP positions had drifted too far to the middle.
But the current libertarian moment may be getting a unique boost from younger politicians and voters. They’re blending socially tolerant views on same-sex marriage and drug use, experts said, with the anti-authoritarian ethos of the online generation to embrace a libertarian world view.
“They came of age in a very different world than their parents,” said longtime GOP consultant Jeff Roe, who called libertarians a “significant” force in the Republican party.
Al Terwelp, chairman of the Kansas Libertarian Party, said libertarians have changed.
“Fifteen years ago, (we were) a bunch of middle-aged white guys debating philosophy,” Terwelp said. “That has significantly changed. ... There are lots and lots of young people.”
Even with support from younger voters, though, it isn’t clear if the current libertarian moment can last.
In 2010, the tea party movement made a similar anti-government case, only to watch its influence dwindle following internal arguments over tactics and commitment to the cause.
And libertarians may soon face a similar choice between ideological purity and a message aimed at a broader audience, some said.
“In the past, there have been libertarians who have said you can’t be a libertarian because you’re not libertarian enough,” Terwelp said. “We have been working on that. ... (But) we’re not changing our principles.”
Indeed, libertarians can sometimes stumble over the full implications of their agenda.
The Libertarian party platform, for example, says abortion should be left to “each person for their conscientious consideration.”
That’s a bridge too far for many current GOP libertarians like Paul, Cruz and Huelskamp, who consider themselves strongly pro-life. Their views on same-sex marriage and recreational drugs are also nuanced.
Broadening libertarianism to include traditionally conservative views on social issues could draw more regular Republicans into the anti-government effort. At the same time, classic libertarians might be lost.
“The libertarian perspective is politically homeless,” said Cato’s Brink Lindsey. “It doesn’t fit left or right. Republican Party or Democratic Party ... if it pushes too hard, it gets pushed back.”
David Browning, who ran for Missouri attorney general on the Libertarian ticket, is equally direct.
“Republicans want to be libertarians,” he said. “But in the very end, they still believe in government solutions.”
That kind of talk worries Vicki Sciolaro, chairwoman of the Kansas GOP’s 3rd District. She’s met with Rand Paul and leans to his views but opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
She wants the party to unite around a single message instead of arguing over a libertarian vs. traditional approach.
“It’s a combination,” she said. “We need to focus on working from the grass roots up ... and let the people decide.”
For the next three years – until the next presidential election – Republicans will likely argue over the libertarian approach, some political analysts said, then make a choice.
“It’s high time for the Republican Party to have this fight and to see which faction voters will favor,” Trevor Burrus of Cato wrote on Wednesday.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a more traditional Missouri Republican, agreed. He faced a tea party Republican in the 2010 GOP primary and won handily.
“We need to figure this out,” he said. “It’s not about the end goal, it’s about strategy and tactics.”