It turns out the death of the Liberty Movement has been greatly exaggerated.
At the first sign of some sputtering from the presidential campaign of “libertarian-ish” Sen. Rand Paul, critics and pundits gleefully took to the web to declare the so-called “libertarian moment” over. But those seeking evidence of the continued relevance of America’s youngest and most vibrant political faction may just be looking in all the wrong places.
Of course one shortfall in the arithmetic of those waiting to dance on the grave of libertarianism is that it attempts to judge the fate of a movement by the electoral success or failure of a single candidate. That doesn’t make sense by anyone’s standards, but makes even less sense in relation to a group as ideologically diverse as the Liberty Movement.
Contributing to the confusion were many liberty folks who placed all their eggs in the basket of the Randidacy from the get-go; attempting to force the movement into the shape of the younger Paul despite widespread hesitation within libertarian circles about some of his statements and associations.
When you work to make your movement synonymous with a candidate, don’t be surprised when people declare the movement dead with the campaign.
But that’s only half the story.
Libertarianism is not complex, but neither is it as simplistic as Republicanism plus marijuana. Ron Paul’s liberty movement looked very different region to region, and the political movement spawned by it is still incredibly diverse: his campaign in the Midwest was dominated by staunch constitutionalists and conservative Christians, while in other parts of the country it was led by the more widely-stereotyped fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal types. These activists still lead their respective state and local efforts, and priorities vary.
While we all agree on reducing the size of government, maintaining a foreign policy that is less prone to adventurism, and stopping the absurd fiscal wrangling of the Federal Reserve, there are a number of issues where the Liberty Movement doesn’t have everything ironed out – and that’s okay with us.
The tension between left-libertarians and right-libertarians within the movement has been thick at times, but it has also forced us to focus on areas of agreement in which we have gained outsized influence.
Freedom, as Ron Paul always said, brings people together.
But this year, a new free-market dynamic has broadsided the movement – competition.
Much has been made of the rivalry between Rand Paul and fellow whacko-bird Sen. Ted Cruz in the presidential race, with both men battling for the support of the anti-establishment conservatarians that form the backbone of the Liberty Movement.
The conflict has simmered under the surface for some time, but erupted this week after a straw poll at the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) National Convention showed the two candidates enjoying similar support levels from the predominantly-libertarian crowd. Rand Paul walked away with the most votes, 57% of the crowd giving him the thumbs-up. Cruz nipped at his heels with 51%. No other candidate broke 20% (the poll used the approval method – allowing voters to choose more than one candidate).
Team Cruz released a statement celebrating their strong second place finish in a poll that was universally expected to be a walk-off homer for Rand, while the Paul campaign fought to box out the competition by declaring that the six-point win “united” the movement behind their candidate.
Libertarian WWIII began soon afterward, as Paul’s not-so-subtle slight unleashed a torrent of online arguments that stretched far beyond the poll or the candidates, calling into question the unity of the movement and prompting a good laugh by the talking heads at Fox News.
But behind the drama of the close finish and the consequent tussle lies a simple and incredibly exciting truth for those with libertarian priorities:
Nobody fights over dead movements.
The fact that two high-profile candidates for the GOP nomination are investing time and resources to court the liberty vote shows that libertarians are still an influential and important voting bloc within the party, and a force to be reckoned with in at least two of the three early states.
With all of the attention on the rise of ISIS and President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, libertarian foreign policy ideals have fallen out of favor with the GOP electorate, creating even more political risk for candidates who dare to oppose unrestrained foreign intervention. This shift has been read by candidates like Carly “Cold War” Fiorina and Sen. Marco “March ‘em in” Rubio as an invitation to the ultimate stick-measuring contest.
But while the rest of the field competes for the title of top hawk, two candidates have attempted to walk back the rhetoric, arguing that moderation and common sense play a vital role in our national security as well – and that not every conflict needs to be resolved with bombs.
These candidates are asking the right questions about our foreign policy, carving out positions that not only set them apart from the rest of the field, but can also sway a number of important liberty voters their way in the election.
And polls continue to bear out the wisdom of embracing America’s libertarian streak.
In late September, Rand Paul, steadily declining in national polls, showcased his libertarian policy views during the second Republican debate – chastising defense hawks on the stage and emphasizing constitutional limits. A subsequent Reuters poll showed his support nearly double. Two weeks later, Rand made headlines by asking the obvious with regard to Afghanistan: Why are we still there? Later that same week, Paul earned the RLC win.
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz flashed his noninterventionist colors in a radio interview where he called American intervention in Syria a “mistake” and distanced himself from hawkish politicians he claimed were “eager to send our sons and daughters over to fight.” The same week, Cruz granted a lengthy interview to the aptly-named Liberty Conservatives website, in which he highlighted his libertarian credentials, quoting Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises and sounding off on issues from the Fed to drug law federalism.
It turns out Liberty is still popular.
This isn’t the first time Paul and Cruz have seen their efforts woven together for the benefit of the Liberty Movement. Even in areas of disagreement, both have been out of step with neoconservative orthodoxy, and out of sync with moderate Senate leadership – and nearly always in a libertarian direction.
From auditing the Fed, to protecting internet freedom, to abolishing the IRS, to advancing criminal justice reform, the two have found themselves side by side, using their senate tools and social media platforms to advance the cause of liberty.
Even in the contentious fight over renewal of the Patriot Act, both had important roles to play: Without Rand Paul’s filibuster and outright opposition to renewal, civil libertarians would not have had the leverage to pass the USA Freedom Act, which stopped the Federal Government’s mass collection of bulk metadata and installed key civil rights protections. Conversely, without Cruz and Lee’s staunch promotion of the Freedom Act compromise, the most likely end result would have been a full reauthorization of the Patriot Act and the continuation of the NSA’s unbridled civilian spying.
Throughout 2015, competition for libertarian support has brought unprecedented attention to the Liberty Movement, spawning dozens of articles that showcase our state and national leadership and place a spotlight on our issues.
Thanks in part to the elbow-jostling of the two campaigns, attendance at the RLC conference was up 400% from the last biennial meeting. Little-known libertarian activists in early states have had their names added to campaign leadership lists and blasted in press releases all over the country – not as divisive Ron Paul insurgents, as we surely would have been tagged in previous cycles – but as coveted political activists capable of turning grassroots influence into primary wins.
Ron Paul’s army of internet warriors and libertarian activists has not disbanded, it has simply matured into something Nickel Creek might term “a little less promising, a little more useful” – a political machine capable of influencing multiple campaigns and achieving real change in state and federal policy.
Which is, you know, what this whole thing is about.
Cruz may carry his fundraising and organizational momentum to the nomination. Rand Paul may bounce back and see a Rick Santorum-esque caucus win that propels his campaign back to the top of the conservative coalition. Or both may fade and fall victim to the Trumpmania currently driving a stake into the heart of conservative hopes for 2016. But win or lose, the libertarian message has been on display this cycle in two very different styles, and the rivalry between the two constitutional stalwarts has given the movement a chance to gain more numbers and more experience, building on the successes of 2012 and reeling in conservative voters who may never have accepted libertarian ideas from Ron Paul. There is a real sense in which the movement is not passing, but building.
Perhaps we are not witnessing the end of the libertarian moment, but the dawning of a libertarian day.