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Progressivism vs. Libertarianism

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul's chances in 2016 hinge on a libertarian surge.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

American history swings between reform and reaction, between change and consolidation.

The nation’s history has been punctuated by reform movements aimed at welcoming previously marginalized groups into the body politic or extending the benefits of American prosperity and opportunity to those left behind. Abolitionism sought to end the evil of slavery, progressivism extended democracy at the ballot box and worked to protect consumers from rampant capitalism, and the New Deal — spurred by the worst economic dislocation in American history — instituted the social safety net.

Periods of consolidation followed each of these eras. For the last several decades, reaction has dominated American politics. The conservative movement, born in the Goldwater campaign of 1964, achieved electoral success under Ronald Reagan; it stressed reining in the New Deal by limiting the size of government, cutting regulations, and reducing taxes and spending. The relentless attack on government and taxation has brought to power a generation of ultra-conservative politicians who don’t want merely to limit government, but to hamstring it. The result: The political gridlock and dysfunction that has dominated politics for the last few years.

At the same time, gross inequalities caused, in part, by conservative deregulation and, in part, by the changing nature of the economy, which has concentrated wealth and eviscerated the middle class, has led to calls for reform. The Occupy Wall Street movement never gained traction, but its existence hinted at the discontent rooted in rising inequality.

Awareness of income inequality suggests an opening for a genuinely progressive movement, intimations of which can be found in the election of Elizabeth Warren to the Senate from Massachusetts and Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City. At the same time, some believe America ripe for a resurgence of a libertarianism rooted in removal of economic restraints — allowing for an unfettered marketplace — and the extension of social freedom signified by gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana.

The possible presidential candidacy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is seen as an indication of this libertarian surge. In a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, Robert Draper suggested that young voters lean libertarian and that a Paul presidential run might lure them into the Republican Party.

Draper isn’t the only political observer to suggest the nation is on the cusp of a “libertarian moment.” No doubt, America’s young are socially more liberal than their elders; no doubt many Americans are weary of foreign entanglements, a weariness to which Paul appeals; and no doubt many believe both political parties are full of political hacks interested only in winning the next election.

But none of that — nor all or it — adds up to a libertarian surge. Young Americans favor same-sex marriage and drug legalization and are less supportive (slightly) of Medicare and Social Security than their elders, but those positions don’t point to a libertarian trend. Rather, they indicate social liberalism and generational self-interest, as David Frum points out in an article in Atlantic.

Young voters are not the vanguard of an anti-government libertarian surge. Rather, young voters are the most pro-government generation since the one with direct experience of the Great Depression. A Pew Research poll from 2011 shows that Millennials — defined as those born after 1980 — prefer a bigger government that provides more services by a margin of 56 percent to 35 percent; all other groups provide majorities for smaller government.

This result is partly due to demographics: Non-white voters are more likely to favor government intervention in the economy than white voters, and there are many more non-whites among the young today.

The data suggest that young voters are ripe for a political movement that favors using government power to level the economic playing field and to provide necessary services AND that stresses social liberalism.

In other words, among the young the future of politics may have a progressive hue rather than a libertarian strain; its face may be Elizabeth Warren, not Rand Paul.

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