In search of libertarians in America

The Statue of Liberty is pictured on Liberty Island in New York, October 13, 2013. The rise of the Tea … Continued

The Statue of Liberty is pictured on Liberty Island in New York, October 13, 2013.

The rise of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party’s own post mortem analysis in the wake of Romney’s 2012 defeat has created renewed interest in understanding libertarians in America, particularly the extent to which libertarians are animating the Tea Party and how they fit into today’s conservative political coalition. Despite the existence of a third political party bearing their name, the search for libertarians in America has presented challenges to researchers and pundits for decades. Simply put, true to their independent nature, libertarians often do not appear in the places where labels or elites proclaim they should.

PRRI’s newly released 2013 American Values Survey takes up the search for libertarians in contemporary America. Our findings show consistent libertarians constitute seven percent of the American public. This distinct group of Americans is overwhelmingly white and male, skews younger than the general population, and holds generally consistent libertarian views across a range of issues such as national security and international intervention, economic policy, and on personal liberty and social issues.

One of the most striking findings about libertarians in America is that they exist largely outside the boundaries of those who claim them. Given the strength of the two-party system in America, it may come as little surprise that only 15 percent of libertarians claim membership in a third party, such as the official Libertarian Party. However, it is notable that most (61 percent) libertarians also say they do not consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement, whose leaders have claimed is “a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.”  Viewed another way, only about one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans who say they are a part of the Tea Party movement are libertarian.

This elusive nature of libertarians among historically conservative constituencies also comes into sharp relief by comparing the relationship between libertarians and the Tea Party to the Christian right.  In 2010, PRRI uncovered the surprising overlap between the Tea Party and the Christian right, finding that approximately half (47 percent) of those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement also consider themselves part of the Christian right, an overlap that remains steady today at 52 percent.  By contrast, less than one-quarter (22 percent) of libertarians say they consider themselves part of the Christian right.

To give just a couple of examples of how strongly these differences in composition between libertarians and the Tea Party play out, consider the following chasms between these two groups on social issues. More than 7-in-10 (71 percent) libertarians favor legalizing marijuana, and nearly 6-in-10 (57 percent) oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. By contrast, nearly 6-in-10 (59 percent) Tea Party members oppose the legalization of marijuana, and 58 percent favor making it more difficult for a woman to obtain an abortion.

But how important are libertarians to future conservative political coalitions? Notably, libertarians make up a smaller proportion (12 percent) of the Republican base than other key conservative constituencies, such as the Tea Party (20 percent), those who identify with the Christian right (33 percent), or white evangelical Protestants (37 percent). Given their elusive nature and their smaller size, some conservative political actors might argue for writing them off.

Yet there are at least two reasons why conservative political strategists may want to embrace libertarians. First, they are active in primary elections. A majority (53 percent) of libertarian voters report they always vote in primary elections, a rate higher than voters overall and comparable to Republican voters. Second, and most important, libertarians (62 percent) are 20 percentage points more likely than both Tea Party members (42 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (42 percent) to be under the age of 50. While the inclusion of libertarians within the fold may not help Republicans solve their outreach problems with racial minorities, tapping this politically active, younger group could provide an important new infusion of energy and ideas into the party.

 

Robert P. Jones
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  • WmarkW

    Americans want a third way in politics, but it isn’t libertarianism.

    There are three primary economic political orientations: consumers of government (paid by taxes), business (paid by investments), and workers (paid by wages). The latter does not currently have a political party focused on its interests, which is not always in the middle of the other two. Subprime mortgages, illegal immigration, and the WalMartization of the economy, are all issues on which left and right stick it to workers. Obamacare will turn into another, if we can’t keep the plans we like.

  • WmarkW

    Americans want a third way in politics, but it isn’t libertarianism.

    There are three primary economic political orientations: consumers of government (paid by taxes), business (paid by investments), and workers (paid by wages). The latter does not currently have a political party focused on its interests, which is not always in the middle of the other two. Subprime mortgages, illegal immigration, and the WalMartization of the economy, are all issues on which left and right stick it to workers. Obamacare will turn into another, if we can’t keep the plans we like.

  • gladerunner

    Mr. Jones, you write this as if you have never met a libertarian. . .
    If that is the case, then greetings!
    I have been calling myself one since I discovered the term in the early 90’s. I have even ruin for office on the party ticket, twice. (no, I didn’t win, never thought I would)
    Though I am not now affiliated with the LP, every test/poll/survey I take still lumps me into the libertarian category.
    I am for legalization of MJ, pro-choice, pro-smaller government, pro-lower taxes, anti-patriot act, pro gay marriage, anti-theocracy, etc. I also support reducing the size of the military’s footprint on the globe. (even though I am also a veteran)
    I sometimes support D issues, sometimes R issues, because I see things issue by issue, not because they are D. vs.R.
    In fact I also occasionally disagree with the LP.
    For me, political choices are not about who is running the ball, it is more about if that particular ball is going in the right direction. If it is, I don’t really care who is carrying it.
    Sorry not to fit squarely on your charts, I can’t help that….maybe the charts/labels are the problem.
    Tea Party? No thanks. I support the reduce spending, lower taxes, reduce the size of the gvmnt stuff, but the socially conservative side, the Christian Right? No thank you, not at all.
    Questions?

  • gladerunner

    Mr. Jones, you write this as if you have never met a libertarian. . .
    If that is the case, then greetings!
    I have been calling myself one since I discovered the term in the early 90’s. I have even ruin for office on the party ticket, twice. (no, I didn’t win, never thought I would)
    Though I am not now affiliated with the LP, every test/poll/survey I take still lumps me into the libertarian category.
    I am for legalization of MJ, pro-choice, pro-smaller government, pro-lower taxes, anti-patriot act, pro gay marriage, anti-theocracy, etc. I also support reducing the size of the military’s footprint on the globe. (even though I am also a veteran)
    I sometimes support D issues, sometimes R issues, because I see things issue by issue, not because they are D. vs.R.
    In fact I also occasionally disagree with the LP.
    For me, political choices are not about who is running the ball, it is more about if that particular ball is going in the right direction. If it is, I don’t really care who is carrying it.
    Sorry not to fit squarely on your charts, I can’t help that….maybe the charts/labels are the problem.
    Tea Party? No thanks. I support the reduce spending, lower taxes, reduce the size of the gvmnt stuff, but the socially conservative side, the Christian Right? No thank you, not at all.
    Questions?

  • tonycentrist

    Well, I’d vote for you. Those positions are much closer to mine than any political party I know of. My take is that libertarians are hard to find because libertarianism is a process. Pragmatically speaking, too much of my life is controlled by forces outside of me. Thus, I support any action which gives me a little more control over my life. This is a process. The far left opposes the Patriot Act, I’m with them. The far right opposes the increasing federal invasion into education, I’m with them. It goes on and on. I simply want as much of my life as possible to be based on free associations with other free people. Oddly enough, I consider this to be a centrist position since it includes some ideas from the current political left and right. And perhaps that’s another place to look for libertarians – in the political middle. You will find that many of us are simply opposed to the overreach of the left on economic control and the right on social issues. And those are libertarian leanings.

  • tonycentrist

    Well, I’d vote for you. Those positions are much closer to mine than any political party I know of. My take is that libertarians are hard to find because libertarianism is a process. Pragmatically speaking, too much of my life is controlled by forces outside of me. Thus, I support any action which gives me a little more control over my life. This is a process. The far left opposes the Patriot Act, I’m with them. The far right opposes the increasing federal invasion into education, I’m with them. It goes on and on. I simply want as much of my life as possible to be based on free associations with other free people. Oddly enough, I consider this to be a centrist position since it includes some ideas from the current political left and right. And perhaps that’s another place to look for libertarians – in the political middle. You will find that many of us are simply opposed to the overreach of the left on economic control and the right on social issues. And those are libertarian leanings.

  • Crickey7

    What happens when you run into the real world limitations of the theory? Like the fact that at tiems, free markets actually require robust government intervention. The cost of capital on the capital markets would be far greater if every investor had to conduct its own due diligence, and had to reserve a hedge agaisnt puffery and insider trading. Or if banksand insurance companies had no insurance requirements, and economic downturns routinely resulted in massive flight of capital and market collapse.

    Or the fact that no one will ever pay for low probability, high loss events like earthquake monitoring. Or for food safety, assuming you could even trust any assurances. Or a thousand other examples.

  • Crickey7

    banks had no RESERVE requirements.

  • Crickey7

    What happens when you run into the real world limitations of the theory? Like the fact that at tiems, free markets actually require robust government intervention. The cost of capital on the capital markets would be far greater if every investor had to conduct its own due diligence, and had to reserve a hedge agaisnt puffery and insider trading. Or if banksand insurance companies had no insurance requirements, and economic downturns routinely resulted in massive flight of capital and market collapse.

    Or the fact that no one will ever pay for low probability, high loss events like earthquake monitoring. Or for food safety, assuming you could even trust any assurances. Or a thousand other examples.

  • Crickey7

    banks had no RESERVE requirements.

  • samsara15

    Economics is not everything. I think there is a future for libertarians. Perhaps you have enough of a valid point to justify a fourth party, or faction, however. Coalitions of various factions may be a way out of gridlock.

  • samsara15

    Economics is not everything. I think there is a future for libertarians. Perhaps you have enough of a valid point to justify a fourth party, or faction, however. Coalitions of various factions may be a way out of gridlock.

  • gladerunner

    Crickey7:
    Yours and many similar points are why I said I don’t always agree with the LP. Th LP published platform, not unlike D’s and R’s, tends to be a bit extreme in some areas. For me, being libertarian means I lean heavily in that direction, more so than others. I am not for the elimination of government, nor many of its functions. That’s why I stated that I examine issues, proposed legislation, rather than dig my toenails into a fixed, unbend-able position.
    The simplest answer is this, I am fiscally fairly conservative, socially pretty liberal. Neither the D’s and R’s have a place for that. That doesn’t mean that there is no overlap, it just means that neither D nor R alone best fits my core values. Much like Tonycentrist pointed out.
    Quite often libertarians are scoffed at for the extreme positions of a relative minority of purist libertarians, once again, not unlike the D’s and R’s.
    There’s a lot of real estate between the status quo and complete anarchy, a LOT of real estate.

  • gladerunner

    Crickey7:
    Yours and many similar points are why I said I don’t always agree with the LP. Th LP published platform, not unlike D’s and R’s, tends to be a bit extreme in some areas. For me, being libertarian means I lean heavily in that direction, more so than others. I am not for the elimination of government, nor many of its functions. That’s why I stated that I examine issues, proposed legislation, rather than dig my toenails into a fixed, unbend-able position.
    The simplest answer is this, I am fiscally fairly conservative, socially pretty liberal. Neither the D’s and R’s have a place for that. That doesn’t mean that there is no overlap, it just means that neither D nor R alone best fits my core values. Much like Tonycentrist pointed out.
    Quite often libertarians are scoffed at for the extreme positions of a relative minority of purist libertarians, once again, not unlike the D’s and R’s.
    There’s a lot of real estate between the status quo and complete anarchy, a LOT of real estate.

  • SimonTemplar

    Very well put. My only disagreement is with the idea that our current treatment of American workers is a product of modern conservatism. I agree conservatives are complicit in the current state of things. However, there seems to be an odd dynamic at work in our government. Regardless of who is running the show, conservatives or liberals, the same agenda seems to move forward. Different parts of it seem to move at a different pace depending on who is in charge, yet policies like NAFTA, the outsourcing of American jobs, etc. seem to continue whether the conservatives or liberals are running things.

    But you are right, conservatives should know better than to put the “Almighty Dollar” above the American Citizen.

  • SimonTemplar

    Very well put. My only disagreement is with the idea that our current treatment of American workers is a product of modern conservatism. I agree conservatives are complicit in the current state of things. However, there seems to be an odd dynamic at work in our government. Regardless of who is running the show, conservatives or liberals, the same agenda seems to move forward. Different parts of it seem to move at a different pace depending on who is in charge, yet policies like NAFTA, the outsourcing of American jobs, etc. seem to continue whether the conservatives or liberals are running things.

    But you are right, conservatives should know better than to put the “Almighty Dollar” above the American Citizen.

  • Asa Stone

    The moving assembly line vastly reduced the cost of automobiles allowing ford’s workers to purchase the model t’s they built. Vastly increasing the economic output per worker which caused their wages to rise. Wal-mart benefits lower income consumers so I don’t see what the problem is. It also provides jobs for people absorbing them into the workforce. NAFTA was a huge economic success. Barriers to trade protect special interests at the expense of everybody else. More regulations and more taxes on corporations create barriers to entry and reduces competition hurting the middle and lower classes. The economic policies of the current American Left are pro wealthy economics – sacrificing competition for cartels. If you want to discipline the banks, insurance companies, agricultural firms etc then taxpayers need to stop underwriting their risks, we should remove interstate trade barriers, and stop the taxpayer subsidies of farmers respectively. This is free-market economics. Hopefully the tea party and the libertarian movement can influence the republican party to adopt these principals. The modern democratic party is a lost cause.

  • Asa Stone

    The moving assembly line vastly reduced the cost of automobiles allowing ford’s workers to purchase the model t’s they built. Vastly increasing the economic output per worker which caused their wages to rise. Wal-mart benefits lower income consumers so I don’t see what the problem is. It also provides jobs for people absorbing them into the workforce. NAFTA was a huge economic success. Barriers to trade protect special interests at the expense of everybody else. More regulations and more taxes on corporations create barriers to entry and reduces competition hurting the middle and lower classes. The economic policies of the current American Left are pro wealthy economics – sacrificing competition for cartels. If you want to discipline the banks, insurance companies, agricultural firms etc then taxpayers need to stop underwriting their risks, we should remove interstate trade barriers, and stop the taxpayer subsidies of farmers respectively. This is free-market economics. Hopefully the tea party and the libertarian movement can influence the republican party to adopt these principals. The modern democratic party is a lost cause.