Ever since college, I have been enamored by the political and social philosophy of Libertarianism. I might even say that I tend to be a Libertarian, but in a qualified way.
The Libertarian Party, the largest third-party and only other national party besides the Democrats and Republicans, is an interesting mix of people. During the 1980 presidential election, the Libertarian Party decided to field a national campaign on par with the Republican and Democratic parties. They had a large national convention and poured a lot of money into national advertising. Ed Clarke, their presidential candidate, was a telegenic and competent speaker. The party steered clear of the more controversial issues that fringe Libertarian Party members champion – like the legalization of drugs – and really did mount a solid national campaign. If my memory is correct, the party garnered 5% of the national vote. It was quite a good showing for a third party, particularly during an election year when John Anderson conducted a very successful independent presidential bid. The party hasn’t done nearly as well since, although they still field a large number of candidates and do win some local elections (I think they have one member in the Congress).
Most people who know anything about Libertarianism consider them to be “Conservatives,” but frankly the political philosophy is something in-and-of itself – different and distinct from conservative and liberal philosophical traditions. Most philosophical-Libertarians situate themselves within the Republican Party primarily because of general agreement on governance issues – they are opposed to government intrusion into citizen’s lives, they favor small government, federalism, free-enterprise, and most fundamentally individual liberty. These points have been traditionally shared by Republican conservatives, although the Republican Party right now is controlled by a cadre of people who I don’t think are truly “conservative.” I don’t know what they are, but some have termed them “neo-con’s.” In today’s political and social climate, Barry Goldwater might well have described himself as a Libertarian rather than a Conservative.
The thing that generally separates most Libertarians from run-of-the-mill Republicans is a more live-and-let-live mentality when it comes to social or moral issues. This belief gets them into trouble with current-day Culture-War Republicans who have replaced economic issues with morality issues as the party’s primary focus (aside from the “War on Terror”). A lot of philosophical-Libertarians who do not belong to the Libertarian Party (because of the traditional problems with all third-parties – lots of kooks as members) have become more and more frustrated with Republican Party leaders and the neo-con rank-n-file who are determined to impose a very narrow and sectarian view of morality upon the rest of the citizenry.
I was listening to NPR the other day and a fellow from the CATO Institute (a Libertarian thank-tank) wrote a piece in the current issue of The New Republic musing over that fact that philosophical-Libertarians are beginning to look to the Democratic Party as a viable alternative to the Republican Party, which they view as having rejected traditional conservative ideals of limited government, economic freedom, and personal liberty – thus, the “Liberal-tarian” moniker.
When it comes to social and moral issues, I think Libertarians will find themselves more comfortable in the more moderate Democratic Party (strongly liberal-minded Democrats have become the minority in the party). The problem many Libertarians will have with many Democrats will be over personal responsibility and liberty issues. Libertarians are far more likely to take a strong stand on person responsibility over life decisions and livelihood then some more “democratic-socialist” minded Democrats. Really, if the Republican Party still stood of solidly Conservative principals, Libertarians would still be right there in the midst of the party.
It will be interesting to see where Libertarians end up. It all depends, I think, on whether traditional conservatives will take back the Republican Party from the Religious Right and Neo-Conservatives. It also depends on whether more leftist-minded Democrats begin to exert more influence once again on the Democratic Party. The country is far more conservative than it was back in the ’60’s and ’70’s. While most Republicans askew Libertarianism, it is still a constituency with enough Republican members to make or break some elections. Perhaps, perhaps the Libertarian Party could take advantage of all this and become a true third-party alternative. I think we need a strong alternative, but that party has a long way to go to be an honest option for most Americans.