Libertarians sees the political mainstream inching closer to their points of view.
They see growing signs of their influence. Former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, an icon to the movement who sought the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, finished a strong third in the Iowa caucuses and was runner-up in the New Hampshire primary. His son Rand, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, has visited early presidential primary and caucus states and is regarded as a potential 2016 candidate. Libertarian views are helping drive Republican initiatives to defund Obamacare, keep the U.S. military out of Syria and implement big cuts in food stamps.
“We’re on the cusp of going mainstream,” said Matt DeVries, chairman of Liberty Iowa, headquartered in the nation’s first presidential caucus state.
Libertarians oppose government across the ideological and party spectrum, including regulation of abortion, guns, marijuana and marriage, and most military interventions.
But the movement’s limits also remain evident. At a recent gathering of libertarians in this Washington suburb, activists showed little taste for compromise, eagerly cheering the idea of a government shutdown that polls say most Americans don’t want. And while Ron Paul remains a beloved figure, some of his views remain highly controversial.
There’s also the organization problem. By its nature, a coalition of people espousing the power of the individual is not one easily organized. And the libertarian movement still tends to be a collection of causes that are not all an easy fit into the political mainstream.
Shem Kellogg, for instance, a civil engineer from Plaistow, N.H., is with the Free State Project. Its goal: To relocate activists to New Hampshire, thereby increasing libertarians’ political clout in that state. It advertises a “large home schooling community, no sales tax, no state income tax, large & active liberty community, seatbelt and helmet freedom,” among other lures.
Marc Hyden’s Brooklyn, N.Y.-based activist group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, is devoted to raising serious questions about the death penalty. “Some of us believe that the death penalty contradicts our values about protecting life,” the group explains.
Lois Kaneshiki of Altoona, Pa., would like Washington to leave the education system alone.
Dr. Steven Kreisman, a Charlotte, N.C., physician, wishes America would heed the objectivist teachings of Ayn Rand.
Some issues do bring everyone together. One is guns. The Senate earlier this year was unable to cut off debate on a measure to strengthen background checks, and even in the wake of the mass murder at Washington’s Navy Yard, just a few blocks from the Capitol, leaders concede they don’t have the votes to pass legislation.
That’s a big win for liberty and the Constitution, say gun rights activists, and they remind each other the next fight is nigh: The battle against making it more difficult for people with mental health issues to obtain guns.
“Anyone who’s seen a counselor could easily be entered into a database by some bureaucrat,” said Dudley Brown, executive vice president of the National Association for Gun Rights. “It’s an ingenious method of stripping Americans of the right to bear arms.”
Whether the movement has a strong voice in coming elections could well depend on who succeeds Ron Paul as its face. He’s still active, still revered for being resolute in his views, even when the political establishment derided him, but he’s no longer running for office.
“He was special. He had been there 30 years being true to his message, even when a lot of people didn’t care,” said Dave Wahlstedt of Liberty Minnesota.
Paul is pleased with what he sees today. “There is an influence and the people recognize that,” he said in an interview, but he insisted people not focus only on the Republican Party.
“I’ve always been interested in the philosophic approach that would eventually affect both parties. If we’re going to change the foreign policy and the monetary policy, it has to be broader,” he said, noting that the coalition against U.S. military action in Syria was bipartisan.
Rand Paul would seem to be the heir to all this goodwill, but his father is careful about dynasty talk. “I don’t think a lot about that. We don’t talk a lot about it,” Ron Paul says of a possible presidential bid by his son. “It goes unsaid he’s very interested. He’s working hard to achieve many of the things I want to achieve.”
Rand Paul is well aware that he’s got to show some appeal to more mainstream Republicans. “The appeal is not genetic,” warned Wahlstedt.
Ironically, Rand Paul’s path to the presidency could be derailed, or at least delayed, by the movement’s flirtation with success. Because libertarians see the Republican Party accepting a lot of their issues, they want more than ever someone who can win, and win with passion.
They want someone who can tie issues of the day to the broader philosophy, someone who can articulate themes like Ron Paul, determined but not strident, someone who can explain an incendiary issue like gun rights effortlessly and logically. Like Ron Paul, but not like Ron Paul.
“I think people are more interested now is that seeing that your right to defend yourself is a personal right, a constitutional right and it makes a lot more sense than taking away a right and letting a lot more people get killed,” Paul gently explained. “The main principle, the freedom philosophy, if everybody followed it would be an awfully peaceful world.”