Why Libertarians And Progressives Will Never Get Along

CREDIT: Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs
CREDIT: Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs

Unlike some progressives, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of a left-libertarian alliance. I like the libertarians line on the drug war, mass incarceration, civil liberties, corporate welfare, immigration, and restrictions on internet pornography and other infringements free speech. Libertarians are a net-positive influence on Republican foreign policy and some of their arguments for economic freedom contain important insights about oppression and domination. There’s a lot to recommend about “liberaltarianism,” in short.

And yet it never seems to amount to anything in real terms. At the recent anti-snooping “Stop Watching Us” rally, a rare concrete instance of liberaltarian connection, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson told Buzzfeed that libertarians were more naturally allied with progressives than mainline Republicans. So why did Johnson run for Governor (and President, before he defected to the Libertarian Party) as a Republican?

A new poll released on Tuesday squares the purported circle. Grassroots libertarians appear to place a far higher priority on the economic issues that bind them to the GOP than the social values they share with progressives. As a consequence, they hate Democrats and on-balance like the GOP. It doesn’t seem, in short, that American libertarians have much interest in building anything resembling a durable alliance with progressives.

Public Religion Research Institute’s poll found that seven percent of the total American populations were libertarians, as identified by their answers to a slate of nine broadly worded questions on foreign, economic, and social policy. Another 15 percent lean libertarian, so libertarian-ish Americans aren’t a meaninglessly small slice of the electorate.


But they are a highly conservative, Republican one. 57 percent of libertarians identify as conservatives in the PRRI poll, while a scant three percent identified as liberals. 45 percent of libertarians identify as Republicans and 39 percent “identify with the Tea Party movement.” 57 percent of libertarians have favorable views of the Republican Party, while a whopping 89 percent have unfavorable views of the Democratic Party.

Though people often assume libertarians vote third-party or not at all, that doesn’t appear to be true. Libertarians reported voting in primary elections at significantly higher levels than the general population, and a higher percentage of libertarians (80 percent) than white evangelicals (79 percent) supported Mitt Romney in the general election. Given that Obama was no worse, and in all likelihood better, on social issues and foreign policy from a libertarian perspective, that’s implicit evidence that libertarians tend to prioritize economic issues in their actual political.

As it happens, PRRI’s poll also provides direct evidence. The one thing that united libertarians, more than anything else? Opposition to Obamacare. An extraordinary 96 percent of libertarians had an unfavorable view of the law — eight points higher than the equivalent figure among self-identified Tea Partiers! Similarly, libertarians are more opposed to a minimum wage hike than Tea Partiers, while the two are equally inclined to oppose environmental regulations.

You might think libertarians would be similarly to the left of the Democratic Party on social issues, but that’s not quite so. On the banner issues, marriage equality and abortion, libertarians are to the right of Democrats. A majority outright opposes same-sex marriage, while libertarians are 14 points less likely to oppose making access to abortion more difficult than Democrats.

Moreover, on the social issues where libertarians really are more permissive than Democrats, they’re not as united as they are on opposition to Obamacare or distaste for the Democratic Party. For example, significantly more libertarians supported Mitt Romney for president than supported legalizing marijuana (80 percent to 71 percent, respectively).


What to make of these numbers? First, grassroots libertarians just don’t seem to share the priorities of libertarian intellectuals. While prominent libertarians often take a “pox on both their houses” approach to party politics, the libertarian movement’s base appears to vote like partisan Republicans.

Given what we know about American political behavior, this isn’t surprising. Americans basically don’t vote on foreign policy absent a massive ongoing ground war, which means one potential point of liberaltarian comity won’t end up mattering at the ballot box. Moreover, though many libertarians are registered independents, those folks basically all vote like partisans. Those well-established lines of research lend credence to the survey’s baseline finding that there simply aren’t many libertarians who flip back and forth between the parties.

Arguably, these libertarians are just being rational. Both parties are significantly more supportive aggressive counterterrorism policy and civil liberties restrictions than libertarians would like, and neither party has taken the lead on libertarian issues like drug law reform or cutting corporate welfare out of the tax code. Even though Republicans are bad on a lot of economic issues, the line goes, they’re still less statist than the Democrats.

On the other hand, you could just as easily imagine a different brand of libertarian making the reverse argument. A Republican party dominated by neoconservatives can’t be trusted not to start more disastrous wars, while Obama kept us out of Syria. The Republicans also want to use the power of the state to take away the rights of women and gays, our hypothetical liberaltarian would tell her right-libertarian friends, while Republicans have a proven track record of hollow promises on the deficit and entitlement reform. Some prominent libertarians, in fact, made similar arguments in 2008.

And yet, these liberaltarians just don’t seem to exist in the wild. Rank-and-file libertarians, it seems, are virtually all right-libertarians, concerned with shrinking the state’s economic footprint to the exclusion of other libertarian priorities.

It’s easy to see how this makes a libertarian-progressive alliance a pipe dream. Since libertarians don’t have the numbers to out-and-out displace conservatives as the dominant right-leaning ideology in the United States, they’ll have to operate inside the GOP coalition if they want to be involved in electoral politics.


But if libertarian voters place a premium on economics, they’ll be willing to support Republican candidates who veer hard right on role-of-government questions despite their foreign belligerency and social authoritarianism, Romney being the case in point. That means you’ll end up with comparatively few true libertarians like Rand Paul or Justin Amash, the kind of legislators who make temporary liberaltarian alliances possible on security and civil liberty issues, in office. You’ll more likely see Libertarians for Ted Cruz.

One final thing. The PRRI poll is just more evidence that, as much as people talk about the United States as being divided by social and foreign policy, it’s the role of the state in the economy that really divides us. That’s the fundamental fault line in American politics, and it explains why, as much as an alliance might make sense on some issues, progressives and libertarians will always end up on opposite sides of the political barricades.