Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Iowa, New Hampshire, and soft libertarians

by George J. Dance

As a political junkie, I eagerly turned to the news this morning to see the New Hampshire primary results. Not for the winners: I expected Trump and Sanders to win. (They both had won the earlier  Iowa caucuses.) I was looking further down, to see how the 'soft libertarian' candidates in the major parties would perform.

What is a 'soft libertarian'?, I hear you ask. I can best explain that term by pointing to the Nolan Chart [pictured at right], that classifies voters into four quadrants: liberal (or progressive), conservative, libertarian, and statist (authoritarian or, at the very bottom point, totalitarian). A 'hard' voter is totally committed to one of those four ideologies; a 'hard libertarian,' for example, is someone whose political beliefs put them up at the top point of the diamond. A 'soft libertarian' would be anyone else, whose political beliefs are less extreme (or less consistent, or more independent) but still land them inside the libertarian quadrant.

Depending on how they are measured, soft libertarians make up as much as 25% of voters. Traditionally the Republican Party has owned that vote: since the 1970s at least, soft libertarians have been voting GOP, by margins as high as 75%. However, Ross Perot's candidacies cracked that party's hold on many of those voters; and while George W. Bush brought them back, he didn't hold them long. A large number of soft libertarians voted Democratic in 2006 - I don't know the number, but it was a big factor in the Dems taking both houses of Congress that year. Obama's two terms, and the Tea Party movement, brought many back to the GOP, but whether they'll stay with it this time is frankly questionable.

In 2012 and 2016, the only candidate appealing to soft libertarians was Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. And, to the extent he was heard, they responded. Johnson got the LP its two highest vote totals, over 1 million in 2012 and over 4 million in 2016. After that, one would think, the larger parties would have tried to capture those voters by offering them something. Instead, both parties have tacked toward one or another variety of statism: Democrats have flirted with socialism, the Sanders wins being enough said. Meanwhile, the GOP is shedding its libertarianism, replacing the Reaganist ideology of fusionism (which specifically included and appealed to libertarians) with corporatism, or as some call it, "economic nationalism".

As this month's featured post (from the London School of Economics' US Centre) explains, soft libertarians could be kingmakers this year. However, rather than attract soft libertarians, both Democrats and Republicans seem intent on driving them away. 

Hence the importance of the New Hampshire results, as the first test of where the soft libertarian vote would go. Because of the Free State Project, that state has an outsize proportion of libertarians both hard and soft. New Hampshire also has an open primary, where anyone - Democrat, Republican, other party, independent, or even a habitual non-voter - can vote in either the Democratic or the GOP primary.

There was a soft libertarian, Bill Weld and Tulsi Gabbard, running in either party. Both are strong opponents of interventionism, the surveillance state, the drug war, and the imperial presidency; while both also have held non-libertarian positions, most notably on gun control. Both were counting on soft libertarian support in New Hampshire. So how did they do?

Gabbard's campaign, with its strong opposition to an interventist foreign policy, was endorsed by libertarians from Ron Paul to Gary Johnson. She ended up with under 4% of the vote, nowhere enough to make her a contender. She will be gone from the race in a month, and with her will go most of her party's appeal to soft libertarians.

Weld's campaign is more problematic. He beat expectations, but fell short of the 10% he was hoping for. (He received 9%.) He is wealthy enough to fund his own limited campaign, so he will stay in and hope for a breakthrough somewhere else. But, so far, his campaign is not resonating with soft libertarian voters, either.

That leaves a better-than-ever opportunity for the Libertarian Party, if they cared to reach out to those voters with another 'soft libertarian' campaign like the Johnson ones. However, many LP members seem determined to run anything but. Libertarians didn't vote in New Hampshire yesterday; but based on last weekend's Iowa caucus vote, a plurality just shy of a majority is backing Jacob Hornberger, a thinktank founder and director, who wants to run to 'educate' Americans with a hard libertarian message.

To repeat, the soft libertarian vote could be key to deciding this election. If faced with the alternatives of statism (either the more progressive variety of socialism or the more conservative variety of corporatism) versus hard libertarianism, where will they turn?

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