At the beginning of the primary season before the last election, I was just emerging from a long night of the soul with respect to politics. Literally in despair over the direction my country had been going for a long, long time, I began with little hope that anything could be done to really change it. It seemed that the anti-intellectual forces of social Darwinism that ensured dominance of the very rich and ferociously powerful were too strong ever to be defeated.
America was fighting wars for no reason, torturing prisoners in secret prisons, denying its responsibilities for global climate change, and fumbling its efforts to help its citizens in the aftermath of disasters like Katrina. Friends from abroad confirmed what I suspected about America’s image in the world: we were universally regarded with fear, contempt, and even pity, but rarely with respect. With the possible (and still puzzling) exception of Tony Blair, Bush didn’t seem to have many friends—and in Blair’s case, that friendship cost him his job.
Very familiar with the philosophy and work of Hillary Clinton, I had some hope that she would, if she could, inch the country back toward at least some grudging sense of purpose and responsibility. But could a woman really be elected in America? And could any coalition of reasonable, responsible people ever really change much of what had been so wrong for so long? It required a great leap of faith to even hope for any significant change.
Ever the optimist, though, I pasted a Hillary for President sticker on the rear end of my car and carried on with my life. It took a while for me and many others to come around to the realization that what we do, what we say, and who we vote for could really make a difference.
My work often brings me to college campuses, and as campaign signs began to proliferate, I began to see a lot of them there and elsewhere for some guy named Ron Paul. Who was Ron Paul? At first I was afraid he might be some kind of a spoiler, like Ralph Nader, whom I blame in part for the debacle of the 2000 election. But as I talked with a few people who sported those signs, I was puzzled by their lack of advocacy. People who pasted up Ron Paul signs didn’t seem to want to talk about their candidate; when asked, they’d shrug their shoulders and make some off-handed remark like, “If you don’t know, I really can’t explain it to you.”
The thing that was interesting about this was that those who sported Ron Paul buttons and signs seemed to have one thing in common, as near as I could tell—they were very, very bright. None of them seemed to think their candidate had any chance of winning the presidency, and being pragmatic, most probably held their nose (as one libertarian said to me) and voted for someone else in the end. However, Ron Paul made a significant showing in the primaries in almost every state, and in a close election, his votes could have skewed the results one way or the other.
Ron Paul and the libertarians are important—not because they’re likely to launch a convention in 2012 and storm the White House, but rather because they’re highly unlikely to do any such thing. Libertarians take pride in staying above the fray—in having, as they like to put it, “no dog in the fight” when it comes to politics. Being individualists, they prefer not to sully themselves by engaging in mudslinging in public arenas (and who can blame them?). Being intellectuals, they tend to communicate over the Internet and fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media. There they kibitz, mostly with each other, about the evils of government.
But like it or not, if you have more than two people in a long-term relationship, you’ve got “government” of one kind or another. And like it or not, the country is changing in a way that may make it impossible for libertarians to stay “above the fray.” In the next few election cycles, I think the libertarians will make a big difference.
First, as noted earlier, libertarians are no dummies. While they may be few in number, I suspect that they may represent a fairly significant percentage of intelligent, educated Americans who are socially and politically aware. They represent a brain trust, a sort of political secret weapon. If they continue to eschew the world of politics, they make a difference; if they decide to engage, the game will never be the same. People with power can’t avoid responsibility: if they use it or withhold it, they still affect the outcome of the enterprise.
Second, libertarians like to think of themselves—accurately, so some extent—as being somewhere off the spectrum of “right” to “left” political advocacy. They tend to side with the “right,” for example, when it comes to limiting taxes and big government. They tend to be “lefties,” however, when it comes to social issues. And they tend to put much more emphasis than either the right or the left on certain values, such as individual autonomy. As both the Republican and Democratic parties begin to splinter into rival factions—a new trend that may come to define this era in American political history—centrists of all kinds will begin to take on a degree of importance that far exceeds their numbers. (Just ask Senator Blanche Lincoln about that.)
Sometimes libertarians frustrate me because of their refusal to throw themselves behind important public initiatives, such as health reform. On the other hand, I definitely prefer their cerebral detachment and philosophical disinterestedness to hyper-emotional “teabag” Republicanism. I guess that’s why I currently define myself as a progressive Democrat: for my money, the libertarians are too intellectual, the Republicans are too emotional, and the Democrats are—just right!