I’ll admit it. I kind of lost it when Donald Trump won New Hampshire this week. I know, the polls showed it was a long time coming. But after Ted Cruz took him out in Iowa, I thought there was at least a chance that someone could repeat the performance and bruise the alleged tough guy’s ego enough to induce Trumper Tantrum part two. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Trump won New Hampshire with 35% of the vote; more than double second-place finisher John Kasich.
This presidential cycle, I’ve written extensively about how anti-establishment instincts are not inherently pro-liberty. If anything proves that from a data standpoint, it’s the fact that Trump won the New Hampshire towns where Ron Paul performed the best in 2012. Sanders also did well in those areas on the Democratic side. Of course, we don’t know how well Rand Paul would have done if he’d stayed in for New Hampshire. But polls showed him hovering around just 4% in the weeks leading up to the race. Dropping out to focus on his Senate race made sense at that point.
Simply put, it’s just not a good year for liberty on the presidential side. But what I needed to remember while I was busy seeing red on Tuesday is how much progress we have made. When Rand Paul dropped out after Iowa, the first thing I did was pen an optimistic piece about how much the liberty movement has accomplished in the past decade, and why there’s so much more to work toward. And as I raged on Facebook post-primary about how I feared my work had helped, even if slightly, to pave the way for the Trump juggernaut, I got a nice reminder that reinforced my typically optimistic outlook.
“Corie, I have about 40 colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus who agree with my principles and positions to a degree I never would have imagined just a few years ago,” wrote Congressman Justin Amash on my status. (How cool is social media, by the way?) “I’ve run openly as a libertarian Republican (without using Ron Paul’s more paleoconservative rhetoric that appeals to Trump voters), have been challenged aggressively, and consistently win by large margins,” he added. (True story; a Chamber of Commerce backed, self-funded challenger tried to take Rep. Amash out in a primary two years ago and failed miserably.) “Things are moving in our direction in the background, even as things get worse in the foreground,” he concluded.
The truth is, Rep. Amash is absolutely right. Congress is in a much better position to fight for reform than it has been in quite some time. And I’ve long expressed my belief that the fight for liberty is largely a generational one. I continue to believe that despite temporary setbacks amid the normal ebb and flow of politics. The vast majority of young Republicans tend to lean libertarian, and there are pro-freedom instincts present among Millennials – it just takes the right messengers to tap into. Some look at the support Bernie Sanders commands from young people and conclude that there’s no hope. He’s a socialist, after all! But it’s a lot more complicated than a cursory look reveals.
As Bonnie Kristian wrote at Rare this week analyzing a Nate Silver piece on Bernie Sanders’ youth support, “Silver argues, Sanders’ success—and Ron Paul’s success among the same Millennial generation—is about how ‘younger Americans view political labels like ‘socialist’ and ‘libertarian’ differently than older ones.’” As Kristian noted however, the data Silver presents shows that Millennials don’t actually like socialist economic policies. As she explained, “In other words, young people continue to be a little bit more left-wing than average, but they drift right with age. What else is new?” And as Kristian noted per Silver’s data, Americans under 30 actually have a more positive view of libertarianism than socialism.
Ultimately, I agree with Kristian’s take here: “Millennials like me have grown into adulthood with an awful economy and constant war. Each new newsday seems to bring yet another report of some secret, dastardly way the government is violating our liberties and trampling the rule of law,” she writes. “Of course, Paul and Sanders aren’t saying all the same stuff, but they are both saying that revolutionary change is long overdue. That’s incredibly appealing to the most politically independent generation ever.”
As Kristian adds, “[T]he good news is that libertarianism could well win out: Even with favorable feelings toward ‘socialism,’ Millennials are comparatively conservative with our money, ready for a more responsible foreign policy, and disinterested in running other people’s lives. That said, there’s certainly work to be done to provide Millennials the economic education they need to match their excellent pro-liberty instincts with specific pro-liberty policies. But economic education is hardly an insurmountable hurdle—and honestly, simply growing older and taking on more financial responsibilities can accomplish a lot in that regard. In short, Millennials’ political independence is no cause for dismay for anyone except the moribund political establishment we’re no longer willing to support.”
This is all a good reminder that there is a lot to be optimistic about. It’s true that nothing is foolproof and that there are authoritarian strains in our politics to be worried about. But there’s strong evidence that people are fed up with the status quo, and want something different. It’s up to libertarians to explain why our ideas are the best suited to fill the gap caused by a lack of trust in political elites. And we no doubt have a long and arduous road ahead. But as Matt Kibbe, the former president of FreedomWorks and head of a Rand Paul Super PAC recently wrote, “Rand Paul is out – but libertarianism is finally mainstream.”
Said Kibbe: “Rand has seeded another generation of liberty-minded young people, much like his father did in 2008 and 2012. When I was a kid, there was no broad social movement for liberty like we see today. Rand juiced the build-out of this community simply by being on the presidential stage, by offering a compelling alternative to the establishment’s failed foreign policies, and by speaking about civil liberties and the failures of mass incarceration to new audiences that few Republicans have been willing to engage with.”
There’s much to continue working for. As Kibbe said, “Politics is a lagging indicator of social change, and the measure of a social movement is better taken upstream from voter turnout.” As libertarians, I believe we should continue to tap into the dissatisfaction people very clearly and justifiably feel. Now is the time to continue making the case that our ideas are viable. We’ve made incredible progress in a relatively short period of time. Instead of giving up, we should double down and push harder. Libertarian Republicans may have lost the presidential battle this year, but the war no doubt rages on. And the truth is, the liberty movement has more ground troops now than at any point in modern history. As Rep. Amash suggested, I’ll keep fighting.
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Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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