It’s the holiday season, the news is slow, and I’ve been thinking about things that I probably shouldn’t be thinking about. One is how to convert the latent “small L” libertarian potential of Virginia’s electorate into a meaningful political force.
A large percentage of the Virginia population, I firmly believe, is what writer Lee Harris has termed “natural libertarians” — libertarians by inclination, not ideology. In 2011 he wrote prophetically:
The natural libertarian, whenever he feels that his self-image as a free and independent individual is under assault, will turn to a defense mechanism that is not listed in the classic Freudian inventory: he will become ornery. … Orneriness is often a highly effective defense mechanism against bossy people and bullies. …
One of the most striking characteristics of ornery people is that they don’t want to boss other people around any more than they want to be bossed around themselves. … The ornery man’s idea of liberty is the liberty to be left in peace, to tend to his own affairs, to pursue his business, make his home, raise his kids, without being told what to do or how to do it by other people.
Without question, orneriness fueled Donald Trump’s electoral victory — although I am not sure how natural libertarians will feel about their new president after he has governed a couple of years. Be that as it may, the live-and-let-live, leave-me-alone-and-I’ll-leave-you-alone impulse is a strong one in Virginia. Natural libertarians skew toward Republicans and conservatives on issues relating to fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less regulation but they lean toward Democrats and liberals on cultural issues such as gay rights and abortion. The Republican-Democratic duopoly offers no haven for natural libertarians.
A February 2016 Wason Center poll indicates how much of the population is up for grabs. Here’s how the Virginia electorate broke down by party loyalty:
Republican — 21%
Independent, leaning Republican — 20%
Independent — 16%
Independent, leaning Democrat — 14%
Democrat — 24%
More than half the electorate describes itself as independent to greater or lesser degree. The Wason poll also provided this breakdown by liberal/conservative ideology:
Strong liberal — 5%
Liberal — 13%
Moderate, leaning liberal — 15%
Moderate, leaning conservative — 25%
Conservative — 23%
Strong conservative — 10%
Moderates outnumber both liberals and conservatives (although by a smaller plurality than independents outnumber Rs and Ds.) I would bet that if you queried most moderates and independents, you would find them to be natural libertarians. If the natural libertarians had a party that fully represented their priorities, it would dominate state politics.
Given the make-up of the electorate, I cannot help but wonder why the “Big L” Libertarian Party hasn’t made bigger gains in the Old Dominion. Robert Sarvis won about 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, a record, but he was running against duopoly-party candidates with high negatives: Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli. It’s far from clear that a Libertarian candidate would fare as well in 2017.
One reason for Libertarians’ limited electoral success might be be that the party duopolists have stacked the rules of the game against third-party upstarts. Strict balloting rules compelling third-party candidates to gather 10,000 signatures to run for statewide office is one example. Gerrymandering safe districts for Republicans and Democrats is another.
A third explanation for limited Libertarian Party success in Virginia is the widespread perception that Libertarians are a fringe group of crackpots and dope smokers preoccupied with nutty ideas such as legalizing drugs, abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, or eliminating the military. Many voters regard Libertarians as dreamy utopians with little inclination to engage in the nitty-gritty work of governing. I believe that view is unfair, but without question the view must be overcome.
To achieve electoral success in Virginia, Libertarians must identify issues that will gain traction with the huge number of “natural libertarians” out there and build a broad coalition of like-minded constituencies. They also must advocate a politics of the possible. Repealing the income tax, a fiscal impossibility in Virginia, is not an option. Libertarians have a lot of thinking to do. While news is slow during the holiday season, I will sketch out some ideas.