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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Libertarians on the Net

I’m sure Matt Compton will do a more definitive post on the subject here directly, but I wanted to draw your attention to the Washington Post story today about the Ron Paul Phenomenon: the eccentric presidential campaign that’s almost entirely internet based (70 percent of his impressive money haul was raised online).
While the piece (by Jose Antonio Vargas) provides a useful summary of the Paul campaign, it does include one real howler that I’m surprised got by the editors:

There are shades of Howard Dean here, the way the insurgent Democratic candidate embraced the Web in 2003. And shades of McCain, too. The Arizona senator raised $1 million in two days online in 2000 after beating Bush in the New Hampshire primary.
But the most fitting analogy, political analysts here say, might be Patrick Buchanan. Though Paul has not been a general in the culture wars like Buchanan, both men come from the old right of the GOP, pols who champion limited government and fiscal conservatism. Buchanan was barely registering in the New Hampshire polls months before his surprise defeat of Bob Dole in 1996.

In his blind-men-describing-the-elephant approach to Paul, Vargas does not appear to realize that Ron Paul, far from representing the “old right,” is a libertarian. He was the Libertarian Party nominee for president in 1988, and spoke at that party’s national convention as recently as 2004. (The Libertarian nominee in 2004, Michael Badnarik, has endorsed Paul this year). His obsessive support for a return to the gold standard, for repudiation of international institutions and agreements, for wholesale abolition of federal agencies, for junking the “war on drugs,” and for elimination of overseas military commitments, are all libertarian boilerplate positions. Maybe Vargas was thrown by Paul’s extremist anti-abortion views, which are not characteristic of most libertarians (though as Grover Norquist once shrewdly observed, while all anti-statists believe abortion should be a matter of individual choice, they disagree about how many individuals are involved in the decision).
But confusing Paul with Buchanan, a man whose ideological lodestars are early-nineteenth-century Whiggery and early-twentieth-century Catholic Corporatism, just because both have opposed wars in Iraq, is a bit like identifying John Edwards with Tom Tancredo because both favor repeal of No Child Left Behind.
Once Paul’s libertarian identity is understood, his Net Power isn’t that mysterious. From the beginning, libertarians have always had a wildly disproportionate presence on the Internet. I learned this personally way back in the late 1990s, as I reported more recently in a New Donkey post:

I used to do a regular column for an e-zine called IntellectualCapital that posted comments after every article. It didn’t matter what I wrote about; within two comments the threads invariably degenerated into an intra-libertarian food fight over slavery-as-a-contract or privatizing the sidewalks or Ayn Rand’s Epistle to the Californians, or whatever.

The Post story sparked a fun exchange between Kate Sheppard and Ezra Klein over at TAPPED, wherein Kate wonders if Paul’s inability to turn all this cyber-juice into votes is a function of the Net-deadening Iowa Factor, and Ezra responds that crazy people are far better at creating blogospheric buzz than in attracting actual voters.
Just my point. The Internet is a tool that can be used by anybody, but is best used by people who actually represent a mainstream point of view.

2 comments on “Libertarians on the Net

  1. David_T on

    Ed, I think you are underestimating Paul’s ties–and those of a whole wing of libertarians, the so-called paleolibertarians–to the Old Right. (It is not surprising that one of the most prominent paleolibertarians, Justin Raimondo of antriwar.com, was a Buchanan supporter, as was the late Murray Rothbard.) Note that not only on abortion but on immigration Paul takes a traditionalist-conservative view.
    The strength of Paul, indeed, is that while he can get the support of some of the more “sophisticated” *Reason* type of libertarians, especially because of his anti-war stance, he also clearly has roots in the Taftite Right of the 1950’s, which we should recaall was also anti-interventionist (or “isolationist” if you prefer) in foreign as well as domestic policy. I doubt that he could get the support he has gotten in some conservative straw polls (most recently in Nevada) without that background.

  2. nfreeman on

    Libertarians aren’t just on the net: There’s an interesting discussion going on in New Hampshire right now about how recently transplanted people from Massachusetts have affected the state’s voting trends. Part of the argument is that the “Free State Project,” a movement encouraging libertarians to “vote with their feet” and move to New Hampshire so they have at least one state where they can have a significant impact on public policy, has caused the state to lean more towards Republican candidates.
    If this hypothesis is true, it’s arguable that Gore’s loss in 2000 wasn’t caused by “hanging chads” as much as it was caused by moving libertarians. Gore lost NH by a mere 1.27% and the state’s 4 electoral votes would have been enough to give him the presidency.
    Just some food for thought.


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