The Real Leader of the “Libertarian Moment”

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The libertarian movement is far from over, as evidenced by the successes of laissez-faire ideology and advocate Grover Norquist.

Last October, Senator Rand Paul posed for the cover of TIME Magazine. Sitting in a wooden chair, casually glancing at the camera, he sported a white collared shirt (sleeves rolled up) and something of a cross between a determined glare and exasperated frown. The article detailed how this “Most Interesting Man in Politics” was to reinvent the Republican Party. He loves civil liberties! He detests NSA spending! He appeals to millennials! He actually attended and spoke at an NAACP convention! The so-called “libertarian moment” was beginning, and Paul was at its helm.

A year later, Paul was featured on a Politico article with a much different pose. Donning a suit and American flag pin and staring at the floor, he fit the picture of a dejected presidential candidate. The title was no longer about his “Reinventions” but instead his “False Rise and Fall.”

The media overestimates libertarians, or so the article claimed. This movement surely must have gained traction because supporters are overrepresented among online bloggers and right-wing think-tanks. A Pew Poll was quoted that discovered only one in 10 Americans could even define libertarianism. “He was supposed to embody a libertarian moment,” author Michael Lind wrote. “But there never was one.”

It is hard to conjure up another time in history when an entire movement was defined by just one person. Ideology shifts cannot be confined to one candidate in one presidential election. The fact that Rand is polling around two or three percent does not discredit the strides libertarians have been making for decades.

Libertarian policies, whether openly defined as such or not, have been pervading recent politics. Marijuana has been legalized to some extent in 23 states and the District of Columbia despite federal law forbidding possession, gay marriage was legalized through state legislatures in 10 states before June’s Supreme Court decision, and, while 58 percent of Americans support stricter gun control laws, the number of concealed carry permits in the United States jumped from 4.5 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2014. A recent poll revealed more Americans support same-sex marriage than not, but a majority also favor religious exemption. While these may seem like two popular views juxtaposed, one conservative and one liberal, it truly is one view: the libertarian idea that the government should not restrict anyone from receiving a marriage license or freely practicing their religion.

If, however, these trends are not enough and we must look to one single influential person in order to legitimize the “libertarian moment,” we need not look farther than one of the most powerful political advocates of the 21st century.

The name Grover Norquist evokes praise from some and aversion from others. His organization, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), is best known for the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a document incumbent politicians and candidates sign, promising to oppose net tax increases. Though there are no specific consequences to breaking the pledge, politicians are rightfully scared to do so. In a recent release announcing Chris Christie’s signing of The Pledge, ATR pointed out that all Republican candidates in the 2012 election signed it with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who subsequently dropped out of the race after receiving few votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The fear Republican candidates have of breaking the pledge is easily identifiable. During a 2012 debate, when the moderator asked the candidates to raise their hands if they would walk away from a 10:1 spending cuts to tax increases deal, every single candidate raised their hand. None of them would agree the spending cuts would be worth increasing taxes, even by the smallest amount. President George H.W. Bush’s famous “Read my lips” moment and subsequent signing of new taxes into law—which may have ultimately have cost him a second term in office—is enough to prove the political damage of breaking this pledge. In the 2016 election, nearly all Republican candidates have signed The Pledge, with the exception of Donald Trump and former Governors George Pataki and Jeb Bush.

It is undeniable that Norquist and his organization influence American Republican politics immensely, but, while The Pledge deals solely with tax reform, Norquist’s ideology extends much farther.

Take, for example, immigration. In an op-ed in The Guardian, Norquist opened with “people are an asset not a liability” before launching into a defense of the never-passed 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Norquist writes about this proposed bill offering legal status and path to citizenship as if it were a stimulus package, stressing that immigration reform will increase productivity of our economy, eventually increasing GDP growth and reducing the federal deficit.

Immigration is just one of Norquist’s political opinions that greatly strays from the mainstream Republican party, but perhaps his proven influence will extend beyond The Pledge, pulling the party as a whole to a more libertarian message.

While Politico was wrong in placing all libertarian hopes on Rand Paul, they were right about one thing: there never was a libertarian moment. There has yet to be one single event that converts America to the laissez-faire political philosophy. Instead, there currently exists a libertarian movement, one that can be characterized by a subtle shift in public opinion across a variety of issues, and the rise of Grover Norquist, an advocate with extreme views and a lot of political capital.

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