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Elusive Libertarians
Do "libertarian leanings" constitute a significant political movement?


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A number of commentators have recently taken up the notion that libertarianism has become a significant force in contemporary American politics. This conviction is partly based on the assumption that, by being different from both liberals and conservatives, libertarians can enter coalitions with both, thus boosting their political power beyond their numbers. For example, David Kirby and David Boaz of the Cato Institute recently argued that, although unaware of the appropriate label for their beliefs, a significant number of Americans have “libertarian leanings” and that they are not only swing but bellwether voters; their support for Republicans, for example, ominously dropped 13 points during George W. Bush’s years in the White House. Several libertarians have argued that progressivism is, at the very least, as much a natural ally of libertarianism as is conservatism, and have advocated a fusion between the two, dubbed liberaltarianism.

On the face of it, this is not an unreasonable argument. However, our polling data at Zogby International indicate that libertarianism does not play as significant a role as the media hype would suggest. Very few people claim adherence to libertarian philosophy. Among those who do, a majority identifies with the political Right because of the large role economic freedom plays in libertarian ideology. For the most part, libertarians are a fraction within the conservative coalition — not a stand-alone movement.

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Here are some of our data that show this. As a rule, we at Zogby ask two questions about ideology: a qualitative one, where people can choose a political label — progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, or libertarian — and a quantitative one, in which we ask them to position themselves on a 1–9 ideological scale, where 1 is extremely liberal and 9 is extremely conservative.

In all our surveys, almost all our respondents answer both questions. Our December 2009 survey results are typical. First, we found 2 percent of likely voters describing their ideology as “libertarian.” Second, over 90 percent of these self-described libertarians were willing to position themselves on a continuum between Left and Right — although they were free to say they were “something else” or “not sure.” Of those who answered the question, 89 percent chose 5 or higher, with most choosing 6, 7, or 8. Here are the average scores for various ideological groups on our 1–9 scale in our December survey:

 Average ideological score on a 1-9 scale
Progressive1.7
Liberal2.8
Moderate4.8
Conservative7.1
Very conservative8.3
Libertarian6.4
Total5.2

 

To be sure, libertarians and conservatives have quite different views on a number of issues. For example, when we ask questions about foreign policy, we find that voters who describe themselves as libertarians often hold views that are a combination of those held by progressive and very conservative voters. Here is just one example:



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