Senator Rand Paul is dropping out of the presidential race, a move that has journalists reaching back to 2014, when Paul was leading the polls and people were arguing that he was a good fit for a “libertarian moment” in American politics. The evidence for that “moment”: Marijuana legalization and official recognition of same-sex marriage had both grown in popularity; Americans were weary of foreign intervention; and Americans remained skeptical of government activism. Young people were supposed to be particularly susceptible to libertarianism.
Some people are now arguing that Paul squandered the libertarian moment. Others say that the rise of the Islamic State put an end to that moment. The truth is, though, there never really was such a moment. Young people are not especially libertarian–just look at the polls on how they feel about socialism. They did not vote for Rand Paul at especially high rates. The public’s shift on same-sex marriage was not a turn toward limited government as a political philosophy, which is why the movement for same-sex marriage did not have to pause for a moment to turn into a campaign to coerce bakers and florists. And anyway, rising support for same-sex marriage was always an odd argument to make for the political attractiveness of Rand Paul, since he opposes it.
Because he bought the hype about the “libertarian moment,” Paul thought he could win the Republican nomination, and so he tried to offer a presentable version of his father’s purist, cranky libertarianism. Because there was no such moment, he didn’t win the new supporters he had expected, and his compromises alienated his father’s supporters. This campaign was never going to go the distance, Islamic State or no Islamic State.