Libertarianism is suddenly getting more attention from the mainstream media than it has in a long time, perhaps ever. And wherever you see it, there's a good chance that U.S. Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, is at least part of the focus. When the New York Times Magazine publishes a story about libertarians, it puts a picture of Paul on the cover. When veteran Washington Post reporter Dan Balz writes a story about the libertarian response to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, most of it is about Paul. Such attention isn't completely misguided (I'm doing it right now!), because Paul is a national figure who wants to be president of the United States, and that makes him important. But Paul's inescapable association with libertarianism shows the limits the philosophy faces if its adherents want to win political victories and not just intellectual satisfaction.
Libertarians won't hesitate to tell you that much as they might like Paul, in the end he isn't really one of them. Depending on where you want to draw the lines of ideological fealty, it's true. Rand Paul is what you get when you take a libertarian and give him national electoral ambitions.
It took Paul himself a little while to figure this out. The first time many Americans heard of him was during his 2010 campaign, when he expressed some complicated views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying that as much as he abhorred discrimination, he disagreed with the "public accommodations" provision in the Act forbidding businesses like restaurants from discriminating. The principle of individual freedom, he said, should prevail, even if it means the freedom of a business owner to discriminate.
In the days since (and after receiving a whole lot of unpleasant media coverage), he has endorsed the Civil Rights Act in its entirety. And that isn't the only difference between early Rand Paul and more recent Rand Paul. When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hit the front pages, he disavowed his previous position that all foreign aid should be eliminated, after he started getting uncomfortable questions about the fact that doing so would mean ending the $3 billion a year the U.S. gives Israel, our largest foreign aid recipient.
Even if being a little less ideologically predictable is part of Paul's appeal, it turns out that there are some positions that are negotiable for a Republican presidential candidate trying to win over primary voters, and some that aren't. A true libertarian can start off telling those voters that he favors low taxes and small government, and they'll cheer. He can tell them he's concerned about the militarization of the police, as Paul recently wrote eloquently about, and they might say, "I still think we need law and order, but I get what you're saying." He can tell them that government surveillance of Americans is getting out of control, and they might decide he has a point, even if they're still concerned about fighting terrorism. But if the libertarian candidate goes on to say that because he believes in maximal personal freedom, he also supports abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of drugs, they'll raise their eyebrows and say, "Hold on there, buddy."
That's not what Rand Paul will be saying; on those last three issues, he ranges from firmly Republican (he opposes abortion rights) to essentially Republican (he opposes same-sex marriage but says it should be left up to the states) to somewhat less Republican (he opposes legalization but has suggested some sensible reform of marijuana laws). In other words, he's about he's as libertarian as an ambitious Republican can be: pushing the GOP a bit on issues where the party is pulled by competing impulses (like law and order vs. skepticism of state power), but safely in the fold on every issue where there's consensus in the party.
The libertarian response would be: That's exactly why we don't consider ourselves Republicans, even if we agree with the GOP on economics and the size of government. It's a philosophy whose adherents place a high value on consistency, and think that if you're against overweening government involvement in the market, you also ought to be against overweening government involvement in the bedroom. The trouble is that political power in America runs through the two parties. That doesn't mean it can't be wielded from outside, but almost every movement that wants power finds it by making itself a de facto part of one of the two competing teams. The few exceptions are those that have an army at their backs. The AARP has tens of millions of seniors it can reasonably claim to represent (and who vote); the big banks have an arsenal of cash. But nearly every other powerful group—whether organized around a particular issue, a demographic category, or a lifestyle affinity—gains its power from making itself indispensable to a party.
So even if libertarians are finding their ideas discussed more now than ever before—having their "moment," as so many articles have it—their opportunities for wielding influence are seriously limited. Consider the contrast with the Tea Party. Why was the Tea Party able to exert so much power over the GOP? Because even though they, too, claimed they were above partisanship (they all retroactively decided they had opposed George W. Bush for increasing the deficit), they organized almost entirely within the GOP.
It helped that, unlike libertarians, Tea Partiers had virtually no policy differences with the Republican establishment. Almost all the arguments between Tea Party and non-Tea Party Republicans are about tactics; not "Should we slash spending?" but "Is shutting down the government a good way to achieve the goal of slashing spending?" But they were able to organize in Republican primaries and make the party fear them.
It's safe to say that Republican Party leaders don't fear the libertarians as a group. And like it or not, being feared is usually what gets results on the issues you care about.
One product of the fear of the Tea Party was that nearly every elected Republican (including Rand Paul) rushed to associate themselves with it. Some were more sincere than others, but it meant that the movement had lots of elected officials carrying its banner. The number of Republicans who'll loudly proclaim themselves to be libertarian, on the other hand, remains limited, "libertarian moment" or not.
Rand Paul may be the most famous libertarian in America, but the more serious his presidential candidacy becomes—and it's starting to look quite serious, given the collection of extremists and chuckleheads against whom he's likely to compete, and the fact that he's shown himself to be terrifically skilled at garnering positive media attention—the more he'll resemble an ordinary Republican.
That will be even more true if he becomes the Republican nominee. I doubt Democrats would have too much trouble making hay out of some of his earlier ideas, like moving toward privatization of Medicare and Social Security. Don't be surprised if in response, just as he did with the Civil Rights Act and Israel, he says that's not really what he believes, and he's quite friendly with some forms of big government.
Should that occur, libertarians will no doubt feel disgusted, and maybe even a little betrayed, even if they had no illusions that Paul would always be with them. Were a purer libertarianism a recipe for electoral success, that's what Paul would offer. But it isn't.