Libertarianism’s Limited Appeal


For a long time I have heard that libertarianism is the wave of the political future, the coming force in American politics.  Maybe it will turn out to be so, but it has not yet.

There certainly does not seem to be much appetite for libertarianism in the Democratic Party.  Libertarianism is primarily about individual freedom or autonomy.  The Democrats, however, are more concerned with issues involving equality and inequality.


We might expect to find that libertarianism has more influence within the Republican Party.  The Republicans, after all, are more inclined to frame their message in terms of individual liberty.  Nevertheless, it does not appear to be an environment in which libertarianism is flourishing.  The national political figure who has, more than anyone else, presented himself as a libertarian is Rand Paul.  Rand Paul is now running for the Republican nomination for the presidency, and his campaign is stuck in the low single digits: 2.6% in the Real Clear Politics average of the national polls.

I don’t mean this as a slam on Rand Paul.  He is intelligent and earnest.  I am just pointing out that there just does not seem to be much of a national constituency for libertarianism.

Another point related to this one.  At National Review Online, Jim Geraghty has a piece pointing out how little Donald Trump–the Republican frontrunner–uses the words “liberty” and “freedom” in his speeches.    The piece is mainly just an observation, but the tone of it seems to suggest a criticism of Trump on this score.

But one might–without necessarily agreeing with any of the specifics of Trump’s campaign–think that he is on to something here.  The Republican Party and the conservative movement have relied heavily on appeals to “freedom” and “liberty” in recent years, but such appeals have not delivered them the successes they have sought.  To that extent, it might be wise to find some other way–or some additional way–of presenting the party’s policies.

This is not to say anything against freedom and liberty, which are on any account core American values.  It is only to suggest that these terms on their own don’t give a party or a political movement the full vocabulary it would need to talk about the common good in a way that would appeal to a sufficient number of voters.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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