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Tom Head

The Libertarian Party Takes a Hard Right Turn

By May 26, 2008

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More About: Bob Barr on Civil Liberties | The Libertarian Party Platform | The Religious Right

Bob Barr
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images.

In 1988, the Libertarian Party was divided. Its platform had always endorsed social libertarianism, and naturally included a pro-choice plank--supporting "the right of women to make a personal choice regarding the termination of pregnancy." But a former Texas Republican legislator named Ron Paul had recently converted to the party and was seeking its presidential nomination, contending against a more traditionally libertarian American Indian rights activist named Russell Means. Paul defeated Means in a closely contested nomination fight, becoming the first Libertarian presidential candidate to support an abortion ban. This victory did more than anything else in the party's history previously had to demonstrate that there was a place in the party for moderate members of the Religious Right--broadening the scope of the Libertarian Party to include some socially conservative candidates, provided that they were in broad agreement with its platform.

Now, 20 years later, another former Republican representative has defected to the Libertarians. But unlike Ron Paul, Bob Barr has been a major player on the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. The author of the Defense of Marriage Act, the proposed anti-Wiccan U.S. military regulation, and the DC gay adoptions ban, Barr has shown no particular proclivity towards anything that could be described as social libertarianism. As Carole Shields, then-president of the left-wing civil liberties group People for the American Way, said while awarding Rep. Barr the 1999 Equine Posterior Achievement Award:
The Equine Posterior Achievement Award is given to a "leader" whose abilities to misrepresent an issue and pander to our baser instincts have reached ridiculous levels. A number of Washington politicians competed for the award, but Barr was flank and shoulders below the competition. He has tried to subvert the U.S. Constitution and the will of the American people. He has misused his political power to attack women, minorities and gays. He has voted against good, proven programs like Head Start and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. He is, in other words, a genuine horse's patootie.
And now he represents the Libertarian Party in the 2008 presidential election. What does this mean?

One clue rests in the close, sixth-ballot 324-276 vote that got him the nomination: Despite the fact that he was the only candidate in the field (other than Senator Mike Gravel) to have previously served in Congress, he isn't an overwhelmingly popular choice among Libertarians. But now that he's the nominee, his presence as the most recent presidential nominee will define the party's image. This may drive some social libertarians out of the party, but it may also draw some social conservatives in--changing the ideological makeup of the party, and increasing the odds that a similarly conservative candidate will be chosen next time. Alternately, it could provoke a backlash within Libertarian Party ranks and a return to the pre-2008, if not pre-1988, platform. Either possibility exists, but for now it is clearly the party of Bob Barr, and Barr is about as far from being a social libertarian as any mainstream or semi-mainstream politician could be.

So if the Libertarian Party can no longer be accurately described as socially libertarian, is it libertarian at all? Clearly it isn't libertarian in the sense of civil rights as the term is generally understood; it has historically opposed affirmative action, hate crimes legislation, and civil rights protections such as those offered currently under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and potentially under the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

But it's fiscally libertarian, it's pro-gun rights, and there is also some evidence that even the current Libertarian Party may still retain a libertarian approach to the criminal justice system. Most notably, Barr has reversed his position on medical marijuana--he used to be a conspicuous opponent, and now is a conspicuous supporter--and has spoken out against warrantless surveillance, the use of torture, and the use of indefinite detention in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And central to Barr's candidacy, like the failed Republican candidacy of Ron Paul, is a critique of executive power.

There is little in Barr's congressional history that could be used to make the argument that he's a consistent libertarian in a small-l sense of the word, but he may well represent the new face of capital-L Libertarianism: passionate social and fiscal conservatism, wrapped in the rhetoric of liberty and small government.

Thirty years ago, that was the platform of the Republican Party--a party in which candidates like Bob Barr and Ron Paul were more the rule than the exception. Now both have essentially been relegated to third-party status, marginalized by a Republican Party that embraces deficit spending, military interventionism, and executive power. Much as blue dog Democrats became Republicans in response to an increasingly progressive Democratic Party, traditional conservatives are becoming Libertarians in response to an increasingly neoconservative Republican Party.

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May 27, 2008 at 1:49 am
(1) William H. Stoddard says:

The Libertarian Party can go down their new path without me. I’ve been a libertarian since I first heard the term, which was before the party was founded; and all that time, I’ve believed that civil liberties and personal, lifestyle freedom were at least as important as economic freedom. I don’t trust Barr’s half-hearted conversion to libertarianism on a small subset of those issues. The “party of principle” has betrayed its own principles and its own name.

It doesn’t help that when I voted in the primary, only one of the four major contenders was listed as a presidential nominee—and I didn’t vote for him. There have been complaints about the role of “superdelegates” in the Democratic convention; apparently the Libertarian convention is ALL superdelegates, and votes in the primary are nothing more than a vague advisory.

As soon as possible, I’m going to change my registration from Libertarian to nonpartisan. I have no wish to be listed as a supporter of right-wing loonies who’ve picked up a few libertarian catch phrases. I can apply my own ethical principles to the political process without the morally compromised aid of a party apparatus.

May 27, 2008 at 10:02 am
(2) Chuck says:

Don’t overstate this. Abortion never has defined libertarianism. Barr is totally solid on civil liberties and has legitimately moderated on drug policy. I, for one, have always found the naive insistence on the legalization of crack, heroin, meth, etc. to be ridiculous and politically suicidal. Barr is helping the LP greatly by not jumping on this. What else is there to complain about? He’s stated that marriage issues belong to the states, which is Ron Paul’s position. The LP dodged a bullet this weekend by not guaranteeing their irrelevance, perhaps permanently. If the LP can pick up the libertarian wing of the republicans (who shy away from the LP because of goofy drugs and prostitution stuff), they my be viable, and Barr may be the right guy to make this happen.

May 27, 2008 at 6:53 pm
(3) David Wooten says:

Libertarians who distrust Barr (and Root) should concentrate on local and Congressional LP candidates. The additional media coverage that Barr should generate should help these candidates, even if he is impure and they are not. These offices could become the new power base for future LP presidential candidates.

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