By Tim Cavanaugh
A new Pew poll of political rhetoric shows opinions about libertarianism fit nicely into my General Theory of 33.3 -- the principle that on any given topic, roughly a third of the people will believe A, roughly a third will believe B, and the rest can't find their ass with both hands a flashlight.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press polled 1,546 adults for their responses to buzzwords like "socialism," "progressive," "family values," etc. The result: 38 percent of respondents were positive on "libertarian," and 37 percent negative:
The breakdown is particularly striking along party lines. According to Pew, Republicans (31 percent for, 44 percent against) have a more negative view of libertarians than do Democrats (39 percent for, 37 percent against).
I'd have expected those numbers to look very different given the Republicans' temporary status as the small-government-of-convenience party. (The General Theory of 33.3 allows for wide shifts in opinion, positing only that over time the statistics will regress to a stable third/third/third formation.)
As has been noted here many times, leading lights of contemporary Republican Partyism, including Mike Huckabee and David Brooks, miss no opportunity to denounce not only soi-disant libertarians but iconic small-government Republicans such as Barry Goldwater.
At the same, efforts at libertarian-Democrat outreach (or reacharound) have generally ended in shame for all concerned. The "liberaltarian" movement of 2008 amounted to nothing. The coalition of "Deadwood Liberals" cited a few years before that by Reason editor Matt Welch (the Baronet Lipton of fusion politics) failed to catch the public imagination.
I suspect the slightly better Democratic numbers may reflect a knowledge gap between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans actually understand what libertarians are for, and they know they hate it. Registered Democrats on the other hand can afford to pick up a few strands of anti-drug-war, pro-gay marriage tinsel without worrying about the radical approach to individualism to which they're attached. (Which is not to say that actual Democratic politicians are in any way libertarian on drugs, gay marriage, or anything else.) It's soort of like the way I think the world of people from Bhutan because I've never actually met any of them.
Also, Pew, engages in a little scale-thumbing with its headline "'Socialism' Not So Negative, 'Capitalism' Not So Positive." In fact socialism does quite poorly in the poll, and capitalism does better than you'd expect after a period in which the mainstream media have been strenuously trying to convince people that the TARP bailout, the stimulus package and the resuscitation of General Motors are efforts to save capitalism.