Rand Paul is out. Donald Trump just schlonged the Grand Old Party in New Hampshire. And Bernie Sanders is setting dumpster fires in the hearts and minds of America’s youth.
Borrowing the sage words of moral philosopher (and round robin bowler) Walter Sobchak, I have to ask: Has the whole world gone fucking crazy?
I am hoping to convince you that the answer is no. Despite ominous signs that the End Times near, everything’s going to be all right. As someone who left a perfectly respectable day job last year to help elect Rand Paul president, I need to find the upside. I have finally emerged from my post-Iowa fetal position to offer some observations on what liberty voters, and libertarians generally, should make of it all.
First off, I endorse the view, ably represented by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, that Rand’s failure to win the Republican nomination in no way signals the end of the "libertarian moment." Politics is a lagging indicator of social change, and the measure of a social movement is better taken upstream from voter turnout.
As for Iowa, let’s at least hat tip the effort. Rand Paul bested four establishment Republican Governors including Jeb Bush, placing a respectable fifth place with 4.5 percent of the vote. Once upon a time, Jeb was the Chosen One, but he ended up spending about $2,800 per vote to win just 2.8 percent. Carly Fiorina and John Kasich got 1.9 percent each, and Chris Christie received just 1.8 percent.
Rand Paul beat them all after being excluded from the Fox Business debate just a few weeks earlier. I’m going to call that a comeback—one small step for mankind, another bigger step for the future of liberty.
Why? Because Rand has seeded another generation of liberty-minded young people, much like his father did in 2008 and 2012. When I was a kid, there was no broad social movement for liberty like we see today. Rand juiced the build-out of this community simply by being on the presidential stage, by offering a compelling alternative to the establishment’s failed foreign policies, and by speaking about civil liberties and the failures of mass incarceration to new audiences that few Republicans have been willing to engage with.
Of course, Rand’s venture in 2016 was very different from his father’s. He was in it to win it, and pre-Trump, Rand’s prospects looked promising. The goal, it seemed, was to sell a broad swath of Republican primary voters on a more libertarian vision of America’s future. This vision was against the Washington machine and all of its abuses. It was a vision of opportunity and self-determination for all Americans, "with tattoos and without tattoos."
In perfect hindsight a few things happened that undermined Rand’s strategic position in the 2016 field. The first was a crowd of credible anti-establishment candidates, a very different field than Ron Paul faced in 2012. The second was an anti-establishment mood fueled by the break-up of the old political class. In this environment, Rand’s even-handed demeanor didn’t connect well with people looking to hurl flaming pots of pitch over the walls of King’s Landing. The Donald and his socialist alter ego adeptly filled this void.
Turnout in Iowa was insanely high. In 2012, 121,354 people caucused for Republicans. This year, we saw a 48 percent increase with more than 180,000 voters participating. I’m no political scientist, but my read is that voters are royally pissed. The "anti-establishment" vote dominated, getting over 66 percent of the votes cast, if you exclude Marco Rubio. But that crowded field has split hard-core liberty voters from a much bigger anti-establishment block. That made 2016 fundamentally different from 2012, when Ron Paul stood almost alone as the authentic "outsider."
I spent time on the ground talking to voters at events across Iowa, and I spoke on Rand’s behalf at the Marion County Republican Caucus. It was clear to me before a single vote was cast that Trump had poached key parts of the broader Ron Paul coalition of 2012. More disconcerting, a number of Rand’s student activists were telling me stories about young people, energized by Rand’s "libertarianish" message at university campus rallies, ultimately caucusing for Bernie Sanders.
All of this makes more sense than you might first think. It’s good to be fundamentally skeptical of Washington insiders, to have a deep distrust of politicians and their motives. Say what you will about it, a self-avowed crony capitalist and a white male septuagenarian career politician have best tapped into this ethos.
Exit polling in New Hampshire reaffirms what constitutes the new normal in American politics. Fifty percent of Republican voters said they felt "betrayed" by their own party. Not surprisingly, a full half of voters in the GOP primary wanted an "outsider," and an overwhelming 57 percent of those votes went to Trump. (Ted Cruz, by comparison, only received 12 percent of those votes). Bernie Sanders crushed Hillary Clinton—92 percent to her 6 percent—among Democratic voters looking for honesty and trustworthiness, the top issue for 33 percent of those who showed up in the Granite State. 89 percent of Democratic voters wanting an "outsider" went with Sanders. Bern victims were disproportionately young, with 84 percent of voters under 30 going with the cranky class warrior. Ironically, implausibly, Bernie Sanders has become the "new" Ron Paul.
All of this rage against the machine is a healthy awakening against the injustices of "the system." We (Paulites, libertarians, tea partiers and the occasional neck-tattooed anarcho-capitalist) helped create this new awareness in voters. But being anti-establishment isn’t nearly good enough. Trump’s self-absorbed vision of untethered presidential power is not a step up from Barack Obama. And socialism, even of the "democratic" variety, is still all about concentrating power (and the implied threat of violence) with Washington elites.
We are in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift that has broken the singular power of the two-party duopoly. Party bosses used to choose for you, creating a shopping experience not unlike what it must feel like today shopping in a downtown Caracas mall. There are, at best, only several products on the shelf, and the quality is crap. Think Richard Nixon, or Hubert Humphrey. Or John McCain, versus Barack Obama.
Welcome to the big leagues. Libertarians are now mainstream, no longer relegated to basement book club arguments about the moral failings of "minarchism." Our values offer a serious alternative to both right wing and left wing statism. Liberty creates robust communities with an upward potential far greater than any one of us could have consciously designed. Government coercion undermines this organic sense of social responsibility and community, pitting us one group against another. Rand, of course, made real inroads on the right and the left with these principles, applied to real-world problems.
Outside Venezuela, everything is different today. People, particularly young people, now live in a radically disintermediated world where we curate virtually everything for ourselves; new music, news sources, better ideas, and even spontaneously-emerging communities built on free association and shared values. Top-down political institutions, like almost everything else in our post-internet society, are bleeding power and control. Information, knowledge and power are shifting back to the end user. This disruption is an opportunity, a window to connect with a burgeoning generation of freer people who take self-determination as a given. We no longer accept authority as is—we Google it, using information and facts to challenge the status quo. Empowered consumers have broken the backs of record company moguls, mainstream media monopolists, taxi medallion hoarders, and even the Bush Family dynasty.
The hearts and minds of young, socially connected Americans are very much up for grabs. Registered independents have become the fastest growing political block, making up a larger plurality than either Democrats or Republicans in 44 out of 50 states. Talk about a libertarian moment. The individuals that comprise this Á La Carte Generation are environmentally programmed from birth to curate their very own reality, one that is more personal, and more free.
That’s why I am calmer than you are. As Rand himself said in what turned out to be his concession speech in De Moines, "liberty is alive and well."
Matt Kibbe most recently worked for a SuperPAC supporting Rand Paul for president. He is the author of Don’t Hurt People And Don’t Take Their Stuff (HarperCollins 2013).