Over the past 20 years, the American political landscape has been marked by two simultaneous trends: a general ideological shift to the right, and the growing popularity of third parties.
Taken together, these factors might seem ideal conditions for a surge in libertarianism, the purist philosophy based on one unwavering principle: Individuals should be free to govern their own lives, with the role of government kept to an absolute minimum.
But despite what Libertarian Party members see as a growing momentum in their favor, they have yet to capture the imagination of the American public. Unlike the Reform Party, with its splashy candidates like Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura; and unlike the Green Party, which is making headway this year with consumer activist Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, the Libertarian Party - which held its national convention this weekend in Anaheim, Calif. - still hovers in the lowest of single digits in national polls.
It's an indication that, despite the fact that many Americans say they want less government in their lives, the public is still not prepared to sweep away the majority of federal programs.
"It's proven to be a pretty hard sell," says Brian Doherty, a libertarian and associate editor of Reason magazine, which is run by a libertarian-based, free-market research organization. "Because the libertarian message requires that you need to follow a train of consequences pretty far to understand that the world would still function in a sane and safe way without all the things the federal government has taken upon itself to do in the past 100 years."
At the party's convention, which ends here today, Tennessee delegate Vernie Kuglin says she may have caught her libertarian spirit growing up in Nigeria as the child of missionary parents. "I think I developed a libertarian attitude in my soul from the Africans there, who lived very free," she says. "They didn't have much government intrusion in their lives at that time."
It wasn't until 1992, however, that she first heard of the Libertarian Party - which since its beginnings in 1971 has campaigned for a radical reduction in the role of the government in the lives of American citizens.
"The logic of it made sense to me," says Ms. Kuglin. "I liked the idea of responsibility, of individual choice."
A growing appeal
The party's appeal has grown during the past decade. There are some 270 Libertarian Party members serving in public office around the country today, up from approximately 70 in 1990. This year, some 2,000 candidates will run for office at the local, state, and federal level, including a presidential candidate, investment author Harry Browne, who won approximately one half of 1 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential race.
But while the "get government off our backs" message may have strong initial appeal, the party's platform is just too radical for the majority of the American public, says Michael Genovese, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"It's a case of the less you know, the more attractive the party is," he says. "The more you know, you discover this is a very strongly committed political philosophy that contains strong ideological appeal to some people, but turns off a lot of other people. Because when you come down to it, almost everybody has some kind of pet project sponsored by the government that people like."
The libertarian philosophy sweeps across the liberal-conservative spectrum on matters of both public policy and private behavior, declaring in essence, "Get government out of the boardroom. Get government out of the bedroom."
But it's also a philosophy with radical practical implications.
Libertarians embrace everything from a completely unregulated economy and the legalization of drugs and prostitution, to repealing the income tax and ending foreign aid as a matter of
government policy and turning it into a program run on voluntary private donations.
"It's suspended up there in the air in terms of pure principle," says Dennis Goldford, chairman of the department of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "It doesn't have any grounding anywhere in terms of the various kinds of interests that affect the two major political parties, such as socio-economic interests and regional interests."
A contradiction to run for office
Many libertarians argue that the electoral process is not the best way to spread their philosophy; in fact, they say, it's a contradiction in terms for a libertarian to run for government office.
These libertarians, who far outnumber official party members - 33,000 in total - say it's more important to educate people than to try to win at the ballot box.
"It's about changing minds one by one," says Mr. Doherty. "If you want to bring about change in the way a culture thinks, it's a really slow process."
Libertarians like Doherty, as well as political observers, argue the best hope for the Libertarian Party is to try to influence one of the two major political parties with its ideas.
They point, for example, to the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank, not affiliated with the Libertarian Party, which is often quoted on economic policies. They also note the increasing popularity of programs like school vouchers, which libertarians have long called for.
"Our growth will be exponential in the next decade," predicts Steve Schaper, who has run for office five times, unsuccessfully, as a Libertarian candidate, and who is attending the party's national convention as a Missouri delegate.
As with any important movement, he says, only a small group embraces a new philosophy at first.
"The majority laughs at it," he says. "Then they get antagonistic. But eventually, the majority winds up saying, 'Wasn't it always like this?' Because they wind up agreeing with it."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society