Libertarians Are Not the Tea Party

Though politicians and analysts often conflate the two, libertarians have different views on many issues than Tea Partiers—and they're not as big a faction of the GOP.
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Observers of the right often classify the Tea Party as an essentially libertarian strain of conservatism. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, for example, recently described Tea Partiers to me as part of the GOP's anti-establishment "libertarian wing"; Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who calls himself a libertarian Republican, has written two books claiming the Tea Party mantle. 

A new report, however, finds the link between libertarians and the Tea Party is weak at best. In fact, according to an in-depth survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released Tuesday, most libertarians don’t identify as Tea Party adherents, and less than half consider themselves Republicans. Among Republicans, meanwhile, those who are libertarians tend to have views and priorities distinct from many of their fellow GOPers.

These distinctions are likely to come to the fore when the Republican Party sets about choosing its 2016 standard-bearer. Libertarians, the report finds, want Paul as their nominee; Tea Partiers want Texas Senator Ted Cruz; and white evangelical Protestants narrowly prefer Representative Paul Ryan. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have an opening as a sort of Goldilocks candidate: Among Republicans overall, he's tied for first with Ryan, even though he's not favored by any major subgroup. The 2016 Republican primaries could play out as a proxy struggle of the sometimes warring philosophical strains of the GOP as their preferred candidates vie for supremacy.

The new survey sought voters’ views on a number of issues, from the use of military force to taxes to marijuana, and graded their responses on an ideological scale from “libertarian” to “communalist.” It found that just 7 percent of Americans hold consistently libertarian views, with another 15 percent who lean libertarian. Another 24 percent were consistently or somewhat communitarian, while the majority of Americans—54 percent—had a mixed ideological profile. (As the authors note, numerous other studies over the past several decades have found it to be the case that “most Americans hold some combination of liberal and conservative attitudes, particularly across different kinds of issues.”)

Libertarians, the survey found, are overwhelmingly white (94 percent), predominantly male (68 percent), and mostly young (62 percent were under 50). While they were quite unlikely to call themselves Democrats (5 percent) or liberals (3 percent), they weren't all conservative Republicans: 57 percent called themselves conservatives, and fewer than half, 45 percent, affiliated themselves with the GOP. Just 39 percent of libertarians self-identified as members of the Tea Party movement. This handy graphic summarizes the overlap:

Within the GOP, according to the survey, libertarians make up a substantial but hardly overwhelming faction: 12 percent. Tea Partiers, meanwhile, made up 20 percent of the Republican base, while conservative Christians made up 33 percent and white evangelical Protestants were 37 percent. (These results build on a PRRI study from 2010, which found that the then-nascent Tea Party movement drew primarily from the ranks of social and Christian conservatives, not libertarians.)

Libertarians' views on issues were a mixture of left and right in the conventional partisan lineup. They were actually more opposed to Obamacare and to raising the minimum wage than either Tea Party adherents or white evangelicals. But libertarians were far less likely to oppose gay marriage than these other two groups (though the majority, 59 percent, of libertarians still did so, unlike the broader public). Unlike the other two groups, the majority of libertarians opposed making it more difficult for women to get an abortion and favored legalizing marijuana and physician-assisted suicide—views that tended to align more with Democrats than Republicans. And while majorities of Republicans and Democrats support making it harder to access pornography online, libertarians do not agree.

Republican voters overall were far from coalescing around a potential 2016 presidential nominee in the survey (unlike Democratic voters, a whopping 68 percent of whom want to nominate Hillary Clinton). Christie and Ryan were tied for first overall with 18 percent each, followed by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (15 percent), Florida Senator Marco Rubio (14 percent), Paul and Cruz (11 percent each). Libertarian Republicans, however, chose Paul by a clear margin, 26 percent to Cruz's 18 percent.

Libertarians claim their political influence is rising as Americans increasingly combine fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, and wariness of the national-security state. The Tea Party, meanwhile, claims a resurgence as conservatives react strongly to the botched implementation of the health-care law. But the upshot of the new report seems to be that these groups can't be considered one and the same.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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