Asking Dave Nalle: Is libertarianism the way of the future?

Dave Nalle, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, explains libertarianism and its success in the GOP.
Photo: Dave Nalle

FLORIDA, February 14, 2012 — Over the last several years, libertarianism has seen an uptick in popularity, particularly within the ranks of the Republican Party. 

Few people are so well acquainted with the GOP’s libertarian movement as Dave Nalle, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, an organization devoted to promoting the ideas of limited government. He is also a columnist here at The Washington Times Communities.

In this first part of our discussion, Nalle discusses how libertarianism has come to find strong support in the GOP, as well as whether or not he believes that the American center-right’s future belongs to libertarians; specifically those of the Ron Paul variety.  


Joseph F. Cotto: Libertarianism is a philosophy with which most of us are familiar. Over the last several years, it has found tremendous support in the Republican Party. How did this come to pass?

Dave Nalle: There have always been Republicans who were philosophically libertarian. Going back to the very beginning of the party early leaders like John C. Fremont and Martin van Buren who believed in minimal government and individual liberty ended up supporting the new party when it was founded. From time to time that element of the party would emerge in political climate which would propel someone to a position of leadership like a Calvin Coolidge or Barry Goldwater. The emergence of a libertarian movement in the modern GOP really began in the Reagan administration when Reagan’s advocacy of inclusiveness and strong libertarian rhetoric was very appealing. 

Under Reagan it began to become clear that the Libertarian Party was not achieving the goals it needed to in order to become a viable political party and after Ron Paul’s presidential run in 1988 many libertarians moved back into the Republican Party to join libertarians who were already there. This led to the foundation of a number of libertarian advocacy groups, most notably the Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee which eventually became the Republican Liberty Caucus in the early 1990s.

Libertarian Republican leaders kept occasionally emerging to prominence and winning office here and there like Ron Paul, Dana Rohrabacher and Mark Sanford, but what it took to create a movement was the dismal failure of the George W. Bush administration. Although Bush began his term with some libertarian rhetoric, after 9/11 his policies became so fiscally irresponsible and draconian that it drove many young activists into a kind of underground libertarian resistance movement within the Republican Party. Bush successfully offended libertarians in two of their main areas of concern, excessive borrowing and spending driven largely by the irresponsible wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and  infringements on civil liberties under the War on Terror with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act.   

Read Dave Nalle in Liberty In Our Time

By this point it had also become very clear that activism outside the party system was not going to work when both parties were showing no restraint in raising debt, spending out of control and passing more and more irresponsible legislation. With a libertarian tradition already present in the Republican Party and no interest in libertarian principles among Democrats, it was obvious that the strategy of activism within the Republican Party which the Republican Liberty Caucus had been pursuing was the most effective way to bring about real change. 

When Ron Paul declared his candidacy for president in the 2008 election the movement coalesced around his campaign, the perfect spearhead for the change which they had been trying to achieve. The 2008 campaign attracted a lot of young people from varied political backgrounds as well as the support of long-time Liberty Republicans, stirring up grassroots support which was very enthusiastic even if not always very effective. The radicalism of a lot Paul’s supporters and some of Paul’s more ideological positions scared the party establishment which struck back by attempting to exclude and marginalize his campaign.   

Instead of discouraging his supporters this motivated a core group to increase its commitment to the effort to change the party, providing a more experienced and realistic leadership cadre going into the 2012 election, leading to much greater success in outreach and fundraising and enough support to make it impossible for the party establishment to ignore or marginalize Paul. He still didn’t win in 2012 and was undermined by dirty tricks and abuses of power from party insiders at the state and national level, but he certainly wasn’t ignored.

Paul had allowed his 2012 campaign to be very loosely organized by independent grassroots groups which often operated autonomously and even at cross-purposes, competing for fundraising and influence and often operating very inefficiently. They accomplished some remarkable achievements, but when the campaign ended it was clear that if they were ever going to achieve their goals and with Ron Paul retiring they would need to become a coherent movement with a unified strategy to change the party from the bottom up.  

This was the strategy which the Republican Liberty Caucus had been pursuing for years and from 2008 to 2012 there had been a gradual movement of many of the more pragmatic Paul supporters into the RLC. As the campaign wound down in 2012 this process accelerated and the more movement-oriented Liberty Republicans began to flood into the RLC in very large numbers, to the point where by the Republican National Convention in Tampa about a third of the Paul delegates were RLC members and by the end of the year RLC members held prominent positions in the leadership of many state Republican parties.

In the aftermath of the election the movement has grown and become stronger, first because it has become clear that the party establishment is old and losing its grip and can no longer effectively lead the party to victory, as demonstrated by the many failures last November and second because of the emergence of new Liberty Republican leaders who won office in 2010 and 2012 and give liberty activists candidates and policy makers to back who are a bit more realistic and less ideologically absolutist than Ron Paul. This includes his son Rand, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie and a growing list of other members of Congress and state government.

Joseph F. Cotto: Many political forecasters are saying that the future of the American center-right belongs to libertarians; specifically those of the Ron Paul variety. Do you share this view?

Dave Nalle: Absolutely. Despite the attempts of the media to portray libertarianism and Liberty Republicans as far-right extremists, you are right to describe us as center-right. It’s not that we’re extreme, just that we are different. It’s more like we are perpendicular to the usual left-right axis. We’re more tolerant on social issues and more exacting on fiscal issues than the past trend in the GOP. This is a perspective which is more marketable to contemporary voters and will bring back voters who drifted away from the party because of the extremism of the religious right on social issues and the inability of moderate Republicans to restrain spending.

While lots of Liberty Republicans are big Ron Paul supporters, he’s now settling into his role as an inspirational elder statesman and the movement has become much more diverse than just the core Ron Paul faction. As the Tea Party movement becomes mainstreamed many of them have become part of the Liberty faction of the party and many moderate libertarians, constitutionalists and independents have become involved again because the Liberty Movement gives them hope for a Republican Party with a future and a positive message. We’ve even seen a lot of old Goldwater Republicans who were alienated for years returning to politics to support the younger people who dominate the movement.

Of course the fact that Ron Paul brought so many younger people into the movement is also a big part of why the Liberty wing of the party is the future. The establishment is aging rapidly and if the party is to have a future and any hope of growth, it is in the younger activists who find a more libertarian republicanism so appealing.

READ MORE from Joseph Cotto at The Conscience of a Realist

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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