The Politics of Young Libertarians

Liana Gamber Thompson of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism has an interesting new paper on the politics of young libertarians, focusing especially on members of Students for Liberty, the rapidly growing student libertarian organization. Here is the summary:

In the past decade, young libertarians in the U.S., or members of the Liberty Movement as it is called, have utilized new media and technology along with more traditional modes of organizing to grow their movement, capitalizing on the participatory nature of the internet in particularly savvy and creative ways. Still, the Liberty Movement is quite unlike more progressive, grassroots movements, with its organizations and participants sometimes relying on established institutions for various forms of support.

As this report highlights, the Liberty Movement represents a hybrid model, one that embraces participatory practices and interfaces with formal political organizations and other elite institutions….

In a letter to Richard Rush dated October 20, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”1 This report suggests that participants in the Liberty Movement would concur with respect to the challenges they encounter; largely ignored by mainstream media and pushed to the margins of the electoral process, libertarians have it tougher than many groups when it comes to the task of gaining voice and visibility in the mainstream political debate. This report examines how young libertarians confront such obstacles and presents readers with a detailed account of young libertarians and their relationship to the contemporary political landscape.

Not surprisingly, the study concludes that young libertarians make extensive use of the internet, that they are very skeptical about the political process, and that most have doubts about the effectiveness of voting as a strategy for promoting political change.

Thompson notes increasing racial and gender diversity among younger libertarians, but also suggests that this is still a disproportionately white male movement. She quotes one female libertarian student as saying that ““There’s pretty big gender discrepancy, and it’s largely male. I would say 60% [men] to 40% [women] on a good day. Sometimes, it’s like 70-30…”

At the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog, Matt Zwolinski comments:

I had to chuckle at this. Not to sound like an old fogie or anything, but back in my day we would have killed to have 30% women in the libertarian movement! If we wanted to find a woman libertarian, we had to walk eight miles, in the snow, uphill, both ways!

There is some truth in both the frustrated student’s point and Zwolinski’s response. As I pointed out in this post about SFL, today’s student libertarians have a much higher percentage of women than in the past, a reality that reflects the broadening of the libertarian movement, and its greater acceptance within the mainstream. Given that women are, on average, less likely to be interested in politics, and less willing to embrace non-mainstream ideas and ideologies than men, the 30 to 40 percent figure quoted by the student is actually pretty good. It’s not much less than we would expect from the “average” relatively non-mainstream student political movement.

It’s worth noting that the 30 to 40% percentage of women was similar to what I saw when I gave two talks at the 2011 SFL national conference. Perhaps more importantly, the student libertarians I met at this and other events were, on average, more socially normal than were young libertarians of my own generation. On average, they have better social skills than we did, and come across as friendlier and more charismatic. That’s a good sign that the movement is broadening its appeal. That said, libertarians still have a lot of work to do in appealing to women, racial minorities, and other groups not traditionally well-represented in the movement.

Among the 30 young libertarians studied by Thompson, only 7 of the 24 willing to identify their gender in a survey were women. Interestingly, 9 of the 27 willing to give a racial identification were not white. The latter is actually a slightly higher figure than the percentage of nonwhites in the general population (about 22%). However, we shouldn’t make too much of either figure, given the small sample size.

The small sample is the biggest weakness of Thompson’s study as a whole. Since she relies primarily on what she learned from these thirty people, it’s difficult to say how representative her findings are of young libertarians overall. That said, many of her findings strike me as plausible, and similar to what I have seen in my own fairly extensive dealings with younger libertarians.