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 …