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