This is what Pew found when it went looking for the 'libertarian moment'

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Rand Paul,Libertarian Populism,Libertarianism,Pew Research Center,Becket Adams

National conversations on individual liberties, Sen. Rand Paul's, R-Ky., drone filibuster and growing awareness of the militarization of police departments across the country have left some wondering whether the nation is having what the New York Times refers to as a "libertarian moment."

And rather than judge whether the country is indeed experiencing the rise of an idea whose time has come based solely on a handful of Sunday morning interviews or news articles, the Pew Research Center set out to collect hard data on the issue, gauging the nation's opinion of libertarians.

In short, Pew found that many U.S. voters are still confused as to the exact meaning of "libertarianism," that many self-described libertarians holds views that are mostly in line with the overall public and that there doesn't appear to be a set list of concrete principles that allow for a hard definition of "libertarian."

"About one-in-10 Americans (11 percent) describe themselves as libertarian and know what the term means," Pew reported. "Respondents were asked whether the term 'libertarian' describes them well and — in a separate multiple-choice question — asked for the definition of 'someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government'; 57 percent correctly answered the multiple-choice question, choosing 'libertarian' from a list that included 'progressive,' 'authoritarian,' 'Unitarian' and 'communist.'

"On the self-description question 14 percent said they were libertarian. For the purpose of this analysis we focus on the 11 percent who both say they are libertarian and know the definition of the term," the report added.

Libertarians, U.S. Role in World Affairs

The new report is based on data collected earlier this year by Pew for its political typology and polarization survey as well as data collected April 29-May 27 from 3,243 U.S. adults for the polling firm's American Trends Panel.

"Men were about twice as likely as women to say the term libertarian describes them well and to know the meaning of the term (15 percent vs. 7 percent). More college graduates (15 percent) than those with no more than a high school education (7 percent) identified as libertarians. There also were partisan differences; 14 percent of independents and 12 percent of Republicans said they are libertarian, compared with 6 percent of Democrats," the report reads.

Roughly 42 percent of respondents with a high school education correctly identified "libertarianism" when asked by Pew, with 76 percent of respondents with a college education answering the same.

Now, although those figures are impressive, it means there's still some confusion over the issue. Further, although self-described libertarian types generally agree on the proper role of government, social issues and foreign policy, there are some inconsistencies in responses. This can be attributed to the fact that the exact definition of "libertarianism" is a bit flexible, more so than other political ideologies.

The survey continued, reporting that self-described libertarians in certain cases either differ modestly or not at all from the general public on specific issues, including the proper role of government and federal regulations.

"When it comes to attitudes about the size and scope of government, people who say the term libertarian describes them well (and who are able to correctly define the term) are somewhat more likely than the public overall to say government regulation of business does more harm than good (56 percent vs. 47 percent). However, about four-in-10 libertarians say that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest (41 percent)," the report reads.


But here's something important: One of the problems emphasized in the Pew report is that it's difficult work identifying libertarians. Again, this is due to the fact that the definition is flexible. Here's how Pew describes its methods:

An alternative way to identify libertarians is the process used to create the Pew Research Center’s political typology ... That study used a statistical technique called “cluster analysis” to sort people into homogeneous groups, based on their responses to 23 questions about a variety of social and political values.

None of the seven groups identified by the 2014 political typology closely resembled libertarians, and, in fact, self-described libertarians can be found in all seven. Their largest representation is among the group we call Business Conservatives; 27 percent of this group says the term libertarian describes them well. Business Conservatives generally support limited government, have positive views of business and the U.S. economic system, and are more moderate than other conservative groups on the issue of homosexuality. However, they are also supportive of an activist foreign policy and do not have a libertarian profile on issues of civil liberties.

And this final part: "In creating the political typology, many variations of the cluster analysis were run (e.g., varying the questions included and the number of clusters to be produced)," the report reads.

"Each was judged by how practical and substantively meaningful it was, with the final model judged to be strongest from a statistical point of view, most persuasive from a substantive point of view, and representative of the general patterns seen across the various cluster solutions," it added.


Is the country at long last experiencing a "libertarian moment"? It does appear that many issues long championed by libertarians are indeed on the table, being discussed by pundits and analysts on both sides of the aisle. However, as mentioned in the above, it's difficult to gauge the popularity of the movement due to the fact that it's difficult to define and because it encompasses so many things.

Nevertheless, the fact that we're even having this discussion, that certain libertarian issues are being pushed into the spotlight, could mean that maybe the time is right for a self-described libertarian candidate to make a serious bid for the White House in 2016.

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