Opinion: Libertarians fail at cultural politics

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By: Richard de Schweinitz

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Economics junior

Being a libertarian in today’s intensely partisan politics is to occupy somewhat of a precarious position. Most Americans don’t really understand what libertarianism is, exactly; for those who identify with the left, libertarians seem to be a confusing mixture of social tolerance and economic ignorance, and to those on the right, libertarians are something of a glib, pot-smoking cousin. More generally, the libertarian agenda is understood by the American public with the overly reductive description “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative”. Besides these generalizations, however, libertarian politics are mostly a mystery to the uninitiated. The irony of this is that libertarians, while they are so little understood, are also the largest political minority, representing the largest third party in the United States – but while the libertarian presence in the United States is large, it is mostly unknown and not particularly influential. This is because, in my view, libertarians have failed to establish themselves on the cultural stage as well as they have on the political one.

Though it is politicians and media outlets who disseminate the most information about politics, it is a political movement’s artists who build it into something more than just a party name. Through their work, artists build the world that they wish to see and to which people will attach themselves, materializing their views and making the positions of their side clear. Artists and media draw attention to certain issues, and they motivate similarly aligned masses of individuals into a driven movement with well-defined goals and principles. The problem with libertarians is that their cultural influence, as compared to their popular presence, is sorely lacking, resulting in a lack of political vitality. In the United States, cultural figures and institutions are generally categorized into one of the two main sides along the major party lines. Celebrities, TV shows, news networks, businesses, etc. often fall into political alignments, either by their own declaration or by their associations with their consumers. Both Democrats and Republicans have their clear, outspoken supporters; but when considering what a libertarian is or what he believes, the typical American has little recourse in the media to find answers. The most well-known self-identified libertarian personalities in contemporary American media are Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and the character Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation – none of whom have a particularly serious connotation.

If libertarians want to be taken seriously in mainstream American politics, they need to take it upon themselves to create cultural influence beyond sardonic critiques of the system. Just like in liberal and conservative movements, it is primarily libertarian art which informs the way that society generally views the libertarian agenda. Self-professed libertarian art is generally not constructive, in that it critiques political systems but rarely provides alternatives for them, and generally doesn’t take itself particularly seriously either. Even Ayn Rand, the novelist and philosopher held up as the paragon of libertarian ideals and whose serious, intellectual works are adored by libertarians, did not identify herself as a libertarian and in fact actively criticized the movement, describing libertarians as a “monstrous, disgusting bunch of people” who badly plagiarized her ideas but gave her no credit for them. The difficulty in creating constructive libertarian political art is that libertarianism is inherently opposed to the adoption of most political policy, explaining the generally critical thrust of libertarian political art and commentary; but without a constructive body of artistic work, the libertarian movement is crippling its own ability to find and motivate its supporters.

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