The Common Good

Libertarians: Young, White, and Male

Libertarians do not consider themselves a part of the Tea Party movement, a new study on public religion found.

The study, “In Search of Libertarians in America,” is the 2013 installment of the annual American Values Survey gathered by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and was released last Tuesday.

“Libertarians are significantly more likely to be non-Hispanic white, male, and young,” according to the report. Of the seven percent of all Americans who are libertarians by PRRI’s definition, 94 percent are non-Hispanic whites, 68 percent are male, and 62 percent are under the age of 50.

When it comes to religious affiliation, libertarians tended to be either white mainline Protestants (27 percent) or religiously unaffiliated (27 percent). No libertarians identified as black Protestant and only 11 percent identified as Catholic.

In 2010, a similar PRRI study on the Tea Party movement showed a near association with the religious right, with nearly half of Americans who identified as a part of the Tea party also claiming to be part of the conservative Christian movement. This previous study debunked the perceived connection between libertarian thought and the Tea Party movement, setting the stage for this year’s study digging deeper into the proportion of Americans who hold a more consistent libertarian viewpoint.

Using the Libertarian Orientation Scale, a nine question survey of their own creation, PRRI focused on three aspects of political views: “national security and international intervention, economic policy, and personal liberty issues.” The questions included topics such as domestic spying, international aid, taxes and economic growth, gun control, marijuana, and pornography. People who answered the questions with a steady preference for low government intervention across the three broader aspects were determined to hold a consistently libertarian view.

Within the structure of the Libertarian Orientation Scale, PRRI developed the term “communalist” to describe someone who favored higher government interaction even at the cost of some individual liberties. This self-created dichotomy offers a range in social and political viewpoints that spans the continuum of opinions on government interaction with personal liberties. Further study of this communalist viewpoint may be a future project for the organization.

Interestingly enough, there was a significant difference between respondents who self-identified as libertarians and those were defined as libertarians by the Libertarian Orientation Scale. While 13 percent of Americans saw themselves as libertarian, only seven percent fell into that category on the scale.

In the general American population, the survey found a very normal spread of data between libertarians and communalists, which included a symmetrical seven percent of Americans who were communalist. In between these extremes, 54 percent of Americans had mixed views, answering a similar amount of questions tending towards being communalist and towards being libertarian.

On economic questions, libertarians were generally aligned with more conservative constituencies, such as those who identified as Republican or as a white, evangelical Protestant. However, libertarians differed with these constituencies on social issues. Contrary to the views of more traditional conservative voters, 57 percent libertarians opposed making it more difficult for women to get abortions. Libertarians also favor legalizing marijuana and allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. Americans who identified as Republicans, as white, evangelical Protestants, or with the Tea Party generally opposed these actions.

In reflecting on the study, Robert Jones, the CEO of PRRI, remarked that the relative youth of those who fall under the libertarian category is a positive sign of longevity not shared by other conservative coalitions, such as those identifying with the Tea Party, religious right, or Evangelicals.

While this study may offer those groups some hope, Jones also acknowledged that this libertarian group is “not drawing from the growing edges” of the American population, specifically the Latino population. Jones suggested this might be something of an uphill battle for libertarians as Latinos in general tend to lean more toward Communalist values.

Ben Sutter is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.

Photo:  Mark Poprocki / Shutterstock

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