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Is Arnold good for the libertarians?

by Tim Cavanaugh Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2003 at 9:34 AM

"sensible people of individualist and anti-government leanings tend to give the Libertarian Party a wide berth"

Muscled Out

Is Arnold good for the libertarians?

Tim Cavanaugh, Reason online, October 13, 2003

Is there any good news for libertarianism in Arnold Schwarzenegger's election as governor of California? Not much, if the hope was to see the two major parties undermined in an electoral free-for-all. One of the fondest third-party wishes for the recall--and a critical selling point for voters disenchanted with both the Republicans and the Democrats--was that its 135-strong roster of candidates would open the field up to everybody, and possibly create a wild-card situation where a fringe ticket might actually win.

Fat chance. Schwarzenegger's win dramatically demonstrated the immovability of the major parties, and the absolute hopelessness of third-party challengers. The last-minute candidate not only received more votes, both in total numbers and as a percentage of the total electorate, than Gray Davis did in his re-election less than a year ago, but did so with a split Republican ticket, against a Democratic challenger who was widely (and wrongly)1 expected to lock up the Latino vote. (That Schwarzenegger, the pick of the statewide and national Republican establishment, was able to get a near-majority despite Tom McClintock's drawing more than a million hard-conservative votes should scare the Democrats even more than it discourages the third parties.)

In the process, even minor party stalwarts like the Green Party's Peter Camejo did worse2 than they did in the last election. And the real wildcards? The out-of-the-race Arianna Huffington and Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman (whose appeal was limited mainly to the ironic-gesture vote) did better than any Libertarian Party candidate. Even in an electoral free-for-all, with both major parties in obvious chaos, 93.7 percent of Californians would rather vote for a Republican or a Democrat than for any minor-party candidate.

Of course, sensible people of individualist and anti-government leanings tend to give the Libertarian Party a wide berth anyway, so perhaps we should look at how the recall results reflect on the candidates' own views on government and individual freedom. Here, the indications are mixed at best. Schwarzenegger's support for "sensible" gun control and government-mandated after-school busywork offers little red meat for libertarians. His platform of getting the state's budget under control without painful taxation is more promising, but then wasn't that stuff on everybody's platform?

The best news for libertarians may rest in two trends: one short-term and related to Schwarzenegger's personal style, the other longer-term and tied to voter skepticism about government in general.

On personal morality4, the meaning of Schwarzenegger's victory is now well established. The public soundly rejected concerns that were raised over his marijuana use, sexual history and early (1977 or before) support for gay rights. (And on the flipside, nobody was fazed by the bodybuilder's use, in his now famous Oui magazine interview5, of language we would consider offensive today.) Even after Schwarzenegger's freewheeling approach to personal behavior showed a distinctly creepy side, with allegations of his groping female co-workers throughout his career, the politics of personal probity turned out to be a non-starter.

These are more than passing issues. With a tax-cutting president in the White House, and concerns about the USA PATRIOT act having passed from the civil libertarian fringe into the mainstream, lifestyle issues have gained more prominence for libertarians.

You can see this in the traditional conservative reaction6 to the election. Before Gray Davis' body was cold, talk radio king Rush Limbaugh had taken to the air opining that Schwarzenegger's win should not be seen as an endorsement of tolerant social positions--as sure a sign as any that it should absolutely be seen as an endorsement of tolerant social positions.

The Republican Leadership Council, having learned a thing or two since the Bill Simon debacle of 2002, was more circumspect, issuing a post-election press release praising Schwarzenegger as "conservative on fiscal policy, and inclusive on social matters." Virtually all the candidates staked out positions in favor of medical marijuana, among other things. In this respect, libertarianism gained substantially in Tuesday's vote.

In the longer term, Schwarzenegger's surprisingly total victory points to some interesting trends in voters' views toward governance. In a post-election dispatch7, Slate columnist Mickey Kaus said of the governor-elect, "If he's going to keep our loyalty it will have to be by producing actual results: a slimmed down government, a balanced budget, better schools, a better business climate, etc." Kaus is a consistently interesting commentator on Golden State politics, but such good-government pieties seemed laughably out of place in the context of the recently concluded circus. If people had wanted good government, they'd have voted for Tom McClintock. Instead they voted for Schwarzenegger, and logic indicates that they voted for him not in spite of his lack of political experience, but because of it.

On the principle that any day people turn against the government is a good day for liberty, Schwarzenegger's win was good news indeed. It also takes some of the sheen off the Republican Party. If the Republicans had not brought in a Hollywood ringer, we would almost certainly be hailing governor-elect Bustamante right now. It was only the presence of an actor/bodybuilder with a funny accent that kept the vote from splintering 135 different ways and propelling a true minority choice into office with a tiny fraction of the vote.

Both parties should take note: They're selling a product fewer and fewer people want. If they want to stay in business, they should soon be reduced to bringing in some of the many co-stars Schwarzenegger has worked with over the years. As that group includes everybody from surfing legend Gerry Lopez to former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura to funnyman Sinbad to Verne "Mini Me" Troyer, the sky is definitely the limit.

Tim Cavanaugh is Reason's Web editor. A version of this article appeared in the Orange County Register on October 12.

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