WASHINGTON – Rebecca Coates used to call herself a Republican, but increasingly found she had to be more specific.
“For a long time I thought I was a Republican, but I was always having to add addendums like, “I’m Republican, but I think drugs should be legal,” or “I’m Republican, but I don’t want us to be at war overseas,”’ said Coates, a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of the campus’ College Libertarians.
Across Maryland, and much of the country, libertarianism is attracting college students and others looking for an alternative. Libertarianism is becoming especially popular among younger voters, many of whom are tired of the stalemate between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, as evidenced by the 16-day government shutdown.
“I think the congressional dysfunction … only makes people more interested in other viewpoints,” said Michael Ben-Horin, a Students For Liberty campus coordinator for the mid-Atlantic region and president of the George Washington University College Libertarians.
A 2011 Pew Research Center Poll found that 9 percent of Americans identify as libertarian.
The growth in popularity of libertarianism seems to be closely related to the emergence of the Tea Party movement.
Theda Skocpol, professor of politics and sociology at Harvard University, co-authored ‘The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism’ in 2011, and discovered an overlap between Tea Party and libertarian identification.
“When we did our research in 2011… we found that as many as 40 percent of (Tea Party supporters) in Virginia considered themselves libertarian,” Skocpol said.
In this year’s Virginia governor’s race, Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis was third with 11 percent in an Oct. 15 poll by Christopher Newport University’s Judy Ford Watson Center for Public Policy.
Libertarians in the United States are predominantly male, highly critical of government and disapproving of social welfare programs, according to the Pew poll, although some libertarians find that definition stifling and inaccurate.
The UMBC group includes one of seven Maryland chapters of Young Americans for Liberty, an organization founded in 2008 by Jeff Frazee, who worked as a youth coordinator for former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian who unsuccessfully ran for president on the Republican ticket in 2012. There are four newly forming chapters in the state, including Mount St. Mary’s University and the University of Baltimore, joining the three already active chapters.
“There’s definitely a trend on the national basis and a significant growth in young libertarians,” said Yaron Brook, executive director of the Irvine, Calif.-based Ayn Rand Institute. “(It’s) a generation that’s being screwed by their elders. The baby boomer generation loaded themselves up with goodies at the expense of young people.”
Frustrated with what they perceive as burdensome government regulations promoted by Democrats, and intrusive social policies and over-reaching foreign policy supported by Republicans, young people have increasingly taken to libertarianism over the past five or six years, Brook said.
Jared Naumann, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County College Libertarians, which includes members of Students For Liberty, the Libertarian Party and Young Americans for Liberty, did not expect so much enthusiasm when he set up the group a year ago.
“Once it became official and once I had an executive board, it took off. I never expected to get this far, I never expected an official club. I expected, at most, five people on the mailing list,” said Naumann, an information systems major who grew up in a libertarian household.
There are now 74 people on the opt-in mailing list, and 23 people signed up at the campus involvement fair in September, Naumann said.
Many of the group’s students discovered their beliefs aligned with libertarianism after growing up in conservative households. Libertarians often overlap with conservatives on economic policies, but tend to diverge on social issues.
“A lot of kids who are libertarian now were raised in conservative households, so they might live a very conservative lifestyle in terms of what they value, but when it comes down to it, they want to be free to make their own decisions about things,” said Coates, from Harford County.
Jordyn Vogel, a biology for pre-dental major, said a key component of libertarianism is the distinction between personal and political opinions.
“Whether I personally think that homosexual people should get married doesn’t matter, because I don’t think the government should define what is and isn’t considered marriage,” Vogel said.
For many young voters, a distrust of government and institutions means they are more likely to identify as libertarian, said Trey Grayson, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former Kentucky Secretary of State. Grayson ran against Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a Tea Party libertarian, in the 2010 Kentucky senate Republican primary.
The willingness of Rand Paul and his father, Ron Paul, to communicate using social media, including, the Ron Paul Channel, is attractive to younger voters, Grayson said. And they’re more successful at navigating the Internet than their strictly GOP counterparts.
“Historically, the right has been abysmal” at using the Internet, said Bonnie Kristian, communications consultant at Arlington, Va.-based Young Americans for Liberty. “It’s just ugly…. (Mitt) Romney was bad, but not as bad as (John) McCain. They don’t know how to appeal to anyone under the age of 40.”
Kristian handles the Young Americans for Liberty’s Facebook and Twitter pages, which have more than 60,000 fans and 15,000 followers, respectively. Facebook is the primary social media outlet because it’s the most inclusive, she said.
“Facebook has the advantage of everyone being there already. The mom and grandma are on there too, and they make up the donor level,” Kristian said.
The Internet is also used as a recruitment tool for new members and chapter leaders based on their likes and location.
Matthew Butt, a psychology and pre-med major is president of the newly-formed Young Americans for Liberty chapter at McDaniel College in northern Maryland. The chapter has around 20 members.
Butt was contacted in May by the national organization on Facebook and was asked if he wanted to lead a chapter.
“Even though we may be a minority in Maryland, we’re a very passionate and vocal minority,” he said.
Despite positive turnout from students and success organizing over social media, the UMBC College Libertarians said they still need what every group needs – money.
At a weekly meeting recently, members were considering how to get their school to fund bus travel to a student libertarian conference in Washington in February, and how to host an ‘Atlas Shrugged’ movie night despite campus regulations and the hefty price tag to secure the rights to the film.
“It’s hard to fundraise if you’re a political group, it really is. If you’re not connected to a big party like the Republicans and Democrats, it’s hard to fundraise,” said Tim Jacobs, the group’s treasurer.
Like cash-strapped college organizations everywhere, the group was considering a bake sale.