Pew Research Center: America is 9% Libertarian

Scripps Howard had a surprising article yesterday which indicated what libertarians have been claiming all along: Most voters are neither red nor blue. The information wasn’t surprising, that a major news service covered it is. Citing a recent Pew Research Center survey, they wrote:

A study released last week by the Pew Research Center (http://pew might cause some discomfort along the red-blue border.

Based on a national survey of 2,000 adults taken shortly after the 2004 election, researchers attempted to see just how ideological Americans really are. The answer? Not very.

“Judging by their opinions on a number of issues, many Americans simply do not fit well within either the conservative or liberal ideological camps,” wrote Greg Smith and Scott Keeter, “instead falling into one of two other important U.S. political traditions – libertarian or populist – or defying attempts to pigeon-hole them.”

They looked at the responses to a set of questions on economic and social issues: questions about government-guaranteed health insurance, government regulation of business, recognition of gay marriage and government promotion of morality.

Their conclusion was that only 18 percent of poll respondents could be considered liberals and 15 percent conservatives. Another 16 percent were populists, those who tended to endorse government regulation in both the economic and social areas. Another 9 percent were libertarians, those who tended to oppose government involvement in both spheres.

The rest? A whopping 42 percent were in the middle in a grouping the researchers termed “ambivalent.” These Americans either answered the questions in seemingly conflicting ways or said they had no opinions at all.

I went over to Pew and found their article about their findings. They used six questions and plotted the results on a modified Nolan Chart. As someone who conducts telephone polls and actively tracks trends in how Americans are defined politically, I have some minor issues with the amount of questions they used, but find the overall results unsurprising.

Their cross-tabs indicate that libertarians are a bit wealthier but less educated than I would have guessed, but a lot of that is based on the specific questions they used to determine the political leanings of the survey respondents.

Here is one thing to watch out for: They classified populists as those who favor “an active role for government in both the economic and the social spheres.” The traditional Nolan Chart refers to these people as as authoritarian. The centrist center of the Nolan Chart is called ambivilent by Pew.

Here’s the Wiki definition of populist:

Populism is a political philosophy or rhetorical style that holds that the common person’s interests are oppressed or hindered by the elite in society, and that the instruments of the state need to be grasped from this self-serving elite and used for the benefit and advancement of the people as a whole. Hence a populist is one who is perceived to craft their rhetoric as appeals to the economic, social, and common sense concerns of average people. Most scholarship on populism since 1980 has discussed it as a rhetorical style that can be used to promote a variety of ideologies.

Individual populists have variously promised to stand up to corporate power, remove “corrupt” elites, and “put people first.” Populism incorporates anti-regime politics, and sometimes nationalism, racism or religious fundamentalism. Many populists appeal to a specific region of a country or to a specific social class, such as the working class, middle class, or farmers. Often they employ dichotomous rhetoric, and claim to represent the majority of the people.

I don’t find Pew’s definition consistent with common use of the term. This said, I’m pleased that the survey was conducted. It provides a statistical view of American’s which is not consistent to the way we are portrayed by the MSM or treated by politicians — and it continues to prove what we’ve been saying all along.

Stephen Gordon

I like tasteful cigars, private property, American whiskey, fast cars, hot women, pre-bailout Jeeps, fine dining, worthwhile literature, low taxes, original music, personal privacy and self-defense rights -- but not necessarily in this order.

  1. It could have been good but all the data is worthless because of the 6 questions that were asked.

    There is not a united libertarian or statists view of half of the questions and that makes the whole thing pointless.

    As a libertarian, I still think government regulation is need to protect the public interest (cops, courts, etc), am against private retirement accounts for SS (as it should be ended), and I am for the type of legal gay marriage we have now but against government marriage for gays (or anyone).

    The giving in my opinion a libertarian response to those questions I am classified as a centrists, which is wholly incorrect.

    Maybe these guys can do a better survey in the future, like one using the World’s Smallest Political Quiz.

  2. The fact the libertarian shows up as one of the categories is a sign that things have moved in our direction.
    Thirty years ago I doubt that libertarian would have even been on someone’s mind.

  3. Not to mention that populism is a complete lie. It’s actually replacing one set of government bureaucrats with another. The same “oppression” not only continues, it gets worse.

  4. Considering the questions, I’m surprised that libertarians did as well as 9%.

    For example, the question; “Government regulation needed to protect the public interest” could be answered “Yes” by those who think just an itty bitty little bit of regulation is needed. Someone who thinks that way should be labeled ‘economically libertarian’, but if they answered yes to that question, they would be labeled the opposite under these ratings.

    Also, no one knows what the hell ‘Populist’ means in regard to these issues.

  5. Despite the questions and the “populist” and “ambivalent” labels used, I note some of the highlights of the Pew report:

    Only about a third of the public holds consistently liberal (18%) or consistently conservative (15%) opinions on political issues.

    Nearly one-in-four Americans are ideologically consistent in their outlook, but don’t fit the liberal or conservative labels (9% are libertarians who consistently oppose an active government in both the economic and the conservative spheres, and 16% are populists who consistently favor an active role for government).

    …substantial portions of the major partisan coalitions (within the institutionalized two major parties) co-exist only uneasily with their co-partisans.

    Far from being an ideologically bipolar nation divided between liberals and conservatives, the U.S. is much more accurately described as an ideologically multipolar polity, with many ambivalent non-ideologues occupying a large middle ground.

  6. The problem with this analysis, and with the Smallest Political Quiz, is that both omit the hawk-dove axis, which is probably the biggest division between Libertarian Party supporters and libertarian leaning Republicans. I believe this particular research was done immediately after Hurricane Katrina and got many more people supporting government intervention in the economy than previous surveys, something attributed to Katrina.

    Quentin Langley, Editor of

  7. QL — I’m in agreement, and would love to see a three dimensional axis used — with social, economic and foreign politic questions.

  8. I don’t think the attention deficit mainstream media would be too keen on anything they couldn’t easily represent on a 2D graph.

  9. Paul — you kiddin’ me? A 3d axis is *MADE* for TV news!

    Think of it… the colors… the balls… they could spin it and make it rotate and do little dances on the screen…

    A *real* eyegrabber!

  10. There was another Pew study, a decade ago, that asked people a bunch of questions, and then used a multifactor analysis scheme to sort the people into groups of people who actually mostly agreed with each other. With 10 questions and 2 answers (I am choosing those numbers at random to make a point) you might think 2^10=1024 groups would be needed, but in fact 11 groups covered almost everyone in the US, and that including the people who aggressively opposed having opinions on political issues because having an opinion did not matter. Some of those groups were a bit surprising. For example, African-American men and African-American women fell into two extremely different groups.

  11. This should be used to arm our candidates with the firepower to demand they included in polls, nothing more. I’m sick and tired of libertarians getting ignored because they think we’re not a factor in the voting public’s opinion when this clearly shows we are.

  12. I think there is a shortcoming in the way the Nolan Chart handles some issues, which actually tends to skew the results away from the libertarian corner. This occurs especially in issues that reflect a mixture of personal AND economic freedom. Take the issue of gun control for example. There is a mix of economic freedom and personal freedom involved in this issue, i.e., the freedom to pursue commerce in firearms AND the freedom to own them.

    Many people get confused on this issue because it crosses the major party lines pro AND con. Most Dems favor, some don’t. Some Reps favor, most don’t.

    With mixed issues like this, it seems the up/down axis (using the Advocate’s modified Nolan Chart) needs to be emphasized more as an axis by itself, because when the issue is based on mixed freedom, the more important issue is who controls it…you or “them”.

    I think some of Pew’s questions were like this, and had a tendency to invoke left/right vs up/down.

  13. Continued…

    Or had a tendency to put people in the ambivelant category that may have actually had a stronger opinion that related to the control issue vs which type of freedom.

    And just in case someone wonders why I would say some Reps favor gun control, those would more likely be some law enforcement types…which really illustrates the control issue.