More on Lib-Bro-Tarians

At TNR today, Jeet Heer picks up on the same extreme Rand Paul gender gap that I wrote about earlier this week, and offers a more extensive analysis. He notes that in the most comprehensive recent analysis of ideological tendencies in the US, a 2013 typology from Pew, 68% of libertarians were men, and 94% were non-Hispanic white folks. (I would add that a later Pew study, based more on self-identification, showed a higher percentage of Americans as libertarian, but had the same gender breakdown).

In examining the bro-centric nature of libertarianism, Heer generously quotes a number of libertarians, some of whom make anecdotal claims that the number of libertarian women is growing rapidly. He then shifts his attention to the central role of a few notable women in inspiring the modern libertarian movement:

In his 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, Brian Doherty gives pride of place to what he calls “the three furies of libertarianism”: Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson, and Rose Lane Wilder. In 1943, all three published pivotal books that became the cornerstones of the libertarian movements: Rand’s The Fountainhead, Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom and Paterson’s The God of the Machine. As David Boaz of the Cato Institute argued in 1997, “In 1943, at one of the lowest points for liberty and humanity in history, three remarkable women published books that could be said to have given birth to the modern libertarian movement.”

But as Heer goes on to note, one thing these three women had in common was a retroactive passion for a nineteenth century society in which women and minorities were invisible or worse:

Rand, Paterson, and Lane left another legacy: They gave libertarianism a historical narrative. They were all nostalgists who celebrated the rough-and-tumble capitalism of the nineteenth century, which they saw as being subverted by the progressive era and the New Deal. (Lane’s role in editing and possibly ghostwriting her mother’s famous Little House on the Prairie series is suggestive of how powerful nostalgia was in her life.) This type of yearning for the America of the Robber Barons has little to offer most women (who might not want to return to a world where they couldn’t vote and had severely restricted social lives) or for that matter most non-whites (who might recall Jim Crow segregation). As Brian Doherty notes, “American blacks or women … might find libertarian complaints about government growth silly. Most of them certainly feel freer in many important ways than they would have in the nineteenth century.”

The best known and most influential of these “furies,” Ayn Rand, was so uncompromising that she refused to acknowledge any past era as having comprehended what she called “the unknown ideal” of laissez-faire capitalism. But she did view Grover Cleveland, the nineteenth century goldbug Bourbon Democrat, as coming as close to it as anyone ever had.

Rand was not, of course, by most conventional definitions a feminist, despite her fervent definition of human worth as being entirely intellectual and “objective,” and her construction of a cult of personality for herself that regarded her as having unlocked the keys to the universe. Aside from the eternally controversial rape scene in her first best-selling novel, The Fountainhead, there was the viscerally creepy line in her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, that describes a bracelet worn by her industrial heroine Dagny Taggard as giving her “the most feminine of all aspects, the look of being chained.” Yikes.

The bottom line is pretty clear:

To a significant degree, libertarianism is a philosophy that exalts a world where white men enjoyed enormous freedom, but other groups were even more marginalized than they are now. How surprising is it, then, that politicians like Paul who voice libertarian ideas have a fan base that is overwhelming made up of white men?

Not surprising at all. And just wait until women who are only now getting to know the junior Senator from Kentucky get a load of the whole Aqua Buddha story. There will be some mansplainin’ to do.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.