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Are the Republicans Going Galt?

Are Republicans turning into libertarians?

Last week’s Tea Party protests had their origins in the libertarian movement. Although many conservative groups were eager to co-opt their purpose, the core of the message — anti-tax, anti-big government — was about as libertarian as it gets. Participation in the rallies was also proportionately quite high in areas like New Hampshire and the Interior West, which are traditionally more sympathetic toward libertarian concerns.

We can argue about the significance of the tea paries and we can argue about whether they represent the way forward for Republicans. But they are just one manifesation of what seems like an increasing drift toward libertariansim within the party. Consdier also:

— A new Gallup survey suggests that 80 percent of Republicans think that big government is a bigger threat to the government than big business, versus just 10 percent who think the opposite. This represents an enormous partisan split from Democrats, among whom a majority think that big business is the greater threat. Moreover, the partisan split has grown significantly since 2006; it has now become almost a definitional issue for Republicans.

— The Republican alternative budget could be considered a somewhat radical experiment in libertarianism, dramatically slashing taxes while promising to balance budgets — an achievement that would only be possible if the size of the government were cut enormously. Meanwhile, the Republicans, with help from some Democrats, stuck into the budget debate an amendment to curb the estate tax, which will cost the government about $100 billion in revenue annually.
— Republican insiders are increasingly uncertain about whether gay marriage, which was such an important issue for the party over 2000-2004, is any longer a winning issue at all for them. Reaction to the Iowa Supreme Court decision was surprisingly muted in conservative circles. Meanwhile, at least one prominent Republican presidential candidate, Utah’s John Huntsman, has come out in favor of civil unions (although not gay marriage itself).
— If gay bashing is becoming less in vogue among Republicans, it’s unclear which other cultural issues — areas where Republicans sometimes favor bigger, more statist government — might take its place. Yes, there’s always abortion. But I’m surprised there hasn’t been more anti-immigrant sentiment, as often happens when jobs are scarce; perhaps the Republicans’ poor performance among Latino voters on November 4th might have scared them away from that issue. Marijuana legalization seems to be gaining some traction (although more among pundits than policymakers), but about half the conservative commentariat (see Glenn Beck, for instance, who calls himself a libertarian) seems to embrace it.

Maybe you see a pattern there and maybe you don’t. But of the roughly four different pathways the Republicans could take in the post-Obama universe — toward Ron Paulesque libertarianism, toward Sarah Palinesque cultural populism, toward Mike Huckabeesque big-government conservatism, or toward Olympia Snowesque moderation/ good-governmentism — the libertarian side would seem to have had the best go of things in the First 100 Days.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.