The stadium was a sausage fest. This wouldn’t have been notable on any other Sunday at the Tampa Sun Dome, where the University of Southern Florida Bulls play. Trouble was, this wasn’t a basketball game but a fete for the 77-year-old standard bearer of a long-struggling political movement: Ron Paul. That triumphant gathering of 10,000 libertarians in August 2012 was alive with a sense that their oft-dismissed ideas were finally hitting it big.
After all, Paul had enjoyed an impressive second-place finish in the GOP delegate hunt. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had already announced his running mate as Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, an Ayn Rand devotee whose selection libertarians felt was a nod their way. More promising, Ron Paul’s son Rand was a freshman U.S. senator with overwhelming buzz as potential presidential timber if Romney lost to Barack Obama, as was likely. There was cause for optimism in libertarian quarters that the body politic was, for the first time in decades, “getting it.”
However, also on display that afternoon was the fundamental math problem that has forever kept libertarians on the fringe of elected politics: The vast majority of attendees were male. Most of the speakers to grace the stage were male. The honky-tonk music that blared forth was of a masculine, steel-stringed variety.
No political movement in modern America can succeed on testosterone alone, and what appeared to be a coming-out party at the Sun Dome, with banners and speeches proclaiming libertarianism “here to stay” and “taking root,” is likely to remain the movement’s high-water mark unless it can find a way to appeal to the other half of the American electorate.
Consider the fate of the Rand Paul presidential campaign: Paul was actually in good shape before Donald Trump hijacked the 2016 nomination. Both Politico and Time magazine had declared Paul the “most interesting man in politics” precisely because some of his libertarian ideas—less foreign military engagement, greater personal privacy protection from government snooping, concern about the over-incarceration of Americans—could nudge the GOP toward new, less predictable stances. As late as last June, polls had Paul netting about seven percent of likely Republican voters. In the already crowded field, that figure was substantial.
Yet lurking inside that good news was something very bad: Paul drew about 13 percent of male Republicans—more than Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—but a mere two percent of women, according to CNN. It was the most extreme gender gap in the bunch.
It would be easy to claim this as a Paul-specific problem, given that his campaign rollout included gaffes such as the candidate mansplaining to female anchors how they should do their jobs and what questions they should ask him. But writ large, libertarianism is a widespread and troublesome turn-off to women. Data has piled up for years about the problem: Both a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute study and a 2014 Pew survey, for instance, found men outnumbering women two to one among self-identified libertarians.
This is partly due to branding. There are libertarians, who espouse a general antigovernment line, and there are Libertarians, members of the Libertarian Party. Some people are both, but the most prominent are the Pauls—Rand, Ron and Ryan—who all work their magic from within the Republican Party. The price of credibility with GOP voters, though, is making peace with the idea that our government will interfere with abortions and gay marriage, which taints the libertarian brand. Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party may actually be more appealing to women—its 2012 platform called for government to stay out of abortion and gay marriage—but presidential nominee Gary Johnson didn’t make much effort to tell that to female voters for fear of alienating men. In any event, the party is a widespread flop, holding not a single seat in any state legislature, statewide office or Congress.
To some, what’s most surprising about this conundrum is that libertarianism’s patron saints, the authors Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson and Rose Wilder Lane, are all women. Perhaps their message resounded precisely because it was what guys—especially the hairy-chested, Ron Swanson sort attracted to libertarianism’s self-reliance-at-all-costs ideal—wanted to hear from the opposite sex. Male libertarians weren’t resentful just of big government. They were resentful of anyone who told them what to say, think or do. In real life, the women they knew hassled them to be compassionate, generous, thoughtful, loyal. Rand, Paterson and Lane instead told them that selfishness was a virtue.
Indeed, in pondering what women dislike about libertarianism, it may help to consider why some men like it. The philosophy posits that any deviation from true self-reliance is not just a sign of weakness but a character flaw. Conveniently, though, men do not get pregnant, give birth or usually serve as the primary caregiver to offspring. On a practical level, these aspects of the female experience place women at physical risk, forcing them to rearrange their lives in dramatic ways and, very often, lead them to depend on the support of others.
Political and social scientists have long held that this dependence often makes women more sympathetic to others who seek and accept help, even if they recoil at doing so themselves. To this end, women who might otherwise be libertarians become Republicans, because their party proposes a government that helps people less but at least a little.
Women are such a rarity in this movement that they take online handles that emphasize their gender. There’s Julie Borowski, who calls herself “Token Libertarian Girl” on her YouTube channel. There’s also Libertarian Ann, whose web shows have variously been known as “Ron Paul Girl Radio” and “1 Woman Vs. the Man.” And there’s Rachel Bolch-Thach, who rose to prominence specifically for being an attractive young delegate for Ron Paul at the 2012 convention and has run with that notoriety ever since as LibertyGirlTX on Facebook.
At least libertarian women seem concerned about the problem. Almost without exception, the only libertarians sounding an alarm about the male dominance of the cause are female. “No movement can survive without half the population—and especially not the half that still spends the most time influencing the next generation,” writes Bonnie Kristian on Rare.us, a libertarian web journal.
The guys aren’t having it, though. “Libertarianism does not address race, gender, religion, sexuality or any other class the left would like to see protected from offense. Nor should it,” libertarian firebrand Christopher Cantwell writes. “Libertarianism makes the radical assertion that these subjects are irrelevant outside of our own personal preferences, and that our own personal preferences are not how the whole of human society should be organized. So the short answer to libertarian diversity is, I don’t care, and neither should you.”
Straight white men who find efforts to appeal to people different from themselves unbecoming may congratulate one another for standing on principle. Perhaps as their numbers dwindle and their influence wanes, they can sit together in their sad little internet chat rooms and whisper, “We’ll always have Tampa.”