Emotions are powerful. Their rise and fall, twist and turns, can make life feel like a roller-coaster. Some days we are in control of our emotions, and we feel at peace with the obstacles before us. Other days we feel stuck behind a wall of anxiety and without any sight of what lies on the other side. And yet we feel, we try to present ourselves to others as calm and collected.
Our emotions influence the choices we make and the beliefs we hold. We are less likely to agree with someone who makes us angry, even if that person is correct. And other people’s emotions influence us just as much as our own. Through empathy we mimic the emotions we see in others; we might feel sad when we notice that our friend is sad. With the power and influence that emotions have over us, it’s no wonder that emotions play a central role in politics.
Emotions influence public opinion just as much, if not more than rational argumentation. Political scientists spend hours researching keywords that trigger specific emotional responses. Millions of dollars are spent every election season on advertisements that either try to stoke anger towards a political ‘enemy’ or build sympathy for the candidate. Social movements build public support in a similar way. Organizations against abortion call their side ‘pro-life’ but organizations for abortion call them ‘anti-choice’ while calling themselves ‘pro-choice.’ The titles are like advertisements; they try to sell membership into a group. A group that is ‘anti’ something is not as attractive as one that is ‘pro’ something. The best branding wins.
Jonathon Haidt, social psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, studies moral and emotional psychology according to political affiliation. In what he calls “the largest study ever of libertarian psychology,” Haidt finds that self-identified libertarians, compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, “come out as the most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional.” Haidt’s data suggests that libertarians intellectually value logic and reasoning over emotion and that they project “rational ethics.” Libertarians are more likely to rationalize their way to their beliefs. While a single study, regardless of sample size, cannot totally, and with complete accuracy, understand the complexity of the participants, libertarians can still find valuable lessons and insight from Haidt’s study.
If Haidt is correct that libertarians generally rationalize their way to their core beliefs, then it makes sense that libertarians would use the same cerebral path in defending their core beliefs to others. Since the founding of the Libertarian Party in 1971, the liberty movement’s most significant growth has been in think tanks and research organizations. Immediately after the Party’s formation, influential think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Mises Institute began to form. Since 1971, libertarians have played an oversized role in American public policy, influencing the intellectual development of fields like economics, philosophy, and political science. However, when it comes to public opinion and political representation, libertarians have gained little ground.
A libertarian candidate has never won a federal or gubernatorial election. While Gary Johnson is polling quite well in his race for New Mexico’s Senate seat, libertarian candidates have up till now only won local state races. Why are libertarians seemingly unsuccessful in gaining the public trust in larger elections? The two-party system surely makes it difficult for any third party candidate, but it doesn’t make it impossible. Independents have filled House and Senate seats all over the country, and many third-party candidates made their way into the Governor’s mansion. It’s also not the case that libertarian ideals are too unpopular for public consumption.
Gallup’s 2016 Governance Survey shows “libertarians in the electorate” at 27%. Gallup’s 2017 poll shows that 61% of Americans believe a third party is needed. Libertarianism can reach a tipping point in American politics if it can win the public trust; the trust that is slipping away from democrats and republicans.
To make an impact on the political stage libertarians need to consider how other people gather and interpret information. For some, the most important policy proposal isn’t the one based on the most substantial data but the one that stands for ‘doing what feels right.’ If libertarians believe that their ideas and policy proposals are not just beneficial to society but also necessary for society’s growth, then they need to share those ideas as if society depends upon it. Libertarians need to show some emotion.
The Libertarian Party’s first official slogan was “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL). While true, TANSTAAFL does not reach hearts. People are not motivated to vote for candidates that stand against things. Haidt’s study claims that the libertarian psychological characteristic that is most widely known is the value that libertarians place on negative liberty (rights). Negative rights are rights that cannot be restricted externally. For example, the government cannot legislate speech because it would infringe upon my (negative) right to free speech.
Libertarian candidates almost always campaign on negative liberties like eliminating taxes, shrinking government, and personal freedoms, etc. Democrats and Republicans share some points with libertarians, but they generally repackage those points as gifts that they promise to provide if elected. For example, Republicans campaign on tax cuts as a ‘positive’ rather than a ‘negative.’ They talk about tax cuts like Spring gifts. Democrats, on the other hand, campaign on gifts like health care, education, wage increases, etc. They both legislate with emotion, with titles for legislation like “No Child Left Behind” and “Affordable Care Act.” Nobody wants to leave children behind and who doesn’t want things affordable?
Libertarians do not have to feel bound to ‘negative rights talk.’ Libertarians believe that smaller government gives people more in the long run. They can express those same points with more emotion by talking about how deregulation isn’t about corporations but about naturally raising wages for all people. Deregulation helps more people by allowing industry to expand the economy according to need. It also allows for greater innovation, which leads to greater progress in medicine, education, and technology.
Some libertarians have no problem wearing their heart on their sleeves. Some, like Christian libertarians, talk about liberty through the lens of peace, mercy, and love. Liberty and freedom are necessary for Christian love and it just so happens that liberty and freedom lead to economic flourishing. Christian libertarians can help with reach hearts and show how to build public trust on the political stage. Many organizations, like the Libertarian Christian Institute, are mobilizing Christian libertarians and showing the public that libertarianism isn’t about one individual but all individuals. While libertarians may prefer walking on the political stage calm and collected with policies argued by data, they should consider walking on stage with their hearts on their sleeves and debating policies with some more emotion. It’s not all about logic; it’s about love too.