South Carolina's "Libertarian" Governor

When I was in South Carolina earlier this summer (while working on a feature story), the Democrats I spoke with started to sound like a ...
by | August 4, 2008

Governorsanford_officialportrait When I was in South Carolina earlier this summer (while working on a feature story), the Democrats I spoke with started to sound like a broken record. They all criticized Governor Mark Sanford. And they all called him the same thing: a libertarian.

It's not just Democrats, either. Sanford is a member of the Republican Party, but you'd hardly know from talking to a lot of people in South Carolina. Newspaper columnists and political scientists often describe him as a libertarian.

To a point, all of these people are simply trying to describe Sanford's philosophy. I also get the sense, though, that Sanford's critics use "libertarian" as a pejorative term.

Here's a typical remark: "Mark Sanford is a libertarian, he is not a Republican and he is not a leader, and he won't work with people to get something done."

Who said that? A Republican elected official, while endorsing Sanford's Democratic opponent in 2006.

What I can't decide is whether this line of attack is effective. The issue here is bigger than just the governor of South Carolina. Democrats have struggled to find an unflattering one-word description of Republicans. Could "libertarian" do the trick?

First, some details on Sanford. He is, in effect, half a libertarian. He wins praise from the Cato Institute, the right-leaning libertarian group. In Congress and as a governor, he's been a big opponent of pork. He favors tax cuts and privatization, including school vouchers. He also has been one of the most ardent opponents of Real ID, claiming that it's an overreach by the federal government.

But that's not the whole story.

Sanford didn't get good marks from the American Civil Liberties Union while in Congress. He's a social conservative. As governor, he's supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He also supported a bill to require women to view an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. And he hasn't been making an effort to overturn South Carolina's drug laws.

In sum, Sanford agrees with libertarians about the size of government, but often breaks with them on the scope of government. You could say that about dozens of other conservative politicians, although Sanford stays true to his small government principles more often than most.

But, really, whether Sanford is a libertarian is beside the point. Given the unflattering context in which the term is often used to describe him, the real question is why Sanford's critics are all calling him a libertarian. They seem to think there's some political advantage to be gained from doing so, although it's not entirely clear what it would be.

My best guess is that Sanford's opponents face a dilemma that leads them to call him a libertarian. What they really mean is that Sanford is too conservative even for South Carolina -- that he favors small government to the point of undermining core services.

Since this is South Carolina, though, "conservative" won't be seen as a negative. They could call him "very conservative," but my ninth-grade English teacher wisely taught me that adding "very" usually makes your argument seem weaker, not stronger.

This is a problem that faces Democrats in a lot of places -- including places that are less conservative than South Carolina. Even as more and more Americans are identifying with the Democratic Party, far more Americans continue to identify themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal."

Republicans have succeeded in branding "liberal" as a derogatory term, while Democrats have been unable to give "conservative" negative connotations. As a result, Democrats end up spending a lot of time explaining why being a liberal isn't a bad thing or (more often) explaining why they're not actually liberals.

There are a couple of reasons why, given this dilemma, Sanford's detractors -- or any critic of a conservative -- might try out "libertarian." One is that, in a country with such an entrenched two-party system, anything associated with third parties tends to be exotic. In effect, the message here is that Sanford is a gadfly, a crackpot, or somewhere in between.

The other reason is that "libertarian" is largely a blank slate. Most Americans aren't really very clear on what it means to be a liberal or a conservative. Except for a small, politically engaged group, I doubt they have any idea what it means to be a libertarian. If Democrats set out to brand Republicans as libertarians and libertarians as bad, it's not as though most people will say to themselves, "But Republicans views on the War on Drugs are completely antithetical to the libertarian ethos!"

That said, in a country dedicated to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," I'd have to think that "libertarian" comes with at least some intrinsic positive connotations. Sanford, for one, doesn't seem too worried about the term. "I'm an unabashed conservative," he told me, "and sometimes accused of being a libertarian, to which I say, 'I'm guilty, I love liberty.' "

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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