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Why libertarians don’t trust RFK Jr

Dems in disguise? Credit: Getty

April 1, 2024 - 1:00pm

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced Nicole Shanahan, a 38-year-old attorney and philanthropist, as his running mate last week. Outside of Silicon Valley, Shanahan is a relative political unknown, though as the ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, she brings considerable financial assets to the ticket.

Reaction to the pick has been mixed, however — especially among a constituency RFK Jr has courted: libertarians. In a recent interview, Libertarian Party Chair Angela McArdle expressed concern about the ticket, saying that Shanahan “doesn’t necessarily fit into alignment with any of our views.” RFK Jr.’s new veep was a supporter of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and has donated to Democratic and Left-leaning causes in the past. In 2020, she donated to Marianne Williamson, Peter Buttigieg and Joe Biden.

RFK Jr. is himself a former Democrat, of course — and a progressive one, at that. He has a long history of energy and climate activism completely contrary to the limited government ethos of libertarianism. He previously called the National Rifle Association a “terrorist group”, although he does support the second amendment. He said the Koch brothers should be prosecuted for treason on environmentalist grounds. He also supports student loan debt forgiveness and affirmative action, both liberal stances.

Nevertheless, after RFK Jr. formally left the Democratic Party in October 2023 — opting to face-off against President Joe Biden in the general election rather than the primaries — widespread speculation ensued that he might seek the Libertarian Party’s nomination. Last summer, he attended FreedomFest, an annual gathering of libertarians, and emphasised his involvement in issues that matter to us: most notably, the federal government’s efforts to suppress dissenting speech on social media, particularly relating to Covid-19.

Indeed, RFK Jr.’s contrarian views on Covid-19 policies like mandates, lockdowns, and the vaccines themselves have made him a target of social media censors, who were often pressured by government agents to take down provocative speech. (The Supreme Court is currently weighing whether these actions violated the First Amendment in Murthy v. Missouri.) Many of the underlying views are themselves attractive to libertarians; one need not agree with everything RFK Jr. has said about vaccines to nevertheless admire his opposition to making them compulsory.

It was RFK Jr.’s opposition to mandates and lockdowns that first drew the attention of some libertarians. When I spoke with her in June 2023, McArdle was optimistic that his views on the pandemic had “stirred an awakening within him, causing him to reconsider many of his other political stances.”

Following the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel, RFK Jr. expressed unqualified support for the US continuing to send aid to Israel, a stance that alienated many libertarians, who do not believe American taxpayers should be required to fund foreign wars. Support for RFK Jr. among rank-and-file LP members now appears lukewarm at best; at a California Libertarian Party convention in February, Kennedy garnered just one vote in the straw poll.

When asked about running for the LP nomination, RFK Jr. has remained evasive and declined to rule it out. As such, the speculation continues. But it seems unlikely he will go for it, and if he did, he would face deep-rooted scepticism, if not outright hostility, from many within the party. In 2016, libertarians booed former Gov. Gary Johnson — who sought and obtained the party’s presidential nomination — for supporting drivers licences. RFK Jr.’s heresies loom somewhat larger.


Robby Soave is a senior editor at Reason magazine and host of The Hill’s Rising.

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Ian_S
Ian_S
3 months ago

Great to see an article by Robbie Soave here, and that it may attract readership of Reason magazine. The US is a different media landscape from the UK, and Reason is quite a different magazine from UnHerd, but there are overlaps where scepticism of authoritarianism is involved.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian_S

I will second that. I enjoy Reason mag very much.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

RFK is way, way too interventionist to ever be considered in the same universe as libertarianism.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
3 months ago

“
attorney and philanthropist”? Seems like “rich husband catcher” would be a more apposite job description. And anyone whose mother managed to emigrate from China to the US in the early 1980s needs a thorough security check.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

I’m not sure libertarians trust anyone seeking office. Then again, Robby’s magazine went more or less all-in for the current administration, which is about as anti-libertarian as one can be.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago

I was skeptical when I heard that RFK Jr. was considering becoming the Libertarian candidate, because he isn’t a Libertarian. The Libertarian party are truly worthy of the overused term ‘radical’, supporting, among other things, abolishing corporations, legalized prostitution and drugs, and strict non interference in foreign conflict. RFK is probably closer than Biden but that’s like saying between Philadelphia and New York, the latter is closer to London. Small l libertarianism has become almost entirely a Republican phenomenon as the Tea Party became a serious political force and pulled the party in their direction, and when Trump broke the establishment, the libertarian faction of the party supported him. Those two factions define the party these days and there’s quite a bit of overlap. The mainstream Democrats are about as un-libertarian as anyone can get today, but it was not always so. My interpretation of RFK is that he is an ‘old school’ Democrat, and when I say old I mean really old, like 60’s and 70’s old. He’s a part of that counterculture that hated Nixon, opposed Vietnam, wanted to stick it to the man, and chafed against basically any cultural or governmental expectations. These were people who wanted to live however they wanted and not be told ‘no’. They wanted to be able to be as promiscuous as they wanted and use whatever drugs they wanted. Democrats courted those young people back then the same way they do now. The Democrats were the party of the common man, the more socially conscious, the more anti-war, and they constantly talked about civil rights to court the black vote. Back then, the Democrats had far more libertarian leaning types who, while advocating most of the same things they do now, found the Democratic party just as near as the Republicans, because the Republicans were still the party of big business, big money, the military industrial complex, fighting communism around the world, flag waving patriotism, and all things traditional and responsible. Neither of the parties were very libertarian then, but the Democrats were arguably more libertarian then. RFK’s campaign looks awkward and unorthodox because it’s not really tailored to today’s politics at all. It’s just his views from his family when they ran the party, and it’s only getting traction because anything even vaguely anti-establishment and vaguely change oriented is getting traction from the populist tide that is rising here and everywhere.

Sphen Oid
Sphen Oid
3 months ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

RFK is potentially picking up all those whom the current and previous ruling parties have disenfranchised. And there are a hell of alot of voters that fit into this category. His biggest hindrance for getting into the coming election is finance besides the skulduggery of the major camps.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
3 months ago
Reply to  Sphen Oid

Well, my thoughts are that the demand for change and the call for populist reform spans the political spectrum, and RFK reflects that. In an ideal world, he’d be allowed to run in the primary and sink or swim, but that didn’t happen. The Democratic machine is a lot stronger than the Republican machine was when Trump blew it up. Moreover, the Democratic party doesn’t depend on grassroots voters and respond to their issues because they rely so much on grievance identity politics. RFK had to see what they did to Sanders, twice, and get away with it with very little push back from the party’s voters, for whom not being racist Republicans seems to be the most important factor. RFK is running on a lot of the same issues. He’s angry with the establishment the way a lot of people on both sides of the aisle are, but he can’t beat the Democratic machine with the party how it is now. The most likely outcome is that RFK tips the election one way or the other and the losing party will have a grievance and blame him for 2024 like they blame Jill Stein in 2016 or Ralph Nader in 2000. If Biden is trailing in August, don’t be surprised if Kennedy folds under pressure from his family and drops out. If he doesn’t, that’s a credit to his character and integrity, but he’ll be a pariah in Democratic circles for the rest of his days. He may or may not care at this point. On the other hand, if Biden is leading and it looks like RFK is a possible reason, I doubt you’ll hear a peep about him from Democrats and they’ll let Trump and RFK tear into each other and sink each other’s campaigns. He’s a Kennedy, so maybe that was the plan all along, use RFK as a semi-populist attack dog to capitalize on the many people who dislike Trump’s manner or personality. I can’t pretend to know what’s in the minds of these power dealers.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

The Supreme Court’s decision Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905), said that the government has the right to compel certain behaviors during a public health emergency. The case concerned a man who refused to get a smallpox vaccine required by the state. Because smallpox was one of human history’s biggest killers, getting everyone vaccinated was imperative. The people had to cooperate if the disease were to be defeated. The decision said Massachusetts acted to protect the people of the state.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
3 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

“Because smallpox was one of human history’s biggest killers, getting everyone vaccinated was imperative. The people had to cooperate if the disease were to be defeated.”

B0ll0cks!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 months ago

Yes, abuse isn’t actually an argument……

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
3 months ago

“Last summer, he attended FreedomFest, an annual gathering of libertarians, and emphasised his involvement in issues that matter to us: most notably, the federal government’s efforts to suppress dissenting speech on social media, particularly relating to Covid-19.”
In this, RFK Jr. is a broken clock that is right twice a day. He has a history of advocating for the suppression of speech that is critical of his other pet causes.