Only 14% of Americans call themselves libertarian and even fewer know what that term means. But they get a lot of media attention … because they’re backed by deep pockets. (More)

Squirrels would have a huge voice in a representative democracy. For starters, we outnumber humans in the U.S. by about 3:1. We even have our own nation on Twitter, with our own army and taxes and all that stuff. And a lot of us go to colleges, so you know we’re smart.

Okay, that last bit is a logical leap. I mean, the 11% of Americans who both call themselves libertarian and also know what that word means … don’t agree on much else:

Self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.
In some cases, the political views of self-described libertarians differ modestly from those of the general public; in others there are no differences at all.

For example, libertarians are more likely than other Americans to say government regulation and programs that help the poor do more harm than good, and businesses make fair profits. But not all that much more likely. Fully 41% of libertarians say government regulations of business is necessary, 46% say corporations make too much profit, and 38% say programs for the poor do “more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met.”

And libertarians seem confused about foreign policy. They’re both more likely to say U.S. involvement makes the world’s problems worse and more likely to say the U.S. should stay involved in world problems. I guess so we can keep making things worse.

In fact, it’s hard to figure out if ‘libertarians’ even exist as a meaningful cluster of voters. The Pew Research Center asked 23 questions about political and social values and sorted respondents into 7 clusters:

  • Steadfast Conservatives (12%) are staunch critics of government and the social safety net and are very socially conservative.
  • Business Conservatives (10%) share Steadfast Conservatives’ preference for limited government, but differ in their support for Wall Street and business, as well as immigration reform, and are far more moderate on social issues.
  • Solid Liberals (15%) express liberal attitudes across almost every realm: government, the economy and business and foreign policy, as well as on race, homosexuality and abortion.

The first two groups comprise the GOP base, while Solid Liberals are the Democratic base. The three groups total only 36% of adults, but are 43% of registered voters and 57% of the “politically engaged.”

The other four groups are less partisan and less predictable:

  • Young Outsiders (14%) claim to dislike both parties, support environmental regulations, and are socially liberal, but their insistence on limited government makes them reliable GOP voters.
  • Hard-Pressed Skeptics (13%) are resentful of both government and business, but support a stronger social safety net and voted for President Obama in 2012.
  • Next Generation Left (12%) voters are young, affluent, and liberal on issues like abortion and marriage equality, but worry about the cost of the social safety net and reject the idea that racism remains a serious social and policy concern.
  • Faith and Family Left (15%) voters want to preserve the social safety net and end racism, but are more skeptical of marriage equality and non-traditional families.

The remaining 10% are political bystanders.

And the libertarians? Well, they were split among all seven groups. The researchers at Pew tried other cluster models, including one that included a group very much like libertarians:

In the process of running several different models in creating the typology, we came up with one early version of the typology that had 12 groups, including a group that resembled libertarians. But the model was impractical, in part because it produced groups that were too small to analyze, and this set of groups did not persist across other models.

Under this one model, the group with a libertarian profile constituted about 5% of the public. They hold generally conservative views on the social safety net, regulation and business; liberal attitudes on homosexuality and immigration; and are less supportive of the use of military force when compared with the more conservative-leaning typology groups. They also are younger, on average, than most of the other groups (though a majority are 30 or older). But many members of this group diverge from libertarian thinking on key issues, including about half who say affirmative action is a good thing and that stricter environmental laws are worth the cost.

Even that smaller, ‘purer’ 5% cluster disagreed with libertarian doctrine. Yet earlier this month the New York Times Magazine’s Robert Draper asked if the “Libertarian Moment” had finally arrived, in a glowing account that hinted those 5% may in fact represent the new popular political consensus.

So why does a tiny fringe get so much attention? The answer may lie in the much-discussed paper by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page that found money, not people, drives the political agenda:

This paper reports on an effort to do [test predictions of four theories of democracy], using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Some of that is surely about campaign financing, but some may also be what political communication researcher Cristina Archetti called a “national political culture” where both political debate and news coverage bear little resemblance to public opinion:

[I]t could be entirely possible that there is a higher variable that shapes both political debate and media coverage. The source of the common “culturally conditioned response” by both political actors and reporters is a shared understanding of the issue. I take this to be a variable that exists at the national level, which I call national political culture, a combination … of a country’s national identity, policy agendas, international relations, and positioning within the international system.

In the U.S., that includes financing as a proxy for legitimacy. That’s why the Cook Political Report weighs fundraising reports in rating races, even as they explain the limits of that data. Fundraising prowess doesn’t guarantee victory, but a candidate with no money is routinely dismissed as “not a serious contender.”

And likewise with political interest groups. Libertarians are taken seriously in large part because they have a bevy of well-funded think tanks that churn out books, op-ed columns, and policy papers. They may represent only 11% of voters – or 5% by a ‘purer’ cluster where many voters still disagree with core policies – but deep pockets give Media Libertarians a loud megaphone for a consistent message …

… that many self-described libertarian voters reject. So much for that new popular political consensus.

Good day and good nuts