Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press
In this Jan. 28, 2012 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, campaigns in Freeport, Maine.
There has been an explosion in the number of third party candidacies for Congress in Utah over the last few decades —University of Minnesota study

After years of political obscurity, libertarianism is finally having its day, at least according to The New York Times’ Robert Draper.

“Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it,” he wrote as part of the August cover for The New York Times Magazine.

According to Draper, shifting attitudes toward issues such as same-sex marriage, government surveillance, marijuana decriminalization, foreign intervention, military spending (though, attitudes seem to be swinging back toward interventionism in the weeks since Draper’s article) and even reduced sentencing for “minor drug offenders” prove that the ideology once reserved primarily for third parties is emerging as a major force in American politics.

But while Draper’s story focuses almost exclusively on the trends of national politics, as Tip O'Neill famously said, “all politics is local.” So whether or not Draper’s assessment of the “Libertarian Moment” is correct (The Atlantic’s David Frum certainly doesn’t think so), it’s worth considering the prospects of libertarianism in the state of Utah.

Regional politics

As far as definitions are concerned, libertarianism is typically understood to be the belief that government should interfere as little as possible in the lives of citizens. As an ideology, libertarianism can manifest itself in more organized capacities — for example, an official Libertarian Party was founded in 1971 — or as simply an ideological leaning within either of the existing major parties. Either way, those who claim libertarianism in either form are often uncomfortable with increased federal or state power, and hold self governance up as the standard for societal success.

In many ways, Utah seems like a prime state to accept a place in Draper’s emerging libertarian America. In a 2013 article by The Washington Post’s Reid Wilson, historian Colin Woodard outlined what he thought to be “11 American nations” identified according to the unique political landscapes of all the major regions in America. The far West, according to Woodard, encompasses “the Great Plains and the Mountain West,” which includes Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana, as well as much of Colorado, Washington, California, New Mexico, the Dakotas and Nebraska.

According to Woodard, these states were “built by industry” and “are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions.”

In many ways, the history of the American West is one of fierce individuality, built on the vistas of symbolically wide open plains and a spirit of innovation. However, the political history of Utah also has what Woodard called elsewhere, its own "progressive heritage."

A history of cooperation

According to John McCormick, dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Salt Lake Community College and a published historian on Utah political history, Utah’s historical connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints resulted in a “communitarian tradition.”

“That was a central part of the church from its beginning,” he said concerning a willingness to achieve societal goals through cooperation. “An emphasis on the group and what contributed to its well-being, rather than the individual.”

While McCormick believes that the past two centuries have eroded much of the communitarian elements of the Beehive State — many historians point to the expanding railroad system as to why more insularly communities of the West were forced to open up, making communitarian ideals harder to maintain — much of that cooperative spirit remains.

That isn’t to say, however that Utah’s history is void of expressions of libertarian-leaning ideals. After all, Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS Church and leader of the exodus west, had hoped that the saints could live separate from the control of the federal government.

During that period, The New York Times’ Ted Widmer wrote in his 2011 essay “Lincoln and the Mormons,” Young wasn’t alone in his unease with Washington, D.C. “The Mormons had a strong aversion to federal control,” he wrote, and that aversion eventually led to heated tensions which culminated in the Utah War, a tense conflict ordered by then President James Buchanan, which was later resolved by negotiation.

In many ways, early Utah exemplified an attitude of self-governance and skepticism toward federal power.

A state of third parties

Historically, libertarians have found primary expression of their political views through third-party candidates, which at first glance would not bode well for libertarians in Utah. At least as late as 2009, Gallup identified Utah as the most faithfully Republican of all states. Since achieving statehood in 1896, no third party candidate has ever been elected governor of Utah.

In fact, in 2008, Andrew McCullough ran for attorney general as a Libertarian Party candidate and was upset by his exclusion from participating in the election debates. He was excluded for not polling above 5 percent, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, Kirk Jowers, said at the time.

Despite these statistics, Utah has reportedly seen an uptick in third party candidates. According to a study by the University of Minnesota, “More third party and independent candidates have run for Congress in the Beehive State during the last quarter-century (84) than during the previous 93 years (77).”

According to their research, 16 Constitution Party nominees have been on congressional ballots since 1990, the highest amount of any third party represented. Though not a wing of the official Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party has much in common with it, with its emphasis on curbing government influence and a “desire to bring our state and federal government back to the inspired principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

“There has been an explosion in the number of third party candidacies for Congress in Utah over the last few decades,” the University of Minnesota report said. And although they aren't being elected to major offices, the fact that more are running means there is at least a growing market for their ideals.

Beyond ideology

“I’d wager that most conservatives and independents in Utah would say they ‘lean libertarian, but just disagree with a policy or two,’ ” Connor Boyack, president of the Utah-based Libertas Institute — a think tank founded to “help promote consistency to the principles of liberty” — told the Deseret News in an email. According to Boyack, some of the issues highlighted by Draper’s article, such as isolationism and drug policy, will likely keep Utah from embracing libertarian ideology in full form, but issues of individual liberty are certainly dear to residents' hearts.

Some recent issues that more libertarian-leaning candidates have taken up have certainly struck a chord with Utahns. One such example is the Common Core learning standards that were adopted by the state in 2013. One of Utah’s two senators, Mike Lee, has been vocal in his objection to the standards, saying they are simply a “D.C. takeover of our school system” and will “dumb down standards and cheapen the education our children receive.”

Utahns largely agree, according to a recent poll by Utah Policy Center. And many commentators, such as Reason.com’s Robby Soave, claim the backlash against Common Core to be “undeniably libertarian.”

“It recognizes that there is no one answer to fixing education in America,” Soave wrote in June after Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana decided to withdraw his state's participation. “It understands that a new wave of fancy government-enforced solutions is likely to fall short of solving anything. Instead, government needs to get out of the way.”

Still, as Boyack notes, many Utahns are still comfortable with government solutions that they don’t deem too unreasonable or intrusive. “I think Utahns ‘think’ they’re conservative, but are simply advocates for their preferred flavor of big government.”

One such example is Utah’s response to the Medicaid expansion required by the Affordable Care Act. Known as “Healthy Utah,” the plan doesn’t go so far as to simply widen Medicaid eligibility as the ACA suggests, but instead requires participants to meet the poverty requirements and the "able bodied" to either be working or in pursuit of work to be eligible for the expansion. Something that Utahns overwhelmingly approve of, and (though a more conservative approach) is indeed a government solution to a public issue.

In fact, a recent Utah Policy Poll found that 60 percent of Utahns overall believe the government should “assist those who cannot afford health insurance.”

“Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands,” Frum wrote in his rebuttal to Draper’s cover story, a fact that sometimes makes libertarianism appear more prominent than it really is, he argues.

An increasing diversity in Utah — or, divergent strands — is an issue that both Boyack and McCormick touched on in their interviews, with McCormick believing it will likely keep Utah from embracing libertarian ideas, and Boyack suggesting that libertarian approaches often appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

Ultimately, Boyack argues, it is best for Utahns not to focus on political parties or movements, but “more on common ground rather than magnifying and worrying about our differences.”

JJ Feinauer is a Web producer for Moneywise and Opinion on DeseretNews.com. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.