On the Appeal of Libertarianism in the U.S. Public

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Principal investigator:

Christopher Johnston

Duke University

Email: christopher.johnston@duke.edu

Homepage: http://sites.duke.edu/chrisjohnston/

Sample size: 2035

Field period: 01/07/2015-07/13/2015



Our project is an exploratory study. We investigate the following questions:

1. Is libertarian identity malleable as a function of elite frames?

2. How does libertarian identity respond to frames of libertarianism that emphasize principles of limited government and individual liberty? Do the effects of these frames depend on the type of justification used (e.g., natural rights or consequentialism)?

3. How does libertarian identity respond to frames of libertarianism that emphasize typical libertarian policy positions? Are the effects of policy similar across domains (i.e., economic and social)?

4. Do the effects of different frames vary across subpopulations (e.g., age, partisanship)?

Experimental Manipulations

Respondents were randomly assigned to one of sixteen possible experimental conditions defined by the full crossing of two factors. Each of the possible treatments (with the exception of the overall control condition) represents a distinct libertarian appeal: one possible way of describing the nature and content of libertarianism.

The first “principles” factor is defined by justifications for individual liberty and limited government and has four levels: no justification provided (control), natural rights justification, consequentialist justification, or public justification.

The second “policies” factor is defined by sets of typical issue positions held by libertarians and has four levels: no typical issue positions provided (control), social issue positions, economic issue positions, or both social and economic issue positions. 


Our dependent variable is operationalized as three questions regarding respondents’ degree of identification with libertarianism. The first item is, “How well does the term ‘libertarian’ describe your political beliefs: Extremely well, very well, somewhat, not very well, or not at all?” The second item is, “How positive or negative do you feel toward libertarianism?” Responses to this second item were recorded on a seven-point scale from “very positive” to “very negative” with a neutral midpoint. Finally, respondents were asked, “Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as a libertarian?” Respondents indicated either “yes” or “no.”

Summary of Results

Our preliminary analyses suggest that: (1) U.S. citizens are open to changing their degree of identification with libertarianism as a function of learning more about the ideology; (2) citizens respond moderately and positively to frames that emphasize limited government, but the nature of the justification does not matter; (3) citizens respond strongly and negatively to frames that emphasize economic and/or social issue positions; (4) the effects of policy are larger than the effects of principles; (5) there is very little heterogeneity in how citizens respond to frames across demographics and political affiliations; (6) self-identified "liberals" may be somewhat open to libertarian appeals.