The Democratic Party’s stunning victories in Colorado’s 2018 elections are now well-documented. Regular Democrats and regular Republicans predictably voted for their party’s candidates. But three things were different this year.
First, Colorado has seen a surge of newly registered unaffiliated (or independent) voters over the past few years.
Second, nearly 60 percent of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters supported Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis and Democratic 6th District U.S. Rep.-elect Jason Crow.
Third, Donald Trump is president and his disapproval rating is much greater here in Colorado than in the nation. Colorado Republican candidates tried, to no avail, to distance themselves as far from Trump as possible.
The once two-party competitive Jefferson County voted nearly 65 percent for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. This was the year of aroused independents, women and suburbanites. Voters seemed less inspired by the candidates than they were about sending a message of disapproval to Trump.
We want to call attention to a less understood part of Colorado’s political culture. It is not a defining factor such as Trump was this year, yet it is part of the foundational philosophical leanings of our state.
Colorado has a small third political party — the Libertarian Party. They nominate candidates for many offices, yet rarely win. There are, in fact, just a handful of elected Libertarians in office in Colorado — in places such as Lakewood, Milliken, Frederick and San Miguel County.
But there is more to the Libertarian Party, or at least the libertarian spirit, than easily meets the eye.
Libertarianism is a set of political principles that celebrate personal liberty, emphasize freedom of choice, voluntary associations, individual judgment, and limited government. Libertarian theories can be traced back to ancient Chinese philosophers and French anarchists.
The Libertarian Party in the United States was founded in December of 1971 in Colorado Springs. It was inspired in part by libertarian-leaning economists Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek. The novelist Ayn Rand, who wrote the best-selling novels “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” is viewed as a godmother of the libertarian movement. Note that her fictional boot camp for her heroic would-be libertarian revolutionaries, including the famous John Galt, was based in a Colorado mountain region. This might have been inspired by Rand’s vacationing in the rugged individualistic hamlet of Ouray.
Turns out that Polis is proud of several libertarian-leaning positions he has taken over the years. He boasts of his membership in the small libertarian caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. Some commentators have described him as one of the most libertarian-leaning Democrats in Congress, and Polis has acknowledged he is “left-libertarian-ish.”
How does Polis earn these descriptions? He has favored constitutional amendments that would balance the federal budget, which is a contrarian position in the Democratic Party. He, in common with Ron and Rand Paul, has opposed U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He favors the decriminalization of marijuana. He is an outspoken champion of civil liberties and gay rights. He is not only an advocate but has started and operated charter schools.
Polis also stated that he favors a modest reduction in Colorado’s state income tax. Turns out, as well, that Polis is a long-time friend of Arthur Laffer, a well-known “trickle-down” free-market economic theorist. Laffer was a mentor and later served on the boards of some of Polis’ remarkably successful start-up companies.
Polis understands that Colorado voters dislike voting to increase state taxes. He did not support the recent ballot issues that would have increased state taxes for education and roads and highways. He also opposed, to the consternation of environmentalists, Prop 112, which would have imposed greater setbacks for drilling and fracking operations in Colorado.
No one believes Polis is going to shrink Colorado’s state government. His campaign narratives were mainly about pushing programs for all-day kindergarten, providing more public preschooling, and major expansions in health care access.
What is confusing is that most of us typically think of libertarians as holding positions to the right of conservative Republicans. But, we contend, just about all of us across the political spectrum love our personal freedom and are skeptical about big government and are wary of the Regulatory State.
The point is that you do not have to be a Republican or a conservative to share a number of libertarian aspirations. Many unaffiliated voters and Democratic partisans share a “Don’t Fence Me In” philosophy and strongly support America’s entrepreneurial free-market economic system. Most of us have a Thoreau inspired distaste for governments that tax us to finance programs we don’t like.
John Hickenlooper won elections and was popular in Colorado because he was a pro-growth, pro-business Chamber of Commerce Democrat. But he leaves office with an education system that needs more investment and a highway system that similarly needs much more financial attention.
What kind of governor will Polis be? He certainly campaigned as a bold programmatic progressive. Yet it is clear he has a libertarian streak in him as well.
Colorado is a paradoxical state. On the one hand, we are proud of our state and we want it to succeed. And its current economy has certainly been successful. But we want better schools, bridges and highways, too. On the other hand, we like being a low-tax state and, thanks to TABOR requirements for voting on all tax increases, we seldom vote to support the tax hikes required to provide good public schools and a sound state highway system.
That is what just happened in the 2018 midterm elections. A majority of those crucial unaffiliated voters who cast votes for Polis and the entire Blue Team apparently just as enthusiastically voted down the ballot issues on education and highway sending.
Do we have a paradoxical new governor to match our state’s paradoxical political leanings? Our prediction is that he will be much more of a Democrat than a libertarian, but don’t be surprised if he mixes the two philosophies up a bit.
So the Libertarian Party did not win much in terms of political offices in Colorado in 2018. Still, two major statewide tax hikes were voted down. So also were stricter regulations on Colorado’s energy industry. Voters have a new governor who has pledged state income tax reductions and accepts the TABOR constitutional principle that any state tax increases can only be approved by the voters.
That is at least something for libertarians to cheer about — and perhaps even to pass around a glass or two of champagne.
Being libertarians, of course, each will have to pay for her or his own glass of champagne.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College.