Libertarians must cast off their niche-party shackles and embrace more moderate stances to compete in the political arena.
The plight of third-party presidential bids in recent United States history have been, to put it in blunt terms, a series of major disappointments. The current Democratic-Republican two-party alignment has been extremely resilient to challenges from any alternative perspectives. Many of the ideological shifts in the American electorate have caused not a new political party to emerge, but rather strategic shifting of the two-party oligopoly to accommodate these new ideals.
Libertarians should observe the current shifting of the Democratic and Republican parties with concern, perhaps even fright. The days of the Reagan coalition, where conservative leaders like William F. Buckley gave a voice at the table (though not a full endorsement) to libertarian thinkers like FA Hayek and Milton Friedman, is long over. Modern right-wing politics now shares no more in common with the ideals of classical liberalism than does the progressive wing. From the neoconservative interventionism of George W. Bush, to the anti-market, anti-civil rights populist-nationalist Trump presidency, any tentative alliance between Republicans and libertarians that may have existed is now dead and buried.
Should libertarians consider a shift to the left? The outlook there is getting more and more concerning as well. An avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, came within inches of earning the Democratic nomination in 2016. On the horizon, far-left Elizabeth Warren has her crosshairs aimed at the 2020 election. If either of these two candidates grabs the agenda of the Democratic Party away from the more reasonable Clinton-era members, it will represent a major underlying shift in the economic philosophy of the party. No longer will government intervention be deemed a necessary step to correct for perceived market failures or inequities. These far-left ideologues believe, rather, that the government actually does a better job in managing goods and services than does a private market.
Advocates of free markets and personal liberty face a potential political future in which the only two established political choices are between a pseudo-authoritarian and pseudo-socialist party. Neither could be further from the ideals of this country’s founders, save a true shift to pure fascism or communism. What should the only remaining US political party with access to the ballot on all 50 states do? The only strategic answer that makes sense is to flank from the center.
While Gary Johnson’s failed 2016 presidential bid was a disappointment given his polling numbers earlier in the campaign season, a quick look at the voters who supported the Libertarian ticket explains a great deal about where the support was coming from. The ANES 2016 survey reveals that voters who went for Johnson identified politically as more moderate than Trump or Clinton supporters. They take more centrist stances on trade, the environment, and many other partisan issues. The 4 million+ people who were drawn to the Johnson-Weld candidacy were not libertarian ideologues, driven by the writings of Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. Rather, they were primarily moderates; dissatisfied with both Clinton and Trump’s candidacies and voting in protest of the two major parties. In a time of increasing political polarization, a possible revolt of moderate voters ostracized by the far-left and far-right seems very possibly on the horizon. This opportunity for vote gathering cannot and should not be ignored by the only other US party with the resources and organization to achieve electoral success.
If the Libertarian Party wants to gain relevance and bargaining power in 2020 and perhaps beyond, participants and party members must drop some of more unpopular and radical party positions. Arguments for legalizing all drugs (not just marijuana), a complete elimination of minimum wage laws and regulations, and the complete abolition of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are without a doubt well-principled, and in keeping with an ideal libertarian vision of society, but they are not yet supported by enough of the population to be realistic campaign promises. For too long, ideological purity has superseded more pragmatic, measured goals for the Libertarian Party. They have been acting as a niche party, and this needs to change.
I propose that a center-libertarian party — one that espouses the ideas of moderately limited government, social progress, and globalization — is the best chance true libertarians have in order to push back against the radicalization of the Democratic and Republican parties. By positioning as the reasoned middle-ground, the party can work to advance some ideological interests that are largely popular (free trade, LGBT rights, lower taxes, reasoned budget cuts, school choice, and a restrained foreign policy to name a few) while offering a solid option to so many moderate voters within the US that — while perhaps not true card-holding libertarians — are concerned about either the growing authoritarian tendencies of the Republican party or the rapid expansion of economic interventionism and massive budget deficits offered by the left-Democrats.
Many of my libertarian friends will no doubt argue that what I am asking for is a step too far. For too long, I have heard, libertarians have had to choose between the lesser of two evils. A centrist party with only a classical liberal bent would be a return in their eyes to choosing a distant compromise over their preferred ideal ends. But this kind of thinking ignores reality and the pragmatic constraints of an electoral system, and the nature of strategic political bargaining. There are simply not yet enough “true believers” in minarchist policy for a presidential ticket espousing elimination of nearly 85% of government services to be electable. As political entrepreneurs, the libertarians must act pragmatically: not only is a centrist platform preferable to the options currently tabled by the Republicans and Democrats, but it is where many of the undecided or ostracized voters are likely to lie in 2020.
If libertarians continue to exist on fighting from the fringe of politics, there will be no opportunity to pose any political threat to the rise in statism that we see in the current political climate. The Libertarian Party and its donors must seize this opportunity, and work towards electoral success. The war against tyranny must be fought from the middle, not from the fringe. If we cannot make the adjustments and decisions necessary to compete electorally in a system already so stacked against third party challengers, then we too are equally culpable in the horrifying direction that the American political parties are heading.
* Colin French is a PhD student of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He has taught economics, history, and politics at both the secondary and post-secondary levels.
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