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How to Build a Party, or What Libertarians can Learn from the Clintons

The Clinton brand is rooted in a faction known as the “New Democrats.” The Democratic crisis began with Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984 and the subsequent formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985. The DLC believed that the party had become out of touch: a belief which was cemented in 1988, following the landslide triumph of George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis, and the cementing of the Reagan Revolution in the American sphere. George H.W. Bush ‘s victory was the first third term victory for a party in US politics since FDR, and the Democrats were right to be terrified. Their conclusion was that the party had to abandon their leftward tilt, one that they’d embraced since LBJ, to reconnect with the public at large They decided to go forward by trying to initiate a new “third way” in American politics that would be closer to the center of the political spectrum.

Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 was a triumph for the DLC, and he would go on to transform the party. Clinton proclaimed that the era of “Big Government” was over. He passed comprehensive welfare reform, pushed for a Nixonian Health Care Model rather than a liberal single payer one, and was known for a strategy of triangulation in which he would criticize republicans while coopting their policies.

Despite the origins of the New Democrats being in the Blue Dog Southern faction of the party; the party under Clinton (and later under Bush) would continue to transform into a machine made up of socially-liberal economic conservatives in Wall Street; minorities; and moderate Republicans from the northeast and west coast (who were skeptical of big government and deficits, but also socially liberal in terms of race, abortion, same-sex marriage, and the environment). Clinton would be the first two-term Democratic President since FDR, and the Democrats have won the popular vote in 6 of the 7 elections since 1992, under their Socially Liberal and Economically centrist model.

In this transformation of the Democratic Party I see a model of a Libertarian Movement that can break into the big leagues. As a party, the Libertarian Party has been the third most successful party in 4 straight elections. The Libertarian Party’s membership has doubled in this last election cycle, and Gary Johnson received more votes than all prior libertarian candidates (not named Gary Johnson) combined. The Libertarian Party took home the highest third party turnout since 1996, and down-ballot the party won more congressional and senate votes than ever before.

The college presence of the libertarian movement, manifested in Students for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, has been growing rapidly. SFL has hundreds of campus coordinators across the nation and YAL has reached 850 chapters this past semester; both are impacting the political culture of campuses across the nation tremendously.

Alas, despite some 22% of Americans being libertarian to some degree or another, you won’t find many willing to touch the Libertarian Party with a 10-foot pole. YAL may be a growing force for liberty, but their alumni feed into the Republican ranks rather than contribute towards a bolstering of the Libertarian Party. Much of this could be blamed on the size of the Libertarian Party, but I cannot help but think there is another issue: many members of the party don’t want people, that they don’t deem to be sufficiently libertarian, to be allowed in the party.

This could be summarized in a question I’ve seen asked by many: what is the point of the Libertarian Party getting new members, if they don’t believe in the NAP?

The DLC understood that their party needed to move towards the voters if it was to grow, otherwise it risked fading into obscurity. It is a tremendously arrogant thing to say “we are the aspiring politicos and you – the voters – will conform to us”. If the Libertarians truly want to become America’s third party, they must engage in sober reflection to build an electoral coalition. We must determine who our message could be most appealing to and pivot accordingly to cater to them most effectively.

However, I would like to offer a disclaimer – I believe that Libertarianism ought to move away from the paleolibertarian domination of the movement in its push towards a broader coalition. I think that there is a valid role for paleolibertarians, but a political party is a coalition of interests and overlapping ideologies.

To say that only a paleolibertarian can be a Libertarian, is to say that only neoconservative could be a Republican.

There is a tremendous history of liberal thought to pull from and the movement should look more to Friedman, Hayek, Mill, and Madison. The NAP is a valuable philosophical tool, but it’s a less effective litmus test than a message of good government, free enterprise, social justice, and liberty.

In this past election, Bill Weld talked about the unique strength of the libertarian ticket; being able to shoot down the big 6-lane highway in the middle of the political spectrum. Looking abroad, to Europe in particular, it’s the liberal parties that are generally the closest parallel to American Libertarianism.

Liberal Democrats in Great Britain, and Free Democrats in Germany, proudly wave their yellow flags high as they occupy the reasonable center between labor parties calling for radical social change and right-wing parties that range from religious conservatism to blood and soil nationalism. European liberal parties are secular, pro-trade, pro-business, skeptical of intervention, and interested in meaningful reform, all of which are highly reminiscent of the Johnson-Weld campaign.

Will Willinson, head of the Niskanen Center, put forward a glorious argument for an effective libertarianism in the 21st century. It starts with an unsettling fact: that the richer a country is, the more it’s government tends to spend. This is true regardless of the different sorts of countries you look at across time. Whether big government is a luxury or a parasite (any good libertarian will be inclined towards the latter), there is that constant trend.

Wilkinson puts forwards two goals:
1. libertarians should be the champions of waste reduction and growth.

2.We can distinguish between the welfare state (which can be improved rather than abolished) and the more insidious enemy that is the regulatory apparatus. We can push for a transformation of the welfare state from the current sprawling money pit to a lean poverty reducer of the sort Hayek, Friedman, Mill, or Paine would support.

Libertarians can also channel the spirit of the counterculture and social justice into a force to be reckoned with. We should emphasize how the free enterprise system has done more to emancipate the masses from poverty than anything else in the history of mankind. We can talk about how it is government action (like the drug war, regulation, and a faulty welfare state) that perpetuates poverty, inequality, and class privilege.

Classical liberalism was the first great ideology of political and social revolution, abolishing old privileges of nobility, government monopoly, and guilds in favor of a freer and more equal society. In a world where we have government officials with aristocratic titles like Czar, government backed cartelization of industry, and government holding down large swathes of the masses, libertarianism should reclaim the old revolutionary spirit, and win voters accordingly.

I’d argue that there are four core groups that should be targeted by Libertarians:

  1. Moderate Republicans
  2. Fiscally Centrist Democrats
  3. True Liberals
  4. Constitutional Conservatives.

Despite the perception that libertarians are just pot smoking republicans, in the beginning of the election Gary Johnson was pulling a 60/40 majority of his voters from Clinton rather than Trump. The assumption was that Johnson’s unique appeal among disenfranchised Sanderistas, and young voters as a whole, was harming Clinton disproportionately. Given how Johnson took the second largest chunk of Sanders voters, it seems there’s some rationale to that. But there was likely another factor at play: there are many voters who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal who lean towards the Democrats because of their social stances; Johnson probably pulled away many of  those voters as well. These are the voters that the DLC won over in the Clinton years and they can be won over again.

There are also those last holdouts of socially liberal, to moderate, Republicanism. Bill Weld is the archetypical example of this, and his record in Massachusetts showed that a message of good government, fiscal responsibility, and social acceptance can sweep even the bluest of states. These sorts of republicans have tolerated the increasing cultural aggression of the GOP for many years, but this election a great many sucked it up, held their noses, and voted for Hillary Clinton. This is evident in places like Bergen County, NJ; Orange County, CA; Salt Lake County, Utah; and Gwinnett County, Georgia; which backed Mitt Romney in 2012 but voted for Clinton in 2016. They have no love for the Democratic Party, but the party of Trump increasingly comes off as a foreign entity to them, particularly in the age of Trump. It’s no wonder that one of these sorts of Republicans served as the Libertarian Vice Presidential nominee and another, Lisa Murkowski, attempted to run as a Libertarian in 2010.

There is one group of voters that I call “True Liberals” who would be valuable recruits to a broader liberty movement. Free Speech advocacy, anti-war activism, and fighting the man may sound like a throwback to the 60s New Left, but they’re exactly the sort of values libertarians should fight for.

In 2008, Vietnam-era throwback, Senator Mike Gravel, netted the support of Ralph Nader based on an antiwar campaign during the Democratic Primary: when that failed he saw it as completely natural to try for the Libertarian nomination.

Occupy Wall Street might seem like a progressive nightmare, but in 2012 there were only two politicians – both Republicans – to go down there: Gary Johnson (who would go on to be the 2012 and 2016 Libertarian nominee) and Buddy Roemer (who would endorse Johnson and also become a darling of the media and liberal left). This liberal spirit in Libertarianism further manifested itself in 2016, when it was Gary Johnson who took in the second biggest chunk of the liberal vote – after Hillary Clinton.

Constitutional conservatives are another very natural part of the Libertarian coalition. Ted Cruz was not a true libertarian, but he was the only candidate to explicitly include libertarians in his desired coalition. One of the most libertarian moments from the Republican debates was when Ted Cruz ripped into Marco Rubio for e-verify, on the grounds of it being a big government intrusion. Predictably, when Ted Cruz dropped out, online searches for Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party spiked. Though Cruz ultimately caved and endorsed Trump, fellow Constitutional Conservative Mike Lee always held his ground and refused to endorse Trump. Cruz’s support was disproportionately in the Great Plains and mountain-west, which just so happened to also be the areas Gary Johnson tended to fare the best in, showing that these voters already have a very strong libertarian streak.

Parties win, in the United States, by bringing together different sorts of people for different reasons under one party banner. When Libertarian candidates bring in non-libertarians or more moderate thinkers to the party, we should celebrate – not moan! In an era when overall identification with political parties is at an all-time low and more than half of Americans are clamoring for an alternative, it is not just an opportunity, but a moral duty for the Libertarian Party to reform itself and become a competitive entity.

By looking to the history of the Democratic renewal we can see a model of how changing to the electorate can yield tremendous political results for a party. I hope these lessons can be applied by Libertarians, to help us become the force that the nation desperately needs and desires.

* Jacob Linker is a Campus Coordinator with Students For Liberty and the State Chair of Young Americans for Liberty in his state.

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Jacob Linker

Jacob Linker is a Campus Coordinator with Students For Liberty and the State Chair of Young Americans for Liberty in his state.

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