The Third Party Pipe Dream
By: Bric Butler
Rethinking libertarian tactics
Hey, you Big “L” Libertarians out there, don’t tell Barbra Streisand, but I’m about to rain on your parade. I’m not doing this to be mean, but instead as an act of, well… I guess you can say, tough love and constructive criticism. What is it? Well, I have to tell you that the Libertarian Party is a pipe dream, and for the most part, it’s for reasons outside of its control.
Don’t get me wrong: the Libertarian Party is made up of some passionate and talented people, some of which I have gotten to know during my time writing here. They have told me of the party’s sound infrastructure of which they are very proud, and they sure do have a right to be. Seeing it is the only minor U.S. political party to be appearing on all 50 state ballots this coming November – hats off!
But… and this is a big but… so much is working against not just them, but any 3rd party. Here, I hope to break it down for you the best I can.
- The “I Hate Congress but like my Congressman” Phenomenon
It’s well known that the approval ratings for Congress are in the tank. Even cockroaches have been given higher approval ratings than our national legislative body. Yet according to a 2013 Gallup poll almost half, 46%, of the American public actually don’t mind their own incumbent congressman, with about another 13% remaining neutral with no opinion. Together the positive ratings and neutral ratings indicated that, on average, at least 59% don’t actually hate their own congressman, so they are unlikely to get ousted by their major party opponent, let alone a 3rd party challenger.
This is no minor problem to for the Libertarian Party either, since many have cited that a congressional delegation would be a more practical first step than trying to reach the White House.
- The “Umbrella-esque” nature of American Political Parties
Look at the Republicans; they are a party that encompasses everyone from the Queen of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, to New York moderate congressman Pete King. Look at the Democrats; they are a party of Bernie Sanders socialists, to pro-gun (well, at least during her gubernatorial campaign) Texans like Wendy Davis. Candidates for most offices in the American political system are often heavily funded by groups and individuals, not their party itself, and the candidates can be anyone who meets the requirements to get on the primary ballot. This is a problem for 3rd parties because it allows candidates outside the mainstream ideology of the party like the Tea Partiers, or the libertarian leaners (Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, etc.) to still run in the already-established party.
This is a system in stark contrast to, for example, Britain. There the political parties have very strict control over candidates who must conform to the party line. This is because in Britain candidates are chosen off of a party list that is created by the party establishment. This makes a political culture ripe for multiple smaller parties to get elected, because other parties are then the only hope of getting a different narrative. So, while in the U.S. you may only have two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, they both have organically formed different wings within each party. Both parties have a “moderate establishment” and then a more radical wing, the Tea Party for the Republicans and the Progressives for the Democrats. While in Britain you have 4 distinct parties instead but along relatively the same lines: the Conservative Party (akin to the traditional Republicans) and UKIP (akin to the Tea Party) on the right, and then the Labour Party (akin to the Democratic Progressives) and the Liberal Democrats (akin to the moderate Democrats) on the left.
By the way, if I have any staunch followers of European politics, before you criticize me, these are intended to be rough comparisons not perfect ideological matches.
But I digress.
So, the two party system in America, while often criticized for not being representative of alternative ideologies, actually is relatively as representative as the British Parliament of 4+ parties. For the most part, the only difference is just the structural set-up of how different ideologies are represented. To re-cap that difference, is the American system has two large parties with multiple wings and the British has a multi-party system yet the parties are ones of forcefully imposed ideologically rigid stances.
- The Voting System and Structural Issues
This issue is one of the most important, yet, most outside of any party’s control, sadly. In the United States we have what are formally called “single-member plurality districts” in which the winner of the district is determined by “first past the post voting”, both of which are detrimental to anything larger than a 2 party system.
Why is that?
First, let’s address the issues of the single member plurality district. While the name sounds fancy, in reality it’s a pretty simple concept. It‘s a set geographical district that elects one member via “first past the post voting”. In other words, the person with the most votes, regardless if it’s a majority or just a plurality, wins the seat for that district. Which is bad for smaller parties trying to grow, because they could reach 25% of a district’s vote (a percentage that Libertarians could only dream of) yet still be no better off than when they got 1%, because the two larger parties probably got something like 35% and the winner of the three 40%. It’s a smaller win than a strict two party system 51% win, but still nowhere near close enough to win. They do have this same system in Britain, and they have multiple parties, but for other reasons as mentioned in the previous section.
The type of system small growing parties need in order to thrive is a proportional representation system. Such a system simply means the percentage of popular vote for a party equals the percentage of representation you get in the particular political body that your nation is holding elections for. The best example of which is the German Bundestag in which all parties in the national election that reach a popular vote of 5% must then be given representation in the legislature that corresponds to their vote percentage total. That is the type of system a 3rd party like the Libertarians who got 1% of the national popular vote for president in 2012 could realistically strive for representation in. Only one problem… that’s not the system we have.
On a positive note…
Well, does this mean there is no hope for a major politically relevant 3rd party like the Libertarians? No. Something major could happen that could help shift the odds in the Libertarian Party’s favor like either breaking the 15% polling average to get into the national debates for President, or advocating for a successful change in the rules. Unlikely, but I think the Party should keep on trying.
What should be done, then?
Yes. This is the part you have been waiting for where I unsurprisingly say, “work within the existing parties”. I can hear most of you out there already yelling, “we tried it; hasn’t worked, the parties are corrupt!” I’m not going to argue against the idea that there is corruption in the major parties. I don’t think anyone would. Yet, I must argue against the claim that it hasn’t worked. Look at the two Republican presidential candidacies of Ron Paul and his career in the House, and his son Rand Paul’s own career in the Senate and Republican presidential candidacy. Yes, I know neither are complete libertarians, and that neither “won” in the literal sense of gaining the party nomination and then the presidency. Yet that’s not looking at the big picture. How many millions did these two individuals alone, especially Paul Sr., first introduce to the liberty movement? I know for a fact people like Libertarian candidate for President Austin Petersen and popular libertarian commentator Julie Borowski had their philosophical awakenings, and began their political activism careers, due to Ron Paul and first volunteering for his campaign. Oh, and I forgot to mention myself, the author of this piece, was first introduced to libertarian philosophy by Dr. Ron Paul. Those two men, by working though the Republican Party since the 2008 election, have in all likelihood influenced more people than the Libertarian Party has done in now almost half a century.
So if you want real noticeable change, please think about the information in this article. Or, if you don’t like it, at least take a lesson from the Greeks and their famous Trojan Horse. Sneak in quietly and then revolt, destroy, and transform from within.