Poll after poll after poll shows that Americans want another choice besides the Democrats and Republicans. But of course there is little agreement about where that other party should be positioned. Many dissatisfied voters really want a party that fully agrees with their views, but those that truly desire greater choice on election day ought to consider what characteristics would allow such an option to not just survive but to thrive. A real alternative to the duopoly of the two establishment parties should have an ideological approach that sets it apart. It should have at least some appeal to the Republicans and Democrats but be sufficiently sophisticated that it contains diversity of thought about how to apply it’s principles. And if it already has an identity and a track record that can’t do anything but help. The Libertarian Party fits the bill.
From Gary Johnson’s oversimplified “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” slogan to Rothbard’s propertarian approach to Rose Wilder Lane describing freedom as a perpetual struggle against authority, libertarianism is a political philosophy with a long and storied history. In prioritizing individual liberty, it stands for minimizing the role of government, and thus of politics, to the highest degree possible. This places the Libertarian Party in opposition to the actions, if not always the rhetoric, of the Democrats and Republicans. As organizations, the two establishment parties have no fixed principle, as a study of their shifting positions over time will make obvious. Their only real goal is to increase the number of offices they hold and the power of those offices. A new party that is nothing more than a cobbling together of temporary coalitions could perhaps find electoral success, the Republicans did so in the 1850s with their former Whigs, disaffected Democrats, business interests, and abolitionists, but over time it would become indiscernable from the other two parties. It means something to be a libertarian in a way that it simply does not to be a moderate or a centrist(or even liberal or conservative) or to be for ‘Reform.’
Despite the fact that the two establishment parties have no real philosophy beyond expedience, their membership abounds with people of principle who actually do have things that they believe. Often times we can see this when there are bi-partisan efforts to accomplish particular goals, politicians with shared visions cooperating despite being on opposing ‘teams.’ And during primaries we can see members of the same party pointing out differences among themselves, frequently in vicious fashion. It’s also the case that many of those establishment party politicians call themselves libertarian, or at least libertarian-leaning, and they come from all over the spectrum. In addition to Republican figures such as Ron and Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Ronald Reagan, Democrats like Mike Gravel, Jared Polis, and Cory Booker have self-identified as libertarian in some way. They may be more or less genuine or accurate but it’s clear that the philosophy has significant appeal to major establishment party politicians of all stripes. Within and around the LP itself, however, there is constant conflict between different factions. Pragmatists and radicals disagree on fundamental tactical approaches; left-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists accuse each other of being proxies for the two major parties. Virtually anyone who thinks that government ought to have some limitations can find a libertarian label that fits. Not only is the LP the political home of diversity of thought, it’s diverse across the board. Race and ethnicity of self-reported Libertarians closely matches that of Americans as a whole, especially so with younger people. And of course the Libertarian Party, as a beacon of tolerance from it’s founding, is the political home to people of a tremendous array of lifestyles.
The Libertarian Party has a clear identity of being for less government and more freedom, even if the details of how to accomplish that are the source of constant argument both within and from outside of the party. Among the positions for which the party has advocated that have become mainstream are same-gender marriage, decreasing the national debt, decriminalization of marijuana and other criminal justice reforms, non-interventionist foreign policy, and protection of firearm ownership rights. Notable figures identified with libertarianism include Milton Friedman, Wendy McElroy, Frédéric Bastiat, Isabel Paterson, Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Heinlein and a host of others. However, many decry the perceived lack of success at the polls as a reason to dismiss the LP. To the contrary, the Libertarian Party is not only head and shoulders above any other alternative party, the record makes it clear that the LP is the only game in town when it comes to opposition to both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Ross Perot, John Anderson, and others have shown that running for President as an Independent can generate some response in the electorate. But Perot, along with George Wallace, also demonstrates that political parties founded to support a particular individual are little more than an different flavor of the same Independent game. A big splash in one election cycle by such campaigns doesn’t create durability. When those Independent and quasi-independent candidates are taken out of the mix one finds that the 2016 Libertarian result with Gary Johnson has the highest percentage since Eugene Debs ran from prison in 1920 on the Socialist ticket. The LP is the only alternative party to be able to place it’s presidential candidate on the ballot in all 51 jurisdictions that award electoral votes, having done so five times, and in fact received a vote in the Electoral College in 1972. Another measure of electoral success where critics often claim the LP is lacking is representation in Congress.
The last alternative party candidate for US House to win office was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. He ran on the Liberal Party ticket in a special election in 1949 but switched to Democrat in 1950 to seek re-election. Since that time six Independents have held Congressional seats, two non-voting delegates, Jo Ann Emerson who immediately changed to Republican after winning her deceased husband’s seat, Virgil Goode who switched to Republican after one term as an Independent after first being elected as a Democrat, Justin Amash who left the GOP just this month, and Bernie Sanders who is the only member of the House to spend his entire time as an Independent since World War I. Sanders, Angus King, and Joe Lieberman are some recent Independents in the US Senate. It is virtually impossible to win a Congressional seat with an alternative party label. However, the next best thing is to have candidates who identity with your ideology win election with the label of an establishment party. Amash is a self-identified libertarian. Former Congressman Ron Paul is a life-member of the LP and was the presidential candidate of the party in 1988. His son Rand Paul, while not as libertarian as his father, is in the US Senate. They may not have (L) next to their name but there are libertarian voices to be heard in the nation’s capitol.
The Libertarian Party has survived internal dissension, financial woes, and scandal. It has elected office-holders across the country and accomplished levels of influence and numbers of votes not seen for an alternative party in generations. These gains have been made due to being able to offer a unique ideological approach that prioritizes liberty for everyone. If we are to break the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, the only viable means to do so is through the Libertarian Party.