As the Democratic and Republican nominees look to set new records for unpopularity, many American voters are casting about for an alternative. At their recent convention in Orlando, Libertarian Party delegates tried to position themselves as a serious third choice, while simultaneously demonstrating why they have never been taken seriously.
It is not too late for them to prove their worth to the average voter. Provided they learn from the past, the Libertarian Party can make itself the principled alternative to the unprincipled candidates of the big-government Left and the big-government Right now at the heads of the Democratic and Republican parties.
First, the good news: the Libertarian Party has been, since its founding in 1971, a principled and stalwart defender of the cause of liberty. In an era of encroaching statism, in a nation that has not seen the size of government shrink since the Coolidge administration, in an election year that has seen both major candidates agree that more government is the answer, libertarianism is a welcome alternative. Against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the libertarians are the only people embodying William F. Buckley’s maxim of standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”
The Libertarian convention, for all its weirdness, saw the majority of delegates vote to nominate moderate, electable candidates, something Republican and Democratic primary voters could not bring themselves to do. We cannot know if that speaks to the superiority of the old-style convention over the modern primary process, or if is just an artifact of the party faithful’s pent-up desire to win. Either way, it produced a ticket of two two-term ex-governors whose appeal cuts across party lines. Gary Johnson and William Weld are serious politicians with executive experience, a far cry from the typical novices third parties (and the 2016 Republican Party) nominate. They are, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “an honorable alternative” to those who cannot bear to vote for Trump or Clinton.
Now for the bad news: the convention also reminded the world that the Libertarian Party has in its ranks a disproportionately large collection of oddballs and extremists. The impromptu striptease performed by James Weeks, a candidate for a party office, was the most obvious manifestation of this, but far from the most harmful. All party conventions feature odd people in odd costumes; the difference is, the big parties do not let them near a microphone.
No, the major problem is in how the party presents its policy ideas. The debate among presidential candidates is a perfect example. Instead of answering questions of concern to the average American, they discussed issues that Reason editor Brian Doherty described as “historical and philosophical minutia seemingly tailor-made to make Libertarians seem hopelessly eccentric.” Instead of Syria, Social Security, and the Supreme Court, we heard the candidates discuss whether drivers’ licenses were tyrannical and whether the government should ban selling heroin to a five-year-old.
In any other year, these questions would not have seemed out of line. The fact that they divided candidates means they were good ways of sorting out which of them appealed to a majority of Libertarian delegates. But in any other year, those delegates would have been the only audience. This year, with thousands more watching on C-SPAN and on the Internet, the Party needed to do better. It needed to begin hoisting a bigger tent.
Libertarians Should Learn from History
Attracting more voters without betraying the principles of the party founders and long-time members is difficult, but far from impossible. The first steps can be envisioned with a look at the last time a new major party arose. In the 1850s, as the fight over slavery upended the established Democratic and Whig Parties, the Republicans arose from a small ideological base to become a major party and elect a president. The example of how they did so should be illuminating to Libertarians hoping to move beyond 1 percent of the vote.
As early as 1839, the United States had an abolitionist party. The Liberty Party, founded that year, had few adherents. Their first presidential candidate managed just 0.3 percent of the popular vote in 1840, but he planted the seeds of a movement that would soon sweep the country. In 1844, he got 2.3 percent. In 1848, they merged into a larger, more moderate anti-slavery group, the Free Soil Party, and earned 10 percent of the vote. The country was forced to take notice of them and their cause.
In 1852, the Free Soil men saw their vote cut in half, but their issue was far from dead. After Congress voted to open the western territories to slavery, the resulting furor from slavery’s opponents sent Democrats into disarray and left the Whig Party completely shattered. Those who could not stomach the expansion of human bondage into free territory united into a faction that, by 1856, would become the Republican Party. Their candidate that year polled 33 percent of the vote and carried 11 states in the Electoral College.
At the next election, in 1860, the Republicans elected Abraham Lincoln, and the rest is history. How the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement went from a fringe party to the White House in 20 years is worth studying for supporters of the twenty-first-century liberty movement. The key to their success lay not in their ideological purity, but in staking out a position that abolitionists of all stripes could endorse. The Liberty Party in 1840 demanded an immediate end to slavery. The Republican Party in 1860 included people who still endorsed that idea, but their platform and presidential candidate ran on the less-extreme position of limiting slavery’s expansion. The wanted to end it everywhere, but for the time being they were united in the bare minimum of not expanding it any further.
The analogy to the Libertarian Party is clear. Party die-hards want to roll back government drastically, at all levels, as quickly as possible. A more moderate (but still principled) decision could be a pledge to never increase government, never decrease liberty, and to work for the gradual elimination of government in spheres where it does not belong. The uniting principle remains the same, only the timeframe is changed. With avowed statists at the head of the major parties, a gradualist Libertarian Party could pull in adherents from the Left and the Right. By uniting all shades of pro-liberty people, they could stop being a fringe group and start having a serious impact on American politics.
Federalism Is the Answer
Just saying “reduce government” and “increase liberty” is more easily said than done. Lots of folks support reducing government, until the part of government you want to reduce is the part that benefits them. More liberty in one policy area may alienate those who want liberty in another. What is popular in one state might be anathema in another. The broad idea sounds great, but the application is tricky.
The answer is the same as it has been since the start of the republic: federalism. In a country as big and diverse as ours, there are few occasions for a one-size-fits-all policy. While certain powers, like making war and setting tariffs, are rightly granted exclusively to the federal government in the Constitution, most other issues could be solved just as well (if not better) through state or local governments. Better yet, from a Libertarian point of view, they might be left to the people themselves.
Consider, for example, federal drug policy. Both Clinton and Trump have made some noises in favor of medical marijuana. They have even gestured at federalism. But neither candidate has proposed that the federal government bow out altogether, nor have they proposed eliminating or reducing the federal regulation of other drugs. The Libertarian platform is, unsurprisingly, more radical: “We favor the repeal of all laws creating ‘crimes’ without victims, such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.”
Full legalization of all drugs is a stretch for most people. Even among Libertarians, the debate question about dealing heroin to children was divisive. But a federal candidate could reasonably abide by the platform’s tenet by promising that as a first step he would work to repeal federal oversight of marijuana, leaving it to the states to regulate or ban according to their own people’s preference. Legalizing other drugs at the federal level could come later, if the results of the first steps turn out well and if Congress agrees.
Or consider another issue of top concern to many voters: abortion. Trump has taken so many positions on the issue over the years that even he may not know his true feelings on it. His latest position, after a lifetime of supporting legal abortion, is that he is against it, even calling for women who have abortions to receive “some form of punishment.” Notwithstanding his new vigor for the cause, most pro-life movement supporters believe Trump to be indifferent at best to the fate of the unborn, and hostile at worst.
Clinton’s position on that topic at least has the advantage of clarity. For her entire political career, she has espoused the right to abortion on demand, at any stage of fetal development, with or without parental consent for minors, and for any reason or no reason at all. Clinton’s ideology is so wrapped up in the cause of abortion that her campaign could be justly summed up (with apologies to the late Sen. Thomas Eagleton) as “avarice, amnesty, and abortion.” Neither she nor Trump make an appealing choice to a pro-life voter.
Gary Johnson Is a Good Example
From his rhetoric, one might be tempted to place Johnson in the same camp. His personal belief is that abortion should be legal, at least before an unborn child becomes “viable.” This is a fuzzy standard, morally lukewarm, and difficult to administer. Even so, it is more moderate and closer to the average American’s opinion than Clinton’s radical extreme, and more coherent than Trump’s conveniently timed flip-flopping. But more important than Johnson’s personal view is his view of what the role of the federal government should be.
As David French noted last month for National Review, Johnson believes the issue should be left to the states. Alone of the three candidates, he believes Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and should be overruled. Dedicated pro-life voters might call him wishy-washy, but must admit that a return to the pre-1973 federalism on abortion would immediately reduce the number of abortions in America.
Whether you believe abortion is a homicide or a medical procedure, Johnson would have the issue decided by the same people who decide the other laws about homicides and medical procedures—state legislatures. You may not want Johnson deciding that issue in your state legislature, but as president, by appointing like-minded judges to federal courts, he would do more for the pro-life cause than any president in American history. Faced with two pro-choice candidates in the major parties, the Libertarians again could attract pro-life votes without compromising their own pro-liberty principles.
Other issues could fall into this pattern of combining federalism and liberty, letting the Libertarian Party represent the largest fraction of the electorate that wants to decrease the government’s power and increase the people’s. Some could call this a sell-out, but the principles the party stands for would be unchanged. A gradual approach to increasing liberty is no more a sell-out than the 1860 Republicans’ gradual approach to eliminating slavery.
Just to get a chance to enact their policy, the Party of Lincoln needed a big tent. Even on slavery, the issue that brought them together, there were disagreements. In the end, the outbreak of Civil War showed the limits of compromise, and the lukewarm abolitionists joined their firebrand brethren, but without that initial compromise on the timing and manner of emancipation, none of it would have been accomplished.
The Libertarian Party of Gary Johnson and William Weld is also the party of James Weeks. It stands at the same crossroads the Free Soil party occupied in 1848. They have the candidates and the conditions that could allow them to grow their vote from 2012’s 1 percent and to take their vision of liberty to the White House. The only question before them is whether they prefer to win a gradual but effective victory, or whether they would just like to make a scene.