Recognize Reality: Libertarians Achieve the Most Within the GOP

Francis Bacon said “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” For humans to survive and thrive, they must acknowledge reality, and their place in it, before they can determine and act on the things necessary to improve their condition. Likewise, in politics, we as lovers and defenders of liberty must acknowledge the facts before we can effect change. One of those facts is this: the system is rigged in favor of two parties.

In closed-primary states like Florida, being registered third-party leaves you voiceless in the primary, and in my own Republican-dominated county, the primary is the ballgame. You might not like it⁠—I know I don’t⁠—but it is a fact of reality. I’m not condoning it, or saying it is right, only that it is so.

Facts Are Stubborn Things

The electorate isn’t kind to third parties. The fact is, elected “big L” Libertarians are very rare birds, especially when you get into state and federal offices. To my knowledge, the highest-ranking elected official affiliated with the Libertarian Party anywhere in the country during the last decade was Laura Ebke in the Nebraska Legislature, and she got elected as a Republican.

Sen. Ebke switched her party affiliation to the Libertarian Party after being repeatedly bullied by the Republican governor⁠—a move I applauded from a principled perspective and cringed at from a political one. I was right to be concerned: she lost her re-election bid in 2018, and I’m convinced it had more to do with her party affiliation than it did with her or her voting record.

You see, I worked closely with Sen. Ebke prior to her being elected. She was the Secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus for several years. She was everything you could ever want in an elected official: smart, principled, diligent, even-tempered, and humble. Her district was 51 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 18 percent non-partisan. She lost to her Republican opponent 56.32 percent to 43.68 percent.

Herein lie the second and third problems (facts): lazy voters and math. Most partisan voters vote their party affiliation straight down the ballot. In most places there are more combined Republican and Democratic voters than non-partisan voters. This makes it very hard, even impossible, to capture the majority if you’re running third party in the general election.

Wishing Won’t Make It So

In addition to the lazy voter and math problems, the Libertarian Party brand has been badly tainted during the last few cycles. While always beset by the “party of weed” image, it must now contend with the “naked guy streaking” image created by then candidate for Chair James Weeks at the 2016 National Convention.

While the former issue has become almost mainstream, and the latter could be written off as a stunt, the biggest issue the Libertarian Party now faces is that can no longer lay claim to its primary differentiator as “the party of principle”.

By putting forth the Johnson/Weld ticket in 2016, the Libertarian Party made clear it had lost its way ideologically, and for the first time that I can remember in my lifetime, defended candidates based on their ability to fund-raise and their “electability.”

Johnson failed the quintessential libertarian personal liberty test by insisting bakers should be forced to bake cakes for gay couples. Weld was a proven big government gun-grabber during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, and when stumping seemed to have more in common with Hillary Clinton than with classical libertarian ideals.

The Libertarian Party I remember reading about when I was in high school wouldn’t have let these two into a convention, much less put them on a presidential ticket.

Some Days It’s Hard to Be a Republican

I’m not saying the Republican Party doesn’t have its issues. For a party that has traditionally proclaimed itself to be for less government, lower taxes, and more personal freedom, its record of delivering on said promises is spotty at best. Compromise on basic principles, cheating, cronyism, and outright corruption can be found at almost every level of the party. Those in power pull out all the stops to retain it.

The treatment of Ron Paul delegates in 2012 was disgraceful. The failure to repeal Obamacare in 2017 with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House was humiliating. The complete disregard for out-of-control spending and the national debt⁠—issues for which the Tea Party ostensibly gave Republicans the House and Senate to rein in⁠—is appalling.

What I am saying is that if we’re going to invest our precious volunteer time and energy, the return on investment on getting elected as a Republican can be big, if you can stomach the all-too-frequent disappointment.

The Power of One

During the course of my career, I have been involved in several trade associations with large boards. During my service on those boards, I have witnessed the lumbering power of inertia and groupthink, but I have also witnessed the power of the individual.

I can think of several occasions on one of those boards where some asinine, self-imposed regulatory measure had been proposed and appeared sure to pass. As an unabashed capitalist and a newcomer to the group, I frequently rose to speak in opposition in a room of 120 people.

I don’t know that my oratory was particularly brilliant on any of those occasions, but what I do know is that by being the first to stand, I opened the floodgates for anyone else that thought as I did but wasn’t prepared to go out on that limb solo.

Similarly, you can count on the fingers of both hands the number of Republican members of Congress that hold fast to the Constitution. But look at the impact they have on the party and the national dialogue writ large! Imagine a half-dozen Rand Pauls in the Senate, or a few dozen Justin Amashes and Thomas Massies in the House.

This is why I choose to work within the Republican Party. Not because I’m “compromising” or “selling out” as I’m so often accused of doing by Libertarian Party members, but because I’m playing the hand I was dealt; and that hand, if played correctly, could result in a real jackpot someday.

A Is A

As the great philosopher Ayn Rand once said: “you can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” While I don’t begrudge those liberty lovers who choose to pursue their political goals through the Libertarian Party, I do believe them mistaken by ignoring the facts of reality.

The facts are, pursuing the third-party approach has resulted in minimal influence on public policy at best, and nothing but electoral losses at the state and federal levels for almost 50 years.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Nicholas Sarwark says that now more than ever, the Libertarian Party is the best home for people with libertarian views. The two major parties are both thoroughly populist and win elections only by promising increasingly unlibertarian policies. Strategically, striking out on our own makes sense, he says, because it amounts to negotiating from a position of relative strength.

Response Essays

  • Matt Nye says that the Republican Party is the true home of libertarians, one where they will find an undeniable gift: electability. This the Libertarian Party has never provided, making it largely a wasted effort. Nye is candid about the GOP’s ideological shortcomings and its venality. But, he says, the Libertarian Party hasn’t exactly been pure itself.

  • Graham Vyse argues that libertarians need to focus on the immediate danger of a second Trump administration. Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have remade the Republican Party, he argues, and not for the better. The time has come for libertarians to unite with their former enemies on the left, at least temporarily, to defend a minimal form of liberalism against an extraordinary threat.