About this Issue
Partisan affiliation has long been a widely debated question in the libertarian movement. For advocates of “individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace,” which party offers the best prospects for advancing libertarian values and issue positions? This is a difficult question for an ideological camp that is, by most people’s reckoning, a distinctly minority persuasion in American politics.
Founded in 1971, the Libertarian Party offers one possible approach. America’s third-largest political party, the Libertarian Party is often the most visible advocate of libertarianism in each quadrennial presidential election, as well as running hundreds of candidates for state, local, and congressional offices.
Despite the appeal of a distinctly libertarian political party, the Libertarian Party has struggled to find electoral success within a two-party system. Over the years, the party has had a few state legislators, and a greater number of local officeholders, but it has never elected a member to statewide or federal office. The party’s peak result in the presidential election came with the 2016 ticket of Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts, who received 3.3% of the national popular vote, or just under 4.5 million votes.
Another position advocated by many libertarians has been to work within the Republican Party, a view espoused by the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) since its founding in 1991. The RLC points to the successes of politicians like former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY). Building on the fusionist tradition of libertarian-conservative alliance in American politics, the RLC views third-party efforts with skepticism and holds that within a two-party system, libertarians can best find their voice and exercise the greatest amount of public-policy influence as Republicans.
At the other end of the spectrum, there have been efforts to urge libertarians to instead work within the Democratic Party, and to pursue areas of agreement there on topics such as civil liberties, foreign policy, and social issues. This perspective found advocates during the later years of the George W. Bush administration, and has again found some purchase among libertarians in the era of President Trump. With third-party efforts seen by many as futile, and a Republican Party increasingly hostile to many libertarian principles, is there ground for a new kind of fusionism to the left? Should libertarians rally around liberalism in the broadest sense, and make common cause with Democrats in opposition to Trump-style conservative populism?
Those are the questions to be addressed in this issue of Cato Unbound. Speaking for the Libertarian Party is Nicholas Sarwark, who has served as chairman of the party’s national committee since 2014. Matt Nye, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, will offer his perspective on why libertarians have a home in the GOP. Finally, we’ll hear from Graham Vyse, a journalist in Washington, D.C., who writes about media, politics, and polarization and whose has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and Washingtonian, among others.
We are looking forward to the discussion!
Guest Editor, Cato Unbound
Editor, Cato Unbound
Be Libertarian: The Case for Our Own Party
American politics has devolved into competing colors of populism, with impossible promises and fear completely displacing substantive policy differences. There may have been a time when issues drove voter opinion, but team loyalty has pushed values and policy aside. Now the only relevant question for supporting a policy is whether the candidate or official supporting it is on the right team. Republicans will support gun control, trade protectionism, and farm subsidies if imposed by a Republican. Democrats will support deportation, mass incarceration, and corporate welfare so long as a Democrat’s in charge.
How should a libertarian, someone who wants peaceful people to be able to pursue their own happiness free from government interference, respond to this toxic political environment? Registering to vote as a Libertarian, joining and supporting the Libertarian Party, and being a Libertarian candidate for public office are three actions you can take that will have a positive impact on our political environment and move our society in a more libertarian direction.
Due, in large part, to the Cold War fusionism of conservatives and libertarians against the communists, along with lip service to libertarian principles by a few Republicans, there are loud voices who advocate that libertarians should not join the Libertarian Party. Their core thesis is that libertarians can have greater political impact in trying to change the Republican Party from the inside. If the experience of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 was not sufficient evidence that the GOP hates libertarians, the complete takeover of the GOP by a protectionist president should provide the final nail in the coffin of that theory.
This is not exclusively a Republican problem. Both of the two old parties are ideologically unmoored, making them completely unstable vehicles to advance libertarianism. In the same way that a few idealistic vegan fry cooks are not going to stop McDonald’s from selling meat, libertarians working inside the Republican and Democratic parties are not going to get anything that party leadership doesn’t approve of. Insurgent candidacies will be put down, committee appointments stripped, primary challengers supported. Just ask Justin Amash, among others.
Since we have evidence working within the old parties doesn’t work, why not decline to affiliate with any political party? There is a certain allure for an individualist in declaring political independence from any political party or tribe. By not declaring any political affiliation, one cannot be held to any standard of political belief or have to defend any politician or political position. This is the advantage of independence and its fatal flaw.
Being a political independent sends no clear signal. Some people are independent because they are too progressive for the Democrats. Some people are independent because they are too conservative for the Republicans. Some people are independent because they are too libertarian for the Libertarians. But to politicians, they all look the same.
Registering and voting Libertarian sends a clearer signal than any other alternative. While parties are coalitions and nobody knows why someone casts a vote, the Libertarian platform is clearer than any other national political party. There are only 34 planks and fewer than 3,000 words in the Libertarian Party platform.By comparison, there are 24,000 and 31,000 words in the Democratic and Republican platforms. If your vote is a signal, are you confident about what you’re signaling by voting for a Republican or Democrat?
The point has been made that Libertarian Party candidates don’t win as often as the candidates of the two old parties. That’s true, but a vote is not a wager. Unless you have a bet on the outcome of the election, there is no prize for predicting the winner or having your vote added to their result. A vote is an opportunity to send a message about what you want and what you don’t. The only person who loses when you vote for a candidate you don’t want is you.
The compromises made in joining the two old parties are not just a matter of moving slower in a libertarian direction, but actively move in an anti-libertarian direction. The decision of whether a compromise is acceptable is a matter for each individual’s conscience, but honesty requires one to acknowledge the effect of the other policies and positions that one is supporting by being part of either the Republicans or Democrats.
Groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus that exist inside the party have less leverage than a voting block outside the party. If you can’t walk away from the table, your negotiating position suffers. As a Libertarian voter, you have more influence on the positions of Republican and Democratic politicians than internal caucuses whose votes they can take for granted.
Many people still have issues with some of the positions or personalities within the Libertarian Party. So do I. However, political parties are made up of those who show up. If you are not happy with the quality of candidates or activists within the party, there is a much better chance of influencing the direction of a smaller party than a larger one. The fact that the smaller party in this case already aligns more closely with a libertarian’s political preferences is a bonus.
A positive message of government doing less, better can break through the tribalism and force a discussion about the issues that the old-party candidates would rather not deal with. Avoidance behavior is real and politicians will avoid an issue if they can. When a group becomes more visible and more people join it, the ideas supported by the group become harder to dismiss.
There is always room for working together with politicians from any political party on specific policies, but doing so from our own solid ground as a distinct Libertarian political party provides the strongest position to make progress on setting the world free in our lifetime. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Now is the time for all good libertarians to be unreasonable men (and women) and join the Libertarian Party.
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.
Libertarians Should Stand Against Authoritarianism
Legal experts sounded the alarm last week after the White House declared it was refusing to cooperate with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Some saw a constitutional crisis—or at least the makings of one. Cato vice president Gene Healy concluded, “The categorical stonewall Trump just announced is clearly an impeachable offense.”
But none of this was surprising from a president whose contempt for the Constitution and democratic norms is exceeded only by his ignorance of them. This is a man with a visceral hatred for freedom of speech and the press, who sees dissenters as un-American and journalists as “the enemy of the people.” He’s an authoritarian by instinct who swoons over dictators and lashes out at the independent judiciary, rejects Congress as a co-equal branch of government, and fancies himself above the law. Trump’s daily assaults on core American values are genuinely too numerous to name.
Right-thinking libertarians understand this intuitively. Authoritarianism is the antithesis of a free society, and anyone championing a principle-based politics should resent a leader whose only principle is advancing his own self-interest. Trump’s policy agenda also stands against libertarianism on a range of issues, including immigration and multiculturalism, trade, and foreign policy. “No president has talked so much about ending endless wars in the Middle East while doing so little to bring home our troops,” Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) recently tweeted.
But how should libertarians respond to this presidency at the ballot box? They sustain fundamental disagreements with Democrats on guns, healthcare, education, and the economy. They don’t agree with progressives on how to fight climate change or whether income inequality is a problem. And admittedly, these divides have only widened as Democratic politics has shifted to the left. But at this perilous moment for American democracy, as Trump retains the full backing of the Republican Party and some in the conservative movement flirt openly with “post-liberalism,” classical liberals’ first priority should be uniting with left-liberals to defend liberalism broadly defined—by voting Democratic in 2020.
The appeal of voting for the Libertarian Party is self-evident. It’s the path to ideological purity and a community of kindred spirits. Classical liberals aren’t ever going to feel entirely at home in either of the two major parties. But the Libertarian candidate isn’t going to be elected president next year. The simple truth is that either the Democratic nominee will win the White House or Trump will secure a second term. And if he is re-elected, the institutional GOP will be further emboldened to do what they’ve done for three years—support him every step of the way.
With the notable exception of Amash, who left the GOP in July to become an independent, libertarian-leaning Republicans in Congress are sticking with this president. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has opposed Trump selectively, including on some foreign policy moves and the border-wall national emergency declaration, but nonetheless emerged as a key ally of the White House. (“He’s never let me down,” the president said last year.) Voting Democratic would send a clear message that rank-and-file libertarians don’t cosign this capitulation and that the GOP can’t take them for granted.
The future of the Republican Party also looks increasingly inhospitable to libertarianism. Consider 39-year-old freshman Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a polished, whip-smart former state attorney general seen as a potential leader of the post-Trump right. Washington Free Beacon editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti calls him “a social conservative unafraid of government power.” Hawley takes “an explicitly censorious stance toward Silicon Valley,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observes. Yet Reason’s Robby Soave notes the senator’s sleight of hand—using libertarian language to advance an anti-libertarian agenda:
Hawley clearly knows enough about libertarianism to cynically distort the language of freedom in service of his authoritarian populist designs. As he is likely aware, the libertarian tradition is about standing up to the most dangerous concentration of power: the one that results from government intervention and is maintained by the threat of government force. Libertarianism is against the efforts of central planners in Washington, D.C., who think they know better than individuals what kind of products they should buy and what kind of media they should consume. In effect, libertarianism means opposing Josh Hawley.
Opposing Republicans and voting Democratic in 2020 wouldn’t foreclose future third-party organizing or even a new fusionism with a reformed GOP. No realignment must be permanent. But the moral and strategic imperative for libertarians next year is to embrace the kind of “liberaltarianism” that former Cato vice president Brink Lindsey has promoted.
“The first, immediate task is to forge a liberaltarian alliance that can defend American democracy from the depredations of Donald Trump,” Lindsey wrote for Vox in 2017. “This ad hoc project requires no rethinking or blurring of existing ideological boundaries. Rather, it asks only that committed small-d democrats from the left, right, and center put aside their usual differences to stand together for basic liberal norms and institutions.” The time to stand together is now.
Real Talk: Republicans Hate Libertarians, Regardless of What Party They Are In
In his response essay, Matt Nye brings up the commonplace argument that libertarians, people who love liberty, are able to achieve more inside the Republican Party than they would be able to achieve as members of the Libertarian Party. This strategy is akin to getting a bunch of motivated vegan fry cooks to all get jobs working at McDonald’s so they can change it to a vegan restaurant from the inside. They will be disciplined or fired as soon as they stop making the food on the menu, because their goals are not the goals of the organization.
The strongest point of his argument is the reality that there are counties and districts that are so heavily weighted toward one of the two old parties that whoever wins the primary automatically wins the general election. If you want to be able to tell people that you voted for the winner not only in the general election, but also in the primary, you have to be registered in the dominant party. And yet, even in those districts people are registered to vote for the less dominant party. They know that their party’s candidate is unlikely to win the general election, but they don’t change who they are just to be on the winning team.
Mr. Nye and I completely agree about how great Laura Ebke is, and we are both disappointed that she didn’t win last November, but he edits out some important facts that raise more questions about his position than mine. Running as a Libertarian when you were first elected as a Republican is not a race for re-election in the traditional sense, because you need to form a new voter coalition. There is a name recognition advantage as an incumbent, but partisan voters don’t usually follow party switchers. Senator Ebke ran a great campaign, but crossing Nebraska’s governor comes at a high price, and the district was tilted in favor of the Republican. Which brings me to the more important point: Republican Governor Pete Ricketts bullied her for her libertarian views while she was still in his party. That governor was coming after her for standing up for her principles regardless of whether she stayed in the Republican Party or not. Indeed, libertarians in the GOP are attacked any time that they stand up for their principles.
But that’s really the rub here, isn’t it? If you join the Republican Party, and if you make it through a primary process that is designed to eliminate libertarian voices, over the opposition of Republican Party bosses, you may get elected to office, but you still can’t get any libertarian policy passed, not because of the Democrats, but because of your fellow Republicans. On top of it, if you don’t support all of the anti-libertarian policies of the Republican Party or the anti-libertarian president, you will be attacked by the Republicans again.
Is it worth it to be in office?
Mr. Nye says in his essay, “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,” to which I ask, “What return on investment?” When it comes to public policy, electing a few liberty-leaning Republicans has delivered absolutely nothing. And who could expect it to? When you have to fight your own party and the one across the aisle, it’s not surprising that the effort has failed to deliver results while also enabling anti-libertarian policy on trade, debt, foreign policy, civil liberties, immigration, and the racist war on drugs.
Some suggest that the calculation may be different in particular states, and there are some good advances that have been made by a libertarian caucus within the GOP in New Hampshire, helping to protect gun rights and bucking their party platform on repealing the death penalty. While there are rare state-level policy successes, there are two reasons that libertarians should avoid that path even at the state level.
First, state and local races are the level where the Libertarian Party is becoming very competitive with the two old parties, with one of our 2018 candidates in Wyoming, Bethany Baldes, nearly unseating the sitting Speaker of the House. And she did it without changing her principles or her message or putting on a GOP label to play the game on easy mode.
But more importantly, supporting the GOP means carrying water for a lot of anti-libertarian policies. Even here in New Hampshire, arguably the most libertarian state in the nation, the state GOP platform defines marriage as “legal and sacred union between one man and one woman as ordained by God,” supports “the State’s Constitutional right to determine legal restrictions on possession of controlled substances,” and wants to take “any and all actions possible to protect against the implementation of any part of Sharia law in New Hampshire, including legislation outlawing Sharia law.” This is why Gary Johnson said joining the Libertarian Party was great for his back, since he didn’t have to carry around all of the GOP’s anti-libertarian baggage anymore.
Being a caucus in a political party that has a platform and track record of working against your principles is not only frustrating, it is counterproductive for liberty. And it doesn’t come with any leverage to change the direction of the party as long as the position of the caucus is to never oppose a Republican candidate.
The GOP is happy to take the support of libertarians, but it provides nothing in return. Those who have been elected as Republicans either get frustrated with that situation and quit or betray their principles to support the party and keep their seats. The experiment of working inside the GOP has been tried and is an objective failure. When you look at the reality of the results, the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze.