[Written while flying from Denver to Portland on 2006-07-23, posted from OSCON on 2006-07-26.]
A recent exchange over at ChicagoBoyz pointed to an article by Ryan Sager on the place of libertarians within the Republican Party (see also Sager's earlier articles in the thread here and here). Sager argues that libertarians -- those who believe in free minds and free markets -- will never exercise much political (as opposed to intellectual) influence if they pursue third-party politics. As many observers point out, America is a two-party country. Third parties are typically doomed, especially ideological third parties such as the Socialists (in the early 20th century) and the Libertarians (in the late 20th century). Given that those with libertarian leanings are only 10% or at most 20% of the American population, they will never win elections (even in rare two-way races, Libertarian Party candidates typically win only 30% of the vote). The only way that a third party could become one of the major parties is if it could form a coalition that draws from the existing factions among the Democrats and Republicans -- e.g., modern-day libertarians, small-government conservatives, and freedom-oriented liberals. Even then, it's doubtful that there are enough Goldwater Republicans and Jeffersonian Democrats around to form a coalition. (And I ignore the fact that most people of such political persuasions are cussedly individualistic, thus naturally being averse to party politics and organized action.)
So what is a libertarian to do? As I explored in my essay Toward a Practical Objectivist Politics, there are many opportunities for influencing the American debate outside of electoral politics: fighting for pro-freedom initiatives and referenda, providing expert testimony, speaking out at public meetings, serving on non-partisan boards, and the like. But when it comes to electoral politics, libertarians are betwixt and between (here I ignore those voluntaryists and others who eschew the political process entirely, although I have respect for their approach as well). However, something that Seymour Martin Lipset says in his book American Exceptionalism resonates with me: America is essentially a Whig nation. Lipset argues that conservatives in America have never really been big-government Tory paternalists (though there have been Rockefeller Republicans, a tradition in which we can squarely place the current president). Similarly, I would argue that dedicated progressives care more about freedom of speech, association, and action at the local level than about centralized government programs promulgated and managed from Washington, DC (the anti-statist stance of early labor organizations such as the A.F. of L. and the I.W.W. is consistent with this thesis).
Is there a constituency for decentralization, local action, market freedom, religious tolerance, inidividual opportunity, and the rest of the American creed? It can be hard to discern true support (as opposed to lip service) for that creed in the Republican Party of George Bush, and even harder in the Democratic Party of Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. Yet I'm enough of an optimist to believe that it's there, and even not that far under the surface. If I'm right about that, then it is possible and legitimate to work toward greater freedom in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, or the Libertarian Party -- and one's decision about which party to work within is a matter of means, not ends. Sager argues that the best place for libertarians to fight for their ideals in electoral politics is within the Republican Party. The fact that there is a fairly large remnant of small-government conservatives and Goldwater Republicans might lead me to agree with Sager. Balancing that is the fact that, as Bruce Bartlett pointed out recently, Republicans are the most successful party in most of the country right now and therefore attract the kind of opportunists who simply want to get elected (until about ten or twelve years ago, those people were probably attracted to the Democratic Party). Having worked within the Libertarian Party (and knowing that third parties traditionally do not succeed in American politics), I would argue against investing too much effort in the LP on practical grounds. I somewhat doubt that folks in the Democratic Party will open themselves very far to libertarian ideals, but if they continue to lose elections then they might welcome some fresh thinking. And let's not forget that if history repeats itself, American politics is about due for a major realignment (1776, 1860, 1932, and perhaps 2012?) In any case, libertarians won't have any influence if they don't get involved. So pick a venue and get busy. :-)
The Whigs are dead, long live the Whigs!
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