Don’t Go Third Party

By: Guest Authors

by: David Bozeman

Newsmax reports that Bob Barr is pleased with the Libertarian Party’s showing in the presidential race. He received just over 490,000 votes and remarked, “This is just the beginning of a new Libertarian Party. In the next four years there will be an even greater need for a political party fully dedicated to lower taxes and smaller government.”

I’ve heard it all before. I began my adult political life as a Libertarian and I retain many fond memories of party activism and I hold deep admiration for the LP’s dedicated messengers. I served as North Carolina’s party vice-chairman, chairman and I ran for the State House, hoping that our unofficial motto, ‘libertarians do it on principle,’ would become the rallying cry for a new generation. I became discouraged, however, with banking my ideas on certain electoral failure. I mean, 490,000 votes nationally and you are pleased?

The LP fielded its first presidential ticket in 1972 and 36 years later they are not even a blip on the national radar. They are not only a failure electorally but are completely disconnected from the realities of American politics.

Libertarians do, occasionally, in state and local races, siphon enough votes to sway elections, usually to Democrats. Barr received over 25,000 votes in North Carolina and tilted the state to Obama, the first Democrat to win since 1976, so they can rightly claim to wield some leverage. But spoilers resonate about as much as Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party did after the Florida 2000 debacle, just a footnote in the history books. Are bragging rights really worth electing a liberal Democrat over a moderate Republican? Divided outcomes are not uncommon but are too infrequent and unpredictable as a basis for gaining electoral traction. Some Libertarians are floating various election-reform proposals to eliminate such possibilities such as runoffs between the top vote getters to weed out the bottom-tier candidates.

But therein lies the futility of third-party politics — wasting valuable resources on electoral reform and endless petition drives. According to its website, the LP of North Carolina spent about $34,000 and logged 2200 man hours to collect the 70, 000 signatures needed for ballot status (nothing has changed since the 1980s). What if that time and money had been spent on a speaker’s bureau or a tax-reform campaign? Small-l libertarianism has made inroads by tackling specific issues (school vouchers, social security and market-based health care reform) as opposed to fielding candidates to present a single, broad philosophy over a campaign season.

One can argue that we in this country must do something as we surrender far too many of our liberties and there is no just compromise between tyranny and freedom. Nonetheless, America is more than just a geographic assemblage of individuals ‘doing whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others.’ We as a people are united by various, often unspoken, ground rules, one being that we on one side may not always get our way but a little give and take is a small price for living under the freest, most stable and longest enduring system in the world. That notion may not serve us well, but it’s there.

Everybody complains, for one reason or another, about the size and incompetence of government. What Libertarians do not grasp is that the American people, nonetheless, consider themselves free to do and be anything they want. Most of us still see America as a land of unlimited opportunity and there exists no seething urge for a revolution, even a bloodless one, in protest of the Department of Education or the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Expecting to bring about change via third-party politics is like trying to rouse excitement for a dodge-ball tournament on Super Bowl Sunday. It may not be fair, but well over 100 years of American history have woven the two-party concept into our political culture. Despite dissatisfaction with the major parties, the overwhelming majority of the electorate opts either for a Democrat or a Republican on Election day. Do the major parties conspire to keep third parties on the fringe? Perhaps, but is it not just as likely that Libertarians, despite nearly 40 years of effort, have failed to connect with voters?

The notion of numerous parties competing for our attention like an endless display of potato chip brands undermines the unity that our leaders must nurture to win primary and general elections. We are not Balkanized yet, and our system, flawed though it may be, was designed so that we don’t elect majorities with 20% of the vote.

Libertarians would argue that yes, we do, as many disillusioned citizens stay home on Election Day. But if people are not voting, they’re not voting Libertarian, either.

The US is still the one beacon of freedom left in the world and we are proud of that. The freedom to care or not care about politics is but one of many benefits of living in a free society. Granted, this nation was forged through revolution, civil war and massive social transformations, but we are a comfortable people, too, and we are not about to restructure our political institutions over the income tax, drug legalization or even high gas prices. In fact, it (largely) took a single compelling issue — slavery — to create the Republican Party and that was over 150 years ago. Election years aside, American Idol provokes more passions when coworkers gather around the water cooler.

The age-old formula for success has always been to work hard. The 21st Century has amended that to work smart. For Libertarians, that would mean forgoing a petition drive for ballot status and starting that speaker’s bureau. I do admire their hard work and their unwavering commitment to liberty and I do cede them some credit for advancing small-l libertarianism. But politically, not only are they talking to a wall, they’re banging their heads against one. Rush Limbaugh once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he wanted a party that not merely reflected his ideas but advanced them.

Finally, assuming that a politically naive party stumbled into power, can we reasonably feel safe under their governance? Libertarians by nature do not follow the pack. Would they tackle such front-burner issues as securing the borders and winning the War on Terror or zealously pursue their own passion of drug and prostitution legalization and privatizing national parks? I would wager that they would put county first, but we will probably never know. Almost 40 years of effort have yielded the Libertarian Party exactly one electoral vote. Read about it in your almanac. It’s in the footnotes.

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