A Three Party System ?

James Joyner at Outside The Beltway points to this post by Scott Elliott where he predicts the emergence of the Libertarian Party as a true third party within twenty years:

Here’s the reason why: Many Americans are libertarian at heart – they just don’t recognize it…yet. These folks believe in less restrictions on behaviors (a liberal or Democratic view) and less involvement by the government in economic issues (a conservative or Republican view). Right now, many closet Libertarians are counted among the two major political parties. As Democrats continue to espouse increasingly liberal economic policies – such as universal healthcare – it is becoming more and more difficult for libertarians in their ranks to remain. Likewise, philosophical libertarians in the GOP are getting increasingly uncomfortable with the growing influence of the values-based politics – such as pro-life policies and the Defense of Marriage Act – in their party. These forces in both major parties that run contrary to their more libertarian brethren are showing no signs of backing off. As a result, I predict a slow steady bleed of philosophical libertarians from both the Democrats and Republicans. This migration will produce, sometime in the next two or three decades, a political system with three major partisan players.

Elliott is right that there is a subset of the American electorate that is, in some sense, libertarian at heart. It doesn’t necessarily follow, however, that this means success for the Libertarian Party, for several reasons.

First, the structure of the political system, especially at the national level, is biased heavily in favor of a two party system and the Democratic and Republican parties exist, in some sense, to preserve that system. Just as the Democrats co-opted the ideas of the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th Century when its popularity was on the rise, one can expect to see one of the two major parties adopting a more libertarian-oriented platform if doing so would guarantee them votes. Since both of the major parties have far more resources at their disposal than the Libertarian Party can ever hope to have, this means that any insurgent libertarian movement in the near future would translate into a more libertarian tone from one of the two major parties rather than the emergence of a third party.

The second reason I think this is unlikely to happen is because the Libertarian Party is simply just too weird to succeed. They are, by and large, out of the mainstream when it comes to issues such as the War on Terror and have been dominated in the past by ideologues rather than the professional politicians that are needed to actually win elections. Absent a mass defection from one of the two major parties to the LP, an event I find unlikely to occur, it seems unlikely that the LP will ever be able to acquire the resources and talent that it takes to win elections at the national level.

Elliott is correct that there are forces that are causing the old coalitions that make up the Republican and Democratic parties to drift apart. Rather than the emergence of a new party, however, the more likely result of this divergence is the same kind of realignment we’ve seen at other times in American history.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/2005/11/21/who-is-eric/ Eric

    I think there is an opportunity for libertarian minded folk to make changes within one of the parties. The people running the Libertarian Party are not going to achieve that, in my opinion. Just look at the reaction I get every time I talk about pragmatism and “big tent” politics.

  • http://www.publiuspundit.com/ Daniel

    Very well said.

    (And I couldn’t agree more)