Is The Libertarian Party Worthless ?
That’s what Bruce Bartlett argues in this essay at Human Events:
The basic problem with the Libertarian Party is the same problem faced by all third parties: It cannot win. The reason is that under the Constitution a candidate must win an absolute majority in the all-important Electoral College. It won’t do just to have the most votes in a three- or four-way race. You have to have at least 270 electoral votes to win, period.
Theoretically, this is no barrier to third parties at the state and local level. But in practice, if a party cannot win at the presidential level, it is very unlikely to achieve success at lower levels of government. In short, the Electoral College imposes a two-party system on the country that makes it prohibitively difficult for third parties to compete.
On the whole, I think Bartlett is correct. Like it or not, the political system that the Constitution, and our history, has created overwhelmingly favors a two-party system to such an extent that truly successful third-parties have only arisen in situations where one of the two main parties was in a state of crisis.
The Whig Party came out of the ashes of the Federalists. The Republicans arose in part from the ashes of the Whigs. Apart from that, there has been no third-party that has been anything other than a flash-in-the-pan. Had Teddy Roosevelt defeated Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election, it’s likely that the Progressive Party a/k/a the Bull Moose Party would have supplanted the Republicans, but, other than that, there has been no serious challenge to the two-party system since the 1860 Presidential Election. That’s 146 years folks.
Bartlett goes on to point out something that has been my pet peeve for years. Even when it gets media attention the Libertarian Party seems to blow it. The reason for that is that, quite honestly, the LP is often the haven of gadflys. With the exception of Ron Paul, who returned to the Republican Party, I don’t think I can name one Libertarian Presidential Candidate that I can honestly say would have been qualified to fill the office he was running for.
So, if not the Libertarian Party, then what ?
Bartlett advocates something I think makes sense:
My conclusion is that for libertarian ideas to advance, the Libertarian Party must go completely out of business. It must cease to exist, period. No more candidates, no more wasted votes and no more disillusioned libertarian activists.
In place of the party, there should arise a new libertarian interest group organized like the National Rifle Association or the various pro- and anti-abortion groups. This new group, whatever it is called, would hire lobbyists, run advertisements and make political contributions to candidates supporting libertarian ideas. It will work with both major parties. It can magnify its influence by creating temporary coalitions on particular issues and being willing to work with elected officials who may hold libertarian positions on only one or a handful of issues. They need not hold libertarian views on every single issue, as the Libertarian Party now demands of those it supports.
In some sense this is exactly what organizations such as The Cato Institute already do. And, quite honestly, I think Cato has been far more effective in influencing the public policy debate in Washington and around the nation than the Libertarian Party can ever hope to be.
Is the LP worthless ? Well, yea, maybe it is.
Update: Brew argues in the comments that one of the reasons that the LP has not been successful is because the Republicans and Democrats continue to shut it out of the arena. As I argued in January, though, the two-party system is inherent in the structure of America’s political system, and we’re unlikely to see anything different anytime soon.