America's Third Largest Party: Failure!

As minor parties go, the Libertarian Party is a piker.


The greatest problem facing libertarians today is that of devising a strategy that would make possible the transformation of our present society into one in which freedom prevails. In the quest for such a strategy, many proposals have been advanced, and one which currently enjoys substantial support among libertarian activists is the third-party-movement route. A libertarian third party, we are told, placing principle above political opportunism, has the potential for taking control of the State away from the old ideologues and special interests. Once in power, libertarians could proceed to dismantle the government apparatus and proclaim liberty throughout the land.

While such a strategy has a certain degree of logical appeal, and while the overwhelming majority of its proponents are sincere and well-intentioned individuals, it is nevertheless, I believe, doomed to failure. Both of the presidential candidates fielded by the Libertarian Party (LP)—John Hospers in 1972, Roger MacBride in 1976—have themselves wisely cautioned that even if power were to be won by libertarians, dismantling the State is a task that could scarcely be accomplished overnight. The real problem, however, is that the fledgling LP is extremely unlikely ever to get the opportunity to do the wrecking job in the first place.

Examine, for instance, the political situation that prevailed last year during the MacBride-for-President effort. On election day the voters had a sizable selection of evils from which to choose; by mid-October over 200 candidates had filed for president with the Federal Election Commission. To be sure, relatively few of them actually appeared on any state ballot; but since at least 131 reported no expenditures whatsoever, and since most of the rest could count their "campaign funds" in terms of nickels and dimes, this should come as no great surprise.

Many of these candidates introduced completely new issues to the American political scene. Their platforms ranged from exposing the Rockefellers as the real murderers of John F. Kennedy, to an LBJ-style war on constipation; from restoring patriotism by compelling everyone to get a marine-style haircut, to establishing contact with Martians. There was one candidate who claimed to be the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln, and another who insisted that he was most qualified to serve in the White House because he is closer to God than is anyone else on earth. There was at least one presidential hopeful who conversed with angels, and another running under a pseudonym who explained, "My real name wouldn't mean anything anyway because I am generally unknown." While most such people probably recognized that they were, at best, dark-horse contenders, some undoubtedly felt like the woman who, at the outset of a projected 7,000-mile campaign trip on a bicycle, remarked: "I have a knack for politics. This thing could take off like a comet."

Like it or not, many commentators tended to lump the Libertarian Party with such eccentrics, and many others considered the LP only in conjunction with such outfits as the thoroughly looney U.S. Labor Party. They viewed the LP as irrelevant to serious politics in America today; and there is, I am afraid, a fair amount of evidence to support such a conclusion, postelection pronouncements by Murray Rothbard and some other prominent libertarian figures about how well the LP ticket fared notwithstanding. The latter inform us that MacBride and Bergland ran fourth nationwide, first among the minor parties, making the LP the third biggest party in America, etc., etc.


Viewed more closely, however, particularly in a historical context, MacBride's "achievement" appears a dubious one at best. On at least 35 occasions since 1900, independent candidates or other minor parties' national tickets have drawn a higher percentage of the vote than MacBride did on election day. That includes the Communists on one occasion, the Socialist Laborites on three, the Prohibitionists on six, and the Socialists on eleven. In terms of total number of votes, MacBride finished last behind 23 other national tickets during the same period. He attracted fewer than 200,000 voters, less than one for every mile traveled during the campaign since January 1976 alone. His total represented not one percent of the national vote, not half of one percent, but about 22/100 of one percent of the national figure. Being number-one minor party in a league of even bigger losers than that is surely nothing to brag about. The LP total appears even bleaker upon review of the vote figures, often ludicrously high, projected for the ticket by LP leaders and MacBride himself during 1975 and '76.

It can, of course, be argued that MacBride's total would have been larger had the Ford-Carter race not been so close. That may well be the case, although we can question precisely how much larger a vote he could have garnered (or how much of the vote MacBride did receive, for that matter) or whether the vote would have reflected any real understanding of or serious support for libertarianism. I suspect that under the most optimistic circumstances Roger might conceivably have doubled his actual 1976 total. Of course, such an increase would largely have reflected the disgruntled, anti-Ford conservatives whose commitment to the party and its principles would be tenuous at best. The closeness of the national election, too, was a relative thing. A number of states seemed almost certain to fall into either the Ford or Carter camp on election day. In such places, "throwaway" votes appeared a practical alternative to Reaganite and other disgruntled voters; and the MacBride figures probably reflect roughly what he would have polled under the best of conditions.

As another reason for optimism, LP leaders point to MacBride's vote in Alaska, the only state in which he made a credible showing (6,773 votes, 5.5 percent). The LP total there should be seen, however, as a reflection of the state's traditional disaffected vote, not as an endorsement of Roger or of libertarianism in caribou country. MacBride was the only perceptible right-wing-style alternative to Ford and Carter on the ballot in a state that generally casts several thousand ballots for a "conservative alternative." Thus, MacBride simply drew a portion of the vote cast in previous elections for candidates such as Wallace (10,024 votes, 12.1 percent), Schmitz (6,903 votes, 7.3 percent), and 1974 Alaska Independence Party gubernatorial nominee Joseph Vogler (4,719 votes, 4.9 percent).

Turning to New York, a state where the LP has been more active and well organized than in most of the rest of the United States, the party's most recent vote totals show no real gain over those of past years. In 1976 MacBride polled 12,197 votes for president there, while FLP Senate nominee Marty Nixon 10,943. Compare these figures to those for 1974 FLP gubernatorial nominee Jerry Tuccille and 1973 FLP New York City mayoral candidate Fran Youngstein—10,200 and 8,818, respectively. Is the LP really making progress toward victory, as its proponents claim?

Examine some additional figures. The five-year-old LP ran some 200 candidates for Federal, state, and local office nationwide last year. Forget that this comes out to roughly one office at every level contested per two Congressional districts. Compare the LP figure with the fact that in 1912 the Socialist Party could boast not 200 or even 1,000 candidates, but 1,200 elected officials, including state legislators and 79 mayors. That year their presidential ticket polled over 900,000 votes, or six percent of the national total. And the Socialists were not just winning local elections in backwater towns like Brookneal, Virginia. During that period they also elected mayors in places like Minneapolis, Butte, Schenectady, and several other medium-to-large-sized cities. The SP managed to send two of its members to Congress, and in one state—Nevada—it came remarkably close to electing a U.S. Senator.

Now that is a third party. In other words, one that is capable of actually contesting power in some places with the big boys. The LP, by comparison, is a very minor party by any objective assessment; it has a long way to go before it can even seriously lay claim to the label "third" party, much less to political credibility.

Given a few more years, the LP could conceivably elect itself a handful of local officials and even some state legislators. As LP officials are quick to point out, a few local party candidates drew quite respectable vote totals last November. What they fail to mention, however, is that such cases generally involved a two-way race where the LP contender simply attracted the anti-incumbent or anti-incumbent-party vote, indicating that the noncontesting opposition party probably made an error in judgment by not filing someone for the office. In a three-way race in the same district, most such LP nominees' totals would have been drastically lower. An example of this sort of problem is the 1976 Utah Senate race. Early polls showed the LP contender receiving as much as 10 percent of the vote. Once the Republican situation cleared up, however, with ultraconservative Orrin Hatch, the eventual victor, winning the GOP primary, the LP candidate faded from the picture, receiving only a minuscule percentage on election day.


In reality, very few candidates have ever been elected to statewide or Federal office in this century without a major party endorsement. Most of those who succeeded in bucking the odds—like James Buckley, Harry Byrd, Jr., Vito Marcantonio, Wayne Morse, and Robert LaFollette, Jr.—simply benefited from prior name recognition and major party connections, major party collusion, or both. In addition, they advanced practical programs and understood the importance of good precinct operations and organizations. The Socialist victories cited above, James Weinstein points out in The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, were also based on the ability to develop major-party-style precinct machinery and the willingness to abandon utopian rhetoric for programs directly and immediately relevant to a substantial portion of the constituencies involved.

We should be extremely skeptical of minor parties that tell us they can win elections (whether now or in the future), precisely because so few of the many that have tried have ever succeeded. Only three times since 1900—1912, 1924, 1968—has there been even the remotest chance of success by a non-major-party nominee for president, for instance. Since 1832, less than a dozen such nominees have succeeded in carrying a single state. If such popular public figures as Henry Wallace, Robert LaFollette, and George Wallace could not succeed, is it likely that an LP contender could do so? Furthermore, of the group of non-major-party figures who served in Congress during this century, the majority were from Wisconsin's Progressive Party or Minnesota's old Farmer-Labor organization. In each case, the party in question was in fact a substitute second party for the state, not a third party at all.

Political scientists generally consider there to be two basic types of third- or minor-party movements: the temporary, protest-style ones such as the 1968 American Party, the Progressives of 1924 and 1948, and the Populists; and narrow, doctrinal parties. While the former may have some impact on the national political consensus, the latter category, no matter how persistent, remains politically isolated and inconsequential because of the noble but unrealistic purism that isolates such parties from the majority of Americans who fail to share their vision.


But if third or minor parties are highly unlikely to win elections, can't they still influence politics by setting forth ideas that other parties may seek to co-opt? Frankly, as many political scientists have pointed out, the fact that minor parties have advanced and promoted policies subsequently enacted into law does not mean that they had any influence whatsoever. Extra-party groups are usually far more influential. For instance, it was the work of the Anti-Saloon League, not the minuscule Prohibition Party, that turned the country "dry." Those who think otherwise are engaging in wishful thinking.

A look at the platform the LP put together for the 1976 campaign will show that very few of its planks have not been advanced by some serious politician. Does that mean that the LP is already having an impact on U.S. politics? Of course not. It means that the LP endorses a program with which some conservatives and liberals already agree in part. Members of Congress have embraced aspects of the LP platform ranging from decriminalization of marijuana to demonopolization of first-class mail delivery, from abolition of the ICC and other Federal regulatory agencies to substantial cutbacks in overseas troop levels, from abolition of the income tax to legalization of gold-clause contracts. Most LP members, blissfully ignorant of what is really going on in Washington, have no more realization of this than most Congressmen have an understanding of the principles of libertarianism.

This brings us to consideration of a number of myths and misconceptions sometimes advanced by LPers. Most prevalent of these is that the party has real value as an educational tool whether or not it can win elections. When John James, the Colorado LP's 1974 congressional nominee, dropped out of the race prior to election day, he commented, "There are many better, less costly ways to educate and to bring about a more widespread radical…consciousness" than political campaigning. That is, however, only one of the many objections to educational campaigns.

REASON editor Robert Poole wrote an excellent indictment of the recent crop of LP educational campaigns in the August 1976 issue. He noted that while such efforts may indeed "increase the awareness of the libertarian philosophy," they nevertheless may only "guarantee the hostility or indifference of the vast majority of voters." In other words, hard-core educational-style campaigns may expand to a slight extent the number of Americans who have heard of our philosophy; but by focusing on long-range goals and radical positions, or by presenting lengthy, detailed statements on how some seemingly far-out solutions could work in practice, LP candidates either bore the average voter who is exposed to them, frighten him, or convince him that libertarians are impractical, utopian kooks.

Several other serious objections have been raised against the educational campaign tack. For one thing, it virtually guarantees continued receipt of merely infinitesimal percentages of the vote. This will, in turn, likely result in convincing many libertarians that all is indeed lost, that political activism per se is futile.

Even more serious than this, however, is the fact that politicians and the politically conscious public may get the idea—or obtain the excuse—that low vote totals for LP candidates mean that the libertarian philosophy and libertarian solutions to current problems have little popular appeal. The party's press coverage and potential for perceived legitimacy will largely evaporate, too, if it becomes clear that it cannot succeed in attracting any significant number of voters. As MacBride himself explained to the 1976 California state LP convention: "No reporter for any newspaper, or for any radio or television station will take our ideas seriously if we present the image of a quixotic, tiny minority."


Another myth advanced by some LP members is that the GOP is—slowly or rapidly, depending upon the speaker—dying and that the LP may eventually replace it. This sort of contention frequently accompanies an explanation of how the GOP was allegedly once a third party that made the big time. (See, for example, Roger MacBride's article, "Happy Days Are Here Again," REASON, January 1975.)

There are numerous errors implicit in such an argument. To begin with, as William Hesseltine, author of Third Party Movements in the United States, and others have pointed out, new parties that achieved a real measure of success in this nation's history generally got off the ground right away as second or opposition parties and rapidly achieved victory. The GOP, contrary to some people's imaginations, was never really a third party at all. It was, rather, a coalescence of minor parties and factions of the old parties into a new major party.

Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the door to slavery in the territories, resulted in a massive upsurge of Northern antislavery sentiment; and it was this factor which led to formation of the GOP. In the 1854 election, the party's first, it captured 108 House seats—more than any other party—and then set up a coalition which chose a Republican Speaker of the House. In its first presidential election it ran a quite respectable second, and in its second time out it captured the White House.

Nor is the GOP dying, something that people have been predicting for decades. They said it in 1936, when the Landon-Knox ticket carried only two states and 89 Republicans won seats in the House. Two years later the GOP bounced back to capture an additional 80 House seats. They deemed the party a corpse again in 1964, when Barry Goldwater got clobbered and the Republicans lost three dozen congressional races. Two years later they picked up 47, and two years after that the GOP was once again ensconced in the White House. In 1976 the Republican Party held its own in congressional and gubernatorial races and lost its hold on the presidency by less than two percent of the popular vote. Ford clearly carried a majority of the states (worth 241 electoral votes); and were it not for probable vote fraud, he might have carried several others, thus winning a majority in the electoral college and a full term in office.

The Republican Party isn't dead, it's just hung over. And with Carter in the White House, establishing a solidly Democratic Federal government again, which disgruntled voters can blame for the nation's woes, the GOP should score real gains in congressional and gubernatorial contests in 1978. The upset victory of Republican Arlan Strangeland in the Minnesota district previously held by Carter's new Secretary of Agriculture is an early favorable sign. But even if the Republican Party were to expire, talk of the LP replacing it is complete hogwash. The GOP's likely successor would simply be a more clearly conservative party, perhaps along the lines suggested by William Rusher and Conservative Caucus chief Howard (no, not Kevin) Phillips.


This brings us to one final misconception, shared by the LP, the American Party, and many other sharply ideological minor parties: a false assumption that any significant portion of the American public is, or can be convinced to become, "radicalized" or even ideological. Most American voters are not ready to be swayed by one TV ad or brilliant speech setting forth consistent ideology—nor by a hundred. They are set in their political ways and identify with one party in the voting booth, as one recent study demonstrated, whether they refer to themselves by that party's labelor not.

Albert Jay Nock once debunked the idea that people vote for platforms or ideologies. In 1937 Herbert Hoover suggested that the GOP call a national convention to draw up a statement of principles in opposition to the New Deal that could be used in the next election. Nock commented, in the January 1938 American Mercury ("What the Republicans Won't Do"):

Brother Hoover's notion…for such a campaign, setting forth principles and ideas, is excellent and ought to be exactly right, but the trouble is that it will get nowhere in a campaign, because American voters are notoriously not interested in principles and ideas. They do not care a button for them and will not vote for them. The immense majority vote whichever way the money comes from; they vote for "prosperity".…Many of them vote out of resentment, many out of prejudice, indolent habit, indolent conformity; but not a corporal's guard of them vote out of ideas, and still fewer out of principles.

Abby Goldsmith once pointed out the same problem in the Southern Libertarian Review when she wrote that "the majority of people are going to support a particular order because they perceive it to work well for them, not because it is Moral or Right, and the sooner we stop throwing moral platitudes around and start doing something practical, the better off we'll be."

This brings us to the question: If the LP is an impractical way of achieving liberty in our time, is there any alternative that will work better?


For those who are convinced that political involvement (as opposed to a purely educational tack) is necessary, I suggest transformation of the present LP from a political party into a grassroots political action organization similar to COPE, the American Conservative Union, or, to use a historical example, the Non-Partisan League of the Wilson era. Such a new group would have the tremendous advantage of nonpartisanship. That is, while third parties must fight, pressure groups can bargain. I suggest that the new group should pursue the old political policy of the American Federation of Labor laid down during the early years of this century by Samuel Gompers: identification with no party per se; advancement of a realistic, specific, evolutionary program; and recruitment or support of serious candidates, of whatever partisan stripe, who commit themselves to support the bulk of that program.

Such an organization could lobby, both separately and in conjunction with other groups. It should seek to instruct those libertarians who believe in political action about the methods most conducive to effective political participation. It might propagandize the public by means of advertising, pamphlets, and periodicals, including some sort of nationwide publication for college distribution. It should work actively for tax limitation and other state and local ballot initiatives.

Why transform the LP rather than form a brand new outfit? There are several reasons. First, the LP is simply not a viable strategic alternative, for reasons already presented. However, as Don Ernsberger and others have pointed out, the party has served the movement as a focal point for gathering and, sometimes, motivating libertarians. It has some degree of organization in every, or almost every, state in the union, a fine base from which to build. Continuation of the LP, however, would mean continued competition for the limited financial and manpower resources of politically motivated libertarians, a key factor during the new group's crucial formative period. Conflicts would also develop. For instance, a serious nonpartisan group with a limited, immediate legislative program might find itself supporting (or at least not opposing) candidates that might otherwise have drawn LP opponents, such as Representatives Weaver (opposed by Tonie Nathan in 1976) and Schroeder (opposed in 1974 by John James), to mention only two. Such conflicts would only serve to create bad feelings and dangerous internal factionalism in the new group. A perfect example at the present time is the conflict inside the American Conservative Union between so-called mainstream conservatives and Tom Anderson's American Partyites.

When Jerry Tuccille received only about one-fifth of the 50,000 votes he needed to win New York's Free Libertarian Party permanent ballot status, LP national leaders openly expressed their disgust. Tuccille had had the advantage of some good press coverage; he had spent over $70,000, roughly $7 per vote. But on election day he drew fewer votes in New York City than Fran Youngstein garnered in her mayoral race the year before. LP founder Dave Nolan told an LP Executive Committee meeting that the New York party could have gotten more votes for Donald Duck for governor by handing out $5 bills on street corners. "By any objective standard," he added, "the results of the Tuccille campaign were a disaster—period."

By any objective standard, the 1976 LP presidential campaign was also a debacle. It is hoped that at least some of the party's leaders will show the same honesty they did in 1974 and admit it and that they will begin to assess new alternatives to continuation of the LP as a political party—alternatives such as the one I have proposed.

There is much that libertarians can accomplish in politics, but they need a new direction. The question is not whether America needs radical change, but how that change can best be brought about. The sort of strategy I have briefly outlined will no doubt draw complaints from some party members who, as Samuel Gompers once put it, simply "cannot understand political action unless there is a party." I suspect that history and the movement will eventually leave such individuals far behind.

E. Scott Royce is editor and publisher of Southern Libertarian Review. He served as a member of the Libertarian Party's national executive committee, 1972-74, and currently works for the National Right to Work Committee in Fairfax, Virginia.