America's Third Largest Party: Success!
What the Libertarian Party has achieved in only a few years is little short of phenomenal.
When Bob Poole asked me to write a piece supporting the Libertarian Party for REASON, I thought to myself, "Is this really necessary? Can there be enough libertarians left who still do not see the wisdom of supporting the Libertarian Party—enough to justify writing such an article?"
To be sure, there are some libertarians who haven't supported the LP and never will. There are the Sam Konkins of the movement who engage in sophomoric fantasies about "counter-economics" driving I.B.M. out of business. There are the Bob LeFevres who would prefer to have the State put us in chains before seeing the movement engage in politics. There are the Harry Browneouts who would have us chuck it all in and repair to our nearest freeze-dried retreat. And there is the Royce-Tuccille-Rohrabacher syndrome: those individuals who lust for "big-time" politics and the chance to relate a conversation with a real Congressperson.
But most libertarians are serious about their philosophy and mature in their assessment of how best to promote it. It is therefore hard for me to conceive of a libertarian not being able to determine from the record the strategic importance of the LP. I write this article, then, more for those individuals who are new to the movement than I do for those veterans who still need convincing.
When talk of a libertarian party first surfaced, there were two main reservations expressed. The first was the concern that involvement in electoral politics would lead inevitably to compromise of our principles. The second, expressed by Murray Rothbard and others, was that the project was premature. There was, they thought, no point in advertising to the world how few libertarians there were. Those predictions, it seems to me, have not turned out to be correct.
Those who feared a dilution or compromise of principles should make a comparison of the Libertarian Party platforms of 1972, 1974 and 1976. They show a steady progression toward a more hard-line libertarian position in virtually all of the planks. Whether the subject is foreign policy, victimless crime, or regulation of commerce, the libertarian point of view has been well thought out and forthrightly stated in the 1976 LP platform.
It's worth noting, incidentally, that our platform represents, in itself, a remarkable political achievement. One of the things the delegates to the first LP convention in Denver came to realize was the intricacy involved in applying libertarian principles to the issues of the day. Political theory is complex regardless of how straightforward one's principles may be. Over the years, the LP platform has been refined to the point where its 44 planks now represent the clearest statement of the libertarian position on public policy issues to be found anywhere. I do not believe it is presumptuous to call it the best political platform in the history of the United States.
Well, then, if the platform has not compromised libertarian principles, what about our candidates? Here the temptation to "bend" our principles to accommodate the voter is greatest. Yet our experience has been that LP candidates are uniformly uncompromising. Most of them consider it an honor to be representing the LP and to have an opportunity to promote libertarianism.
Perhaps the uncompromising nature of the Libertarian Party first manifested itself at the 1974 Convention in Dallas when I ran against Eric Scott Royce for national chairperson. Royce had said he had decided to run because I had made comments critical of militarist-conservative Steve Symms which, he claimed, exposed my unwillingness to "broaden the base" of the LP. Well, Royce and his "base-broadeners" went down to a better than four-to-one defeat—all the more amazing when my basic misanthropic nature is taken into account. Mr. Royce's enthusiasm for the LP, I hear, has since waned.
As for the second concern, that we would embarrass ourselves by becoming a minor minor party, one need only look to the 1976 presidential election. The Libertarian Party, in just four years, came from nowhere to become the third most popular party in the nation. We beat all of the other minor parties—left wing, right wing and any other wing one might care to mention. Say what you will about our vote totals (and I'll say more a bit later), the fact remains: we're number three!
I contend, therefore, that the serious objections raised at the time of the founding of the LP were unwarranted. Let us turn, then, to the arguments put forth in favor of a libertarian party. Those arguments are as valid today as they were then.
WHY THE LP?
It is an unfortunate fact of American life—but nonetheless a fact—that the overwhelming majority of people do not think about political issues and the intervention of government into their lives except within the context of elections and party politics. To get people to change their minds, you must first get their attention. All of the rhetoric in the world is useless unless someone is listening to what is being said.
The Libertarian Party provides an excellent vehicle for getting the libertarian message across. Newspapers write articles about libertarianism. Radio and television talk-show hosts have LP candidates as guests. Civic organizations, universities and other public forums invite our spokespersons to present their ideas. In short, doors open to libertarian ideas that would be firmly shut were there no Libertarian Party.
Now, this is a very good thing, and I don't see how a libertarian can argue otherwise. How can we change the dominant philosophical/political trends in our society if we're not in a position to make known the alternative we favor?
This brings up a point of immense importance. Thinking in our society is dominated by a statist paradigm. In this society, the government routinely, even casually, tramples individual rights in the name of "the common good" or some other euphemism for totalitarianism. We cannot break that paradigm by piecemeal attacks on its infinite manifestations. We can break it only by offering an alternative paradigm, a completely independent and all-encompassing view of the nature of man as a political animal.
The utter failure of conservatism to be an effective political force is a direct result of the failure of its leaders to recognize this point. Conservatives invariably accept the premises underlying liberal domestic programs and "attack" them by offering watered-down substitutes. (To greatly oversimplify the situation, the same can be said of liberals in the area of foreign policy. They have always accepted the basically conservative view of the United States as world policeman.)
This was the great insight of Dave Nolan and the others who founded the Libertarian Party. They recognized that it was futile to work within the Democratic or Republican party. An ad hoc victory on this issue or that meant nothing if the statist juggernaut kept chugging along. Trying to make those parties libertarian was and is an effort doomed to failure. To work outside the two-party system in an attempt to create a new paradigm may not guarantee success—indeed, the odds against success remain quite high—but at least there is a chance of prevailing.
NEED FOR A MOVEMENT
What is needed, then, is a libertarian movement, something to tie all efforts to create a free society—whether in electoral politics or outside of it—into a coherent force for social change. People outside of the movement must be made aware of the existence of a fully integrated political philosophy that offers alternatives to some of the major institutions of our society. People within the movement must become aware of its various elements and develop a self-conscious involvement in it. I'm not talking here about some kind of "group mind," but rather a simple recognition of the fact that liberty is indivisible and that the various struggles for human liberty must be unified behind a movement presenting a new paradigm.
The Libertarian Party has succeeded, beyond at least my wildest imaginings, in creating this vital sense of a movement. No other libertarian organization has come close to matching the LP in this regard. We have put libertarians in touch with one another in all parts of the country. We have put libertarians to work promoting our philosophy in every state in the nation. We have put libertarianism on the political map in America.
A list of specific accomplishments of the Libertarian Party is impressive. The LP has produced professional, attractive, promotional material that includes eight excellent position papers. Over two million pieces of this literature have been distributed. In the recent presidential election, the LP aired eight five-minute, prime-time network television ads which reached audiences of 10 to 20 million. Through its Young Libertarian Alliance, the LP has established contacts on over 250 campuses. On many campuses, the YLA is by far the most active political group.
The Libertarian Party has served as a rallying point for all elements of the movement. It is significant that such notables as John Hospers, Murray Rothbard, Peter Breggin, Ron Paul, Nathaniel Branden, Bob Nozick, Thomas Szasz and Karl Brunner all think the party is an important vehicle for furthering libertarianism and worth devoting time to.
The media coverage garnered by the Libertarian Party, particularly in the past two years, has been phenomenal. Literally thousands of newspaper articles have been written about the LP, our spokespersons have appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows and each of the three television networks has carried several news items on the party. For the most part, this media coverage has been objective, in-depth and (surprisingly?) favorable. Consider this small sampling:
• "For the overtaxed, overregulated, overburdened and underpowered millions of the American middle class, Libertarians are the only people worth voting for."—Nicholas von Hoffman, Washington Post
• "Libertarianism has surfaced in this election year as an ideology matched to the mood of many disgruntled Americans. The Party's slogan, Legalize Freedom, gives Libertarians a unique appeal on both the right and the left."—Newsweek
• "MacBride's views are like fresh air—almost like straight oxygen—and he has been winning converts from the liberal and conservative camps at a surprising rate."—The National Observer
• "It is in the area of detail, in the fine-tuning they have given their ideology in so few years, that the Libertarians' commitment to an undiluted human freedom is singularly impressive."—Washington Post
• "Already the Libertarian Party looks upon itself as the natural successor to the Republican Party. Its gains over the last four years suggest that its boast is not wholly grounded in wishful thinking."—Chicago Tribune
• "The Libertarian Party is one of the most interesting—and the fastest growing—new parties on the American can political spectrum."—The Progressive
• "Original thought in the 1976 campaign has come not from the major parties but from Gene McCarthy and the Libertarian candidate Roger MacBride."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer
As I said, this is just a sampling of the commentary on the LP which is reaching millions of people. When or where else in the history of the movement has such publicity been generated?
Two of the above quotations relate to a point I made earlier. Commentators seem intrigued by the fact that we are appealing to people who were formerly on the left and the right—to conservatives and liberals. Yet the LP's support does not come from people who now hold widely divergent points of view. It is not a jerry-built coalition. Instead, our early support represents the first crack in that statist paradigm I spoke of.
THOSE VOTE TOTALS
This is an important point to consider when viewing our presidential election results. Many people (including our candidate) were hoping for a seven-figure total. Despite the excellent relative finish, those people seemed disappointed with the absolute vote count. Now it's obvious that the well-publicized closeness of the Ford-Carter race held our vote total down as well as the totals for all other minor candidates. But that was not the main reason we didn't receive significantly more votes. What critics of the nearly 200,000 votes the LP received (mutually exclusive votes for all LP candidates totaled about one million) overlook is the fact that there is no ready-made constituency for the LP. We have had to carve out our own, starting from scratch, and I'd say we're doing a damn good job of it.
If, with the energy, skill and motivation LP members demonstrated in the 1976 campaign, we had undertaken to start a new liberal or conservative third party, our vote totals would have been much, much greater. That's because there are tens of millions of strong liberals and strong conservatives in the American electorate. We could have parlayed those already committed partisans into some pretty snappy vote totals. But the purpose of the Libertarian Party is not simply to get votes, it's to get votes for liberty. The nature of the particular political environment in which we find ourselves in the United States is such that getting libertarian votes is going to be a much more difficult process than getting votes for one of the interventionist points of view.
Nobody said it was going to be easy. But are our memories so short that the 1976 LP vote totals are not clearly a cause for celebration? When the party was first started, people would look at you blankly if you mentioned the word "libertarian." Or they would say, "Libertine who?," or "Why in the world should librarians get involved in politics?" As the saying goes, "We've come a long way, baby," and it's unfortunate that some members of the movement don't seem to appreciate that fact. Perhaps we've come so far so fast that expectations have grown to unrealistic proportions.
It's not my intention to sound too defensive about the LP's 1976 results, either. Overall, the results were good and in some instances they were terrific. In the presidential race, we got six percent of the statewide vote in Alaska and 12 percent in Fairbanks! In dozens of counties across the nation, both rural and urban, we received over two percent of the presidential vote. That is a clear indication that we already possess balance-of-power potential at the national level.
Indeed, in many state and local races, our candidates were the balance of power. In Arizona, one of our candidates received 15 percent in a three-way race. Several others, particularly in the West, received over five percent in three-way contests. In a state legislative race in Idaho, the LP candidate received 31 percent of the vote. One can take statistics and prove pretty much whatever one desires, of course, and there were several races in which the LP results were disappointing. My point here is simply that we did quite well on the whole, given our stubborn insistence on sticking to principle and often saying things we knew would not be popular.
It is, moreover, simply wrongheaded to view the success or failure of the Libertarian Party merely in terms of votes. Education has always been a prime objective of the party, and expenditures made in 1976 were intended for that purpose as much as any other. If the Center for Libertarian Studies or the Cato Institute publishes policy papers which demonstrate the inefficacy and immorality of government intervention, do we analyze their worth in terms of votes? Of course not. And so it should be with the educational efforts of the Libertarian Party.
I find the claim that the movement's resources are wasted on political campaigns somewhat bizarre. First of all, before there was a Libertarian Party, the movement did not have anywhere near the money it has now. This is simply because the success of the Libertarian Party drew people's attention to the reasonableness of an investment now in a future free society. Secondly, to call spending on an election campaign wasteful or inefficient implies that some omnipotent planner's view of how best to allocate resources should govern. Such thinking certainly has no place in libertarian circles.
CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES
A final point to consider concerns the alternatives to working through the Libertarian Party which are available to us. (Obviously the scholarly work that is being done to broaden the theoretical and philosophical foundations of libertarianism is of fundamental importance. But, thank God, we all can't be scholars.) The alternatives to the LP that exist in the realm of politics and public policy are limited to (1) working within the Republican or Democratic party, (2) supporting an existing minor party, or (3) devoting one's energy to special interest lobbying groups.
It seems to me that the major party route is patently hopeless. Some time ago the official organ of the Republican Party, First Monday, editorialized, "The purpose of the Republican Party is to establish government." Nowhere in the lengthy editorial could one find a single statement concerning which kind of government the Republicans were proposing to establish. Indeed, its whole point was to damn ideology and praise political power. The Democrats, of course, are guided by an identical motivation. Anyone with an I.Q. above room temperature must have been struck by the fact that during the Presidential "debates," there was not one single solitary substantive difference of opinion between Ford and Carter.
Both major parties have become increasingly statist during the past two decades. Both have developed rather refined platforms of corporate fascism which are indistinguishable but for minor differences over whose liberties should next be usurped. The minority wings of either party offer little comfort.
Ronald Reagan brings a "win one for the Gipper" mentality to foreign policy—he's actually come out in favor of stepping up the arms race—and has a thoroughly confused view of the free market. Campaigning in Wisconsin he said he would have to do some research before he could state his position on milk price supports. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is egalitarian if not outright socialist. It would nationalize all of our major industries tomorrow and accelerate the redistribution of wealth from the private sector to the public sector. For a libertarian to work within one of the major parties is both naive and a serious misallocation of the movement's limited resources.
MINOR PARTIES AND LOBBYING GROUPS
With the exception of the LP, the existing minor parties offer no opportunities. On the left the only semi-reasonable party to appear in years was the Peace and Freedom party, which seemed to die when the Vietnam War came to an end. The other leftist parties are explicitly socialist.
On the right, there are virtually no viable minor parties. The American Party is more of a religious sect than a political party. When George Wallace rejoined the Democrats, the American Independent Party collapsed. Talk of a new conservative third party seems little more than wishful thinking on the part of a few wealthy conservatives. If Bill Rusher's book, The Making of a New Majority Party, is any indication, such a party would only increase the power of the State. Rusher's book should have been subtitled, "A Blueprint for Fascism."
That leaves the non-LP libertarian activists with only the multitude of political lobbying groups to work with. Some of these groups, such as the Campaign to Stop Government Spying, are worthwhile. Most, if you scratch the surface, are not. Typical is the National Right to Work Committee, which might plausibly be of interest to libertarians. A close examination reveals that it is nothing more than a tool of the corporate statists who want to replace repressive legislation preventing "open shop" labor arrangements with repressive legislation preventing voluntary "union shop" labor agreements.
The major drawback to working with this type of ad hoc lobbying organization is that it adds little to the development of a libertarian movement. Given our resources at present, I believe most of our efforts should be directed toward achieving libertarian goals through libertarian organizations. The Libertarian Party is clearly the best organization available for creating this important sense of a movement.
As Murray Rothbard wrote in the June, 1973 issue of the Libertarian Forum, "The point is that none of us libertarians sought out politics. Politics has been thrust upon us by the State apparatus, and it is absurd for us not to use the political choices we are allowed to have, to help in the rollback and eventual abolition of politics and political intervention in our lives."
I'm certain the Libertarian Party will continue to grow and prosper and, along with it, so will the libertarian movement. So long as we avoid opportunism, gradualism, and compromise, we will succeed. Let us hold our principles high, never allow ourselves to be intimidated by the pomp and circumstance of the State, and we shall see the movement for human liberty flourish in our lifetimes.
Edward H. Crane, III holds a B.S. in finance from the University of California at Berkeley. Chairman of the Libertarian Party from 1974 until mid-1977, Crane is now the director of the Cato Institute in San Francisco.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "America's Third Largest Party: Success!".