Strategies for the '90s
Libertarians Belong in the GOP
The Republican Party is undergoing a generational transformation that will soon lead to a battle for the soul of the party. Millions of younger voters, who are fiscally conservative and socially tolerant, were an integral part of George Bush's majority. Attracted in the '80s by the individualist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, these voters stayed with the GOP because of Bush's promises to reduce the deficit and not raise taxes. But these voters have yet to take their rightful place within the Republican Party.
With the conservative movement in disarray, the New Right is leading the charge to put intolerance on social issues and revival of the Cold War at the top of the GOP agenda. Instead of broadening the party, such a move would narrow it by excluding the key to the new Republican majority. Libertarians are in a unique position to push forward the political realignment that began with the Reagan election of 1980—and in the process redirect the Republican Party to its historic roots as a party of individual rights.
In 1984 two political scientists, William Maddox and Stuart Lilie, published a thorough and groundbreaking analysis of American political divisions, Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum. They reanalyzed years of polling data and, on the basis of answers to a number of issues questions, reclassified individual poll respondents into categories of liberal (pro-civil liberties, anti-free market), conservative (pro-free market, anti-civil liberties), populist (anti-freedom on both), and libertarian (pro-freedom on both).
Party identification by the ideological groups is revealing. Of libertarians in 1980, 38 percent identified themselves as Republicans, 17 percent as Democrats, and 45 percent as independents. In addition, looking at the ideological groups' 1980 strength within the GOP shows libertarians with 29 percent and conservatives with 27 percent (compared to 18 percent populist and 13 percent liberal).
Maddox and Lilie believe that those of a libertarian bent hold the key to control of the Republican Party. The GOP survey group, they noted, "is surprisingly divided, with almost equal numbers of conservative and libertarian supporters." Although this division is not reflected in GOP platforms and candidates, "the potential for future conflict is obvious," they observed. "As libertarians become more aware of their strength and consider the Republican Party as a possible vehicle for their views, there could be a split comparable in intensity to the old conservative/moderate split that dominated the party's presidential politics in 1952 and again in 1964."
If libertarians do rise to the occasion, they argue, "In the future there could be true ideological clashes again, as younger libertarians within the party attempt to move it away from social conservatism. Neither libertarians nor conservatives can dominate the party on their own; therefore any presidential candidate would have to build an uneasy alliance with one of the small liberal or populist wings of the party."
The libertarian group clearly holds the key to the independent voters. Independents make up a growing portion of the electorate, and about one-fourth of them are libertarian. This group could be drawn into the GOP via its pro-freedom wing, which should also be able to attract small segments of both the liberal and conservative wings of the party and possibly the 7 percent of the Democratic Party that is libertarian. Such an alliance could not only lead the party into the future but make the GOP the majority party.
The dilemma for libertarians, as for populists, is that although the American political spectrum can be cut four ways by ideology, ours is a two-party system. As a result, wrote Maddox and Lilie in 1984, libertarians "may well have a diluted impact for some time, as some try to create a strong libertarian wing in the Republican Party, others commit to the Libertarian Party, and still others remain frustrated at the possibilities of either of these routes being successful."
The third-party approach has been tried now through five presidential elections, and partisans of the Libertarian Party need to come to grips with the failure of this strategy. As difficult as libertarian political ideas are to sell, they are not nearly as unsalable as the third-party strategy itself.
New and minor political parties in the United States have the worst electoral record among 20th-century Western democracies. This does not remain so by chance, but it is a reality that must be faced. Even if their ideas are not unfamiliar, unpopular, or "too radical," American third parties take on five major problems in convincing people to support them:
• Restrictive ballot-access laws soak up at least half of all campaign money and efforts.
• The media, the voters, and usually even the candidate know that he or she is not going to win, so the party's support is limited to protest voters.
• Voters fear "wasting a vote" even in protest—if enough people protest, it may drain so many votes from the major candidate closest to their position that the candidate loses.
• Voter loyalty to the major parties and the two-party system is strong and shows no sign of eroding in the near future.
• The media, nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters and PACs, and most community groups traditionally ignore minor parties.
Some third parties have achieved limited and brief success acting as the political arm of an ideological movement. Most supporters of such movements, however, quickly abandon the third-party approach in favor of the far more successful strategy of organizing within the existing two-party structure. Fifty years ago, for example, American socialists learned that they could attract a larger following and achieve much greater success as part of the Democratic Party. That party has been largely transformed as a result.
What the socialists discovered is only now being realized by some libertarian activists: that it is far easier to get people to change their minds about ideas than it is to get them to vote for a third party embodying those ideas. Marketing the ideas of individual liberty in a third-party package makes them appear to be what they are not: exotic, removed from the problems of ordinary people, and completely out of the mainstream of American politics.
As Maddox and Lilie's analysis shows, and the widely remarked Reagan realignment confirms, the ideas espoused by libertarians are capable of striking a deep resonance among Americans. A 1988 Times Mirror/Gallup survey breaks the electorate down into 10 groups, with the "enterprisers" (probusiness, antigovernment, socially tolerant) being the most loyal GOP voters.
The point is not lost on the Republican Party establishment. As Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager and now the GOP's national chairman, conceded last fall: the new, younger Republican voters "are not liberal on social issues. They are libertarian, meaning tolerant. The whole notion of tolerance is very, very important. We Republicans need to establish that we are a tolerant party. If we got to the point where the so-called far right of the party was perceived as being dominant and on social issues being intolerant, then it would cause a big problem with baby boomers."
Libertarians have a prime opportunity to exert a powerful influence within the Republican Party to ensure that it is indeed a party of tolerance. If this strategy is successful, it will also break the deadly link in 20th-century American politics between civil liberties and the welfare state, between respect for individual rights and interest-group politics.
Since 1980, many candidates have successfully courted libertarian voters but have given them little in return. It is taken for granted by political leaders that, as Ronald Reagan showed, a dab of libertarian rhetoric is sufficient to ensure their loyalty. But the libertarian electorate needn't be led by empty rhetoric, nor left out in the cold by a third-party strategy that cannot work in our system. An organized and visible libertarian political force within the GOP can change that by running and electing candidates, participating in local and state GOP conventions and events, and promoting libertarian principles to young activists who are hungry for ideas but never would have been reached by a third party.
Underlying this strategy is the assumption that American political parties, unlike their European and Latin American counterparts, are only ideological in the broadest sense. The real ideological forces are the subgroups within the two parties: the conservative wing of the GOP, the Democratic Leadership Council, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, the Moral Majority, the Democratic Socialists of America, etc.
Implementation of this strategy, therefore, requires that libertarian activists shift their attention from the general election to the primaries. This is where the real battle for the future of the nation takes place: an arena dominated by competing factions, each vying for a position of influence—not unlike the jockeying for power among multiple parties in other Western democracies. At this level, the ideas of small, well-organized ideological groups can count a great deal.
An organized libertarian Republican movement can and will make demands of party leadership and candidates. It can challenge social conservatives and economic moderates for ideological and political control of the party. Just as the social conservatives are contending for the soul of the party, so can libertarians. To do so effectively, they must be as vocal and visible as the forces of the New Right who have had an impact all out of proportion to their actual numbers.
Eric Garris, a veteran of two decades of political campaigns, is the national political director of the Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee (444 Castro St., No. 301, Mountain View, CA 90401).
Libertarian Is an L-Word, Too
It might seem incongruous to suggest that Democrats and libertarians forge an alliance. It is clear that libertarians vote Republican far more than they vote Democratic. But I consider myself both a libertarian and a Democrat, and I can envision an eventual compromise in which Democrats accept more classically liberal economics and libertarians give more weight to the Democratic Party's liberal views on social issues and foreign policy.
The points of agreement between libertarians and liberal Democrats are greater than most people think. Both, moreover, have a common interest in fighting a recurring American political phenomenon—populism.
California's elections last November provided a glimpse of the kind of future that populism could create. Two ballot propositions symbolized the two faces of populism—economic socialism and social traditionalism.
Despite a $60-million campaign by the insurance industry, voters approved a measure, backed by Ralph Nader, to cut insurance rates 20 percent and step up state regulation of insurers. A second measure, requiring doctors to report the names of AIDS patients, had also won a place on the California? ballot; although it failed, public fear of AIDS could spur similar assaults on civil liberties elsewhere.
Too often, Democrats have been associated with the kind of economic populism represented by the insurance referendum. Democrats should not confuse their belief in helping the poor and curbing corporate irresponsibility with dictating by ballot our insurance rates—or salaries or rents. The concept of "economic democracy" is just plain wrong. Fortunately, it is increasingly rejected by a new generation of Democratic leaders.
Not to be outdone, the Republicans have become the party of social populism. The AIDS referendum is just one byproduct of the social intolerance created by their ascendancy to power. Proposals to test widely for drug use is another, as is near-hysterical opposition to immigration of non-Europeans.
Libertarians have to do more than pay lip service in protest against such conservative denials of individual liberty. When pressed, libertarians seem to mouth the right words, but they often don't know the tune. Meanwhile, the Republican Party grows stronger by supporting a growing young cast of "new right" politicians committed to a radical, antilibertarian social agenda people like conservative funding mogul Paul Weyrich and Reagan policy advisor Gary Bauer and, in Congress, Reps. Robert Dornan (R–Calif.) and Newt Gingrich (R–Ga.).
George Bush, with his flag-waving, ACLU-bashing campaign for mandatory pledges and classroom prayer, carried on the recent Republican tradition of social populism. In fact, the great conservative political gains of the last 20 years may have empowered the intellectual heirs of Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand, but most of those gains came by adopting the attitudes of Archie Bunker and George Wallace.
Although Michael Dukakis did finally succumb to temptation and exploit his party's historic identification with economic populism, he resisted longer than past candidates—a signal that the party may be ready for fundamental changes. Libertarians can help Democrats break their nasty habit of relying on class warfare to galvanize voters. Neo-liberal, promarket Democrats like Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt need help from outside the party—to provide an alternative to the easier votes to be had by resorting to the demagoguery of politicians like Richard Gephardt and Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower.
Libertarians can have a significant effect the way any group with a clear agenda can influence politics within a two-party system. Those who are so inclined should be selecting the most amenable Democrats in Congress and working on their staffs. They should be showing up at Democratic functions and pushing themselves into Democratic policy-setting forums. And they should be concentrating presidential campaign efforts at the maximum point of leverage—the primary level. There, they can operate as an interest group, demanding a hearing on their issues and putting up sufficient funding to carry it through to the point of supporting a candidate who "gives" them enough.
Libertarians have grown complacent to the threat of social populism, perhaps because the Reagan administration successfully advanced much of its economic agenda while appearing to pay only lip service to its reactionary social agenda of abortion restrictions, blurred church-state relationships, and curtailed civil rights and civil liberties. Whatever the reason, libertarians seem to be drifting toward an accommodation with the Republicans and becoming, in effect, a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP.
Such an accommodation is, in my opinion, extremely dangerous. The aid and comfort libertarians offer the GOP now could haunt them later. Imagine a George Wallace–style Republican who weds the social populism of the 1988 Bush campaign with the economic populism of Democrat Richard Gephardt's early 1988 Iowa primary effort. The potential for statism is chilling.
I am a libertarian, but I gave money to and voted for Michael Dukakis. That may seem strange, but libertarian is an L-word too. If economics were all that mattered, perhaps those who want less government and more freedom would be wise to work within the Republican Party. But from the standpoint of individual liberty considered as a whole, I would argue, the Democratic Party offers greater potential.
On two of the three principles advocated by libertarians—free-market economics, laissez-faire social tolerance, and noninterventionist foreign policy—the Democratic Party stands closer to libertarian thought than the Republicans. Democrats are identified with the right to personal privacy, with clear separation of church and state, and with a foreign policy based far less on the expensive premises of superpower conflict and far more on promoting human rights and democratic regimes.
Defeats in five of the last six presidential elections, moreover, and the fiscal realities of massive budget deficits, have at last forced Democrats to start reexamining many of their interventionist economic doctrines. It's true that the Democratic Party will never be the party of pure free-market economics; but then, neither will the Republicans. After all, the Reagan administration gave us the 1981 tax act with its targeted subsidies for heavy manufacturing at the expense of high-growth industries, an extraordinary increase in farm subsidies, big-bank bailouts, and automobile import quotas.
Like many other people who have not found a true home in any of the political parties in this country— including the Libertarian Party—I believe that government in the modern world does have a role to play in the economy, albeit a much smaller one than either major party is currently willing to allow. "Pure" libertarians argue that government shouldn't play any role in the economy, but this assumes a world that doesn't exist—a world in which no collective action is required to maintain civilization and maximize individual potential; a world of atomistic individuals always operating with rights but without responsibilities.
I am a libertarian because I too believe that rights generally exist without responsibilities, that reason is a better guide in living than tradition, that individualism is a better political philosophy than collectivism. But I also believe there are public goods and just enough truth to the generally exaggerated claims of interdependence that the paradigm of independent atomistic individuals interacting voluntarily breaks down at the extreme.
Simple majoritarianism is a principle of unsurpassed ugliness, but limited democracy has to be our first political premise. I can envision no other persuasive, philosophically coherent principle around which to organize the state. I hate laws against crimes that have no victims. But, abhorring absolutism, I would rather argue against them by characterizing them as inconsistent with a constitutional democratic republic with a strong bill of rights and a long history of respect for privacy, than argue against them as impermissible in principle. Since libertarians cannot plausibly insist on purity in the application of their principles, they should instead fight for the principle of "super majoritarianism"—a requirement of no state intervention in the absence of a very strong societal consensus.
It's true, for example, that redistribution of income will result in less of it. But there is also a well-established consensus that a minimum level of income is essential to a civilized society. There is at least some truth to the argument that individual initiative cannot flourish if the social fabric is frayed beyond repair. A sense of the basic fairness of the economic system is essential to the preservation of a stable, reasonably pleasant climate in which to live, work, and play.
Libertarian opposition to all forms of government regulation also runs into real-world roadblocks. For example, the separation of ownership and management of the modern corporation undermines the self-regulation argument. In theory, a car manufacturer's success in the marketplace depends on customer satisfaction, so self-interest will lead to safe cars without any government auto-safety regulations. In practice, however, a car company executive whose job depends on meeting an annual growth quota has a powerful incentive to compromise a bit on safety if it will hold down the price to the car buyer, even though the actual owner would never take such a risk because of potential liability for resulting accidents.
Since Democrats seem to be moving to more free-market- oriented economics, I believe libertarians should meet them half-way. Where we land on issues of the welfare state and corporate regulation should be less a theological argument and more a practical exercise in problem solving. If libertarians are willing to move on these issues, then they can start putting their mouths and their votes where their ideals are on social and foreign policy—with the Democrats.
Liberals and libertarians have closely parallel views of man—favoring more individual freedom and valuing rationality more highly than traditionalism in human affairs. I believe they should blend their views of the role of government. Government is not a beast that should be starved, nor is it a finely tuned instrument of great practical use. Libertarians should upgrade their concerns about social issues that affect individual liberty, and Democrats should devalue the role of government considerably in economics. Then they can stand together against the radically wrong conception of man and government that populism provides and that the Republican Party increasingly favors.
Richard Dennis, recently retired from the futures industry, is a Democratic Party activist and a member of the Cato Institute board.
Is the Party Over?
David F. Nolan
Nineteen eighty-nine is not 1971. The conditions that led to the formation of the Libertarian Party no longer prevail, and the role of a third party as a vehicle for achieving Freedom in Our Time needs to be reexamined.
In 1971, Americans were in the middle of a protracted period of dissatisfaction. The United States was bogged down in an unpopular war, National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State, a nominally conservative, free-enterprise president had just taken the dollar off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls, and the 1960s' spirit of protest was alive and flourishing.
Many voters were questioning the validity of the two-party system. In 1968, George Wallace had received nearly 10 million votes as a third-party candidate, and many conservative Republicans were openly hostile to the Nixon administration.
The modern libertarian movement was in its infancy. In 1971, there was no established network of activists for liberty. The largest explicitly libertarian organization, Society for Individual Liberty, had barely a thousand members. There were hundreds of scattered discussion groups composed mostly of Ayn Rand fans, dozens of micro-circulation publications, and a horde of young laissez-faire advocates eager to do something. I know—I was one of them. The first meetings that led to the Libertarian Party's formation took place in my living room in the summer of 1971. Watching Richard Nixon's infamous "freeze" speech on TV at one such meeting crystalized our decision to go ahead.
The idea of launching a third party made great sense. Electoral politics provided the perfect soapbox from which to proclaim liberty, and the campaign process was an ideal "outreach" program, tailor-made for recruiting like-minded men and women of action.
Today, however, the situation has changed. We are now in an era of complacency. The welfare state has survived the "Reagan revolution" virtually unscathed and has been legitimized in the process. New assaults on civil liberties are mounted continually—usually in the name of the war on drugs.
Most people now seem perfectly happy with the two-party system. The Republicans appear to have a virtual lock on the White House, having won 7 of the last 10 presidential elections and lost 2 others (1960 and 1976) under unusual circumstances.
The Democrats have an equivalent hold on Congress; once elected, a member of Congress is practically set for life. (An incredible 99 percent of the incumbent U.S. representatives who sought reelection in 1988 were successful.) The Democratic majority in Congress has become de facto permanent.
Libertarian candidates in partisan contests have a hard time breaking through the wall of indifference. And it's getting harder. I would say that LP candidates receive less attention, by and large, than they did in 1978 or 1980—probably mostly because the novelty has worn off.
Electorally, the Libertarian Party has had only minimal success. The national ticket received barely one percent of the vote in 1980, a quarter of a percent in 1984, and one-half percent in 1988.
The cost per vote has been remarkably consistent: about $4.00 to $6.00, after adjusting for inflation. This implies that to reach the statistically significant 3 percent level (where you start to show up in the polls, and thus get national media attention) a Libertarian candidate would need to spend about $15 million.
But would this be a rational way to spend $15 million, assuming the party had it? And if libertarians don't have that kind of money, should they be playing that game?
To ask an even tougher question, is the Libertarian Party itself still a viable vehicle for change? Or should those who value liberty spend their time and resources elsewhere?
I have no pat answer regarding the presidential race. It is certainly arguable that national campaigns bring new funds into the libertarian movement, rather than competing with other worthy recipients. It is also arguable that libertarians need to hang in there and show the flag every four years so that when the country enters another era of dissatisfaction, the party will be there.
One conclusion I have reached, however, is that if the party is to continue mounting presidential campaigns, it should accept federal matching funds up to the amount it takes to carry on ballot drives. If the LP ticket had automatic ballot status in every state, as the Republican and Democratic nominees do, there would be no justification for taking matching funds. But to pay the ballot-access "poll tax" and then to refuse a refund is silly.
As to the value of the party itself, I think it is clear that libertarians still need a coherent, consistent voice for liberty in the political arena. The party is the only major ongoing network of consistent freedom advocates, and libertarians would be foolish to dismantle it.
Furthermore, any attempt to infiltrate the Republicans or democrats is certain to be an exercise in frustration and futility. As just another caucus or special-interest group, libertarians would have little visibility or clout, and "invaders" are not likely to be given much say in party affairs until they have proved their loyalty by supporting party regulars in a number of campaigns.
As an aside, I would guess that if Ron Paul had entered the 1988 contest for the GOP nomination, rather than running as a Libertarian, he would have placed no better than fifth out of seven contenders: ahead of Haig and du Pont but behind Bush, Dole, Kemp, and Robertson. The Robertson campaign provides a good illustration of what happens to invaders—and he had a lot more troops than libertarians do.
The question still remains: What should the Libertarian Party do next? Again, I have no pat answer, but I will make some observations and suggestions.
First, it seems obvious that running candidates in partisan races is not the most cost-effective strategy. To the extent that the party continues to field candidates, it should concentrate on nonpartisan races where it can get people elected. Exceptions: races where there is an unusual opportunity to gain wide exposure for ideas, and those where a spoiler candidate could torpedo an especially loathsome major-party candidate.
Rather than running candidates, however, I believe the Libertarian Party can have more effect as an issue-oriented party—initiating, supporting, and opposing various ballot issues. The party's greatest successes to date have been in beating proposed tax hikes and the like, often working in collaboration with grassroots movements. Remember Proposition 13 in California in '78? Similarly, a relatively tiny group of reform advocates beat the insurance-industry giants in California in 1988. Libertarians keep saying that the American people agree with the freedom philosophy on a number of key issues. So the strategy is to choose an issue or two where that support exists, and go for it.
Which brings me to a point that some might consider heresy. I think there's a fair amount of evidence to support the assertion that the rather lengthy, rigidly ideological LP platform is a detriment to winning widespread acceptance. People who support the libertarian position on most issues are driven away by an insistence that they buy into a complete package.
Perhaps the time has come to dump the national platform and substitute a simple 5-point or 10-point program. That, plus the party's statement of principles and the preamble to the current platform, should demonstrate where libertarians stand.
And just possibly, libertarian activists should consider changing the party into something other than a political party. Perhaps, as we move into the 1990s, it should evolve into a nonpartisan advocacy group like Common Cause or the National Taxpayers Union.
A Libertarian Alliance could do things a party can't—issue periodic ratings of Congress and call attention to the members who got the highest and lowest scores. If this is done as a rival political party, nobody will pay any attention, but coming from a nonpartisan organization it might be effective.
There are numerous options open to the Libertarian Party. I hope that those who are concerned with the party's future will give them some serious thought prior to the party's national convention in September.
David F. Nolan is an advertising executive in Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Strategies for the '90s".