Fusion Energy

How to engage the two-party system without embracing either party


In April, the Libertarian Party of New York gave its gubernatorial nod to William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts and a candidate for the Republican nomination. In June, the Republicans decided the Libertarians could keep him: In an upset victory, delegates at the state's convention endorsed his conservative challenger John Faso. Weld dropped out of the race today, leaving his Libertarian comrades high and dry.

Weld has never been as libertarian as his reputation, which dates back to his first year in office in Boston. Back then, he was the fiscally conservative, socially liberal governor who cut taxes and spending while reaching out to gays and supporting the legalization of medical marijuana. But in subsequent years spending ratcheted back upwards, while Weld's social liberalism sometimes seemed more regulatory than permissive. (He backed several new environmental laws, for example, which he described as "an exception to my overall libertarian cast.") By the time the ex-governor was being accused of involvement in the Decker College scandal—while Weld was CEO of the Kentucky trade school, it allegedly defrauded the government of student aid money—many libertarians weren't so eager to claim him as one of their own.

But set aside whether Weld actually deserved the party's nomination. For those of us who like the idea of third parties but are aware of how the cards are stacked against them, the New York Libertarians' experiment in ballot fusion suggests some interesting ideas about how to operate within the two-party system without pledging allegiance to either political superpower.

Ballot fusion is the practice of allowing more than one party to nominate the same candidate, who is then listed on multiple ballot lines. It used to be common around the country. According to Lisa Disch's 2002 book The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, "In 1870 there were 250 such candidacies in congressional and gubernatorial races in more than twenty states." It wasn't until the Progressive Era that anti-fusion statutes started to take over; today the practice is allowed in only a handful of states. New York has the richest history of fusion-driven third-party politics: A diverse series of parties have thrived there, from the anti-abortion Right-to-Life Party to the unionist American Labor Party.

The latter was led by the socialist congressman Vito Marcantonio of East Harlem, originally elected as a Republican (!), who used his party to push other politicians to the left. As John J. Simon wrote, profiling Marcantonio in Argonaut, the party's "endorsement, which he could deliver, often was the margin of victory for Democratic candidates. La Guardia, FDR, and Tammany all needed him." In 1944, left-leaning New Yorkers uncomfortable with the strong Communist influence on his party created a vehicle of their own: the Liberal Party. Proving that ballot fusion could move politics to the center as well as the left, the Liberals, Democrats, and Republicans all endorsed the same candidate in 1950, and thus finally knocked Marcantonio from Congress.

The American Labor Party dissolved not long after Marcantonio's death in 1954, but the Liberal Party continued to thrive. John Lindsay, mayor from 1966 to '73, was nominated by both the Republicans and the Liberals in his first election, while the Dems backed a different pol; in 1969 he was reelected as a Liberal without either major party's support. The Liberals have continued to endorse Republicans as well as Democrats since then, including mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, but the party's fortunes have declined; these days liberals in the Empire State prefer the Working Families Party, whose name suggests a commitment to child labor but whose platform backs unions and public spending.

This politicking wasn't limited to the left. New Yorkers distressed by the GOP's locally liberal leanings created a Conservative Party in 1962. The party became popular among right-wing urban ethnics; as Bill Kauffman put it in The American Enterprise, "Voters benumbed by choiceless elections featuring Rockefellers and Harrimans and Javitses finally had a 'go-to-hell' line on the ballot." When the Republicans backed Lindsey in 1965, the Conservatives ran William F. Buckley, Jr., whose witty protest campaign (asked what he would do if he won, he said, "I'd demand a recount") stands as the high point of his career. (It may also have paved the way for other prankish candidacies by less conservative cultural figures, including Hunter Thompson's effort to be sheriff of Aspen and Jello Biafra's campaign to be mayor of San Francisco.) The Conservatives later elected one of their own, Buckley's brother James, as a U.S. senator, again without the GOP's support. But the usual Conservative strategy isn't to run its own candidates, but to use the threat of withdrawing its endorsement to keep the New York Republicans in line. (Libertarian chairman John Clifton has told the New York Sun that his party hopes to "replace the Conservatives in a kingmaker situation.")

For those of us who'd like to see politics infused with more ideological diversity and debate, ballot fusion has been a blessing. But I'd be remiss not to note that it has sometimes become a vehicle for pork. New York's Independence Party was founded by Perotistas in the '90s, but soon became a base for the peculiar cult around the leftist psychologist Fred Newman and the black anti-Semite Lenora Fulani. Their power within the party has waxed and waned, but because their endorsement of Michael Bloomberg helped elect him mayor in 2001—he received 59,889 votes on the Independence line in a race where the margin of victory was just 41,770—they were rewarded with a $230,000 grant for their "All Stars Project," a youth arts charity that has been accused of malfeasance and child abuse. (The ensuing controversy has held up the grant, though it may yet go through.)

So why shouldn't the Libertarians play the game too? Depending on how you look at it, the LP is either the most successful or one of the least successful third parties in recent history. Perot, Nader, and Buchanan may have outpolled it in the last four elections, but the parties that were their vehicles have fallen apart quickly, maintaining their strength in some sections of the country but not across the nation. Say what you will about the Libertarian Party's failures at the polls: When it comes to perpetuating itself, it's as tenacious as the Department of Energy. In any given election it might not live up to its billing as "America's third largest party," but it could confidently call itself "America's third largest party that will still be here in eight years."

As an agenda-setter, though, it's a bust. It's trying to be two things at once: an educational organization with a radical platform, and a way to engage directly with the electoral process. These are both fine things to be, but they're usually incompatible within a single organization. Most people tend to vote on a handful of locally significant issues, and an effort to give them a coherent philosophy instead will usually fall on deaf ears. If you're a radical using the party to advance a message, those compromisers trying to get elected will inevitably cramp your style. If you're trying to get votes, on the other hand, it doesn't help if your comrade in the school board race keeps talking about abolishing the Fed.

And who's to say the radical isn't right? He won't get elected, but then again, the moderate will probably lose too. If you want to be a realist, you'd be better off in one of the major parties.

But what if members of an organized libertarian political coalition entered the primaries of both major parties, with the group endorsing Democrats, Republicans, and independents as it sees fit? Obviously this works best where fusion ballots are allowed. (There's precedent for that outside New York—in New Hampshire in the '90s, the Libertarian Party cross-endorsed several successful candidates for the state legislature.) But even where the Libertarians can't cross-endorse—or don't enjoy their own ballot line—they can operate like any other pressure group, upholding a consistent platform for itself but endorsing any option on the table that's clearly preferable to the alternatives.

In other words, they could behave like a constituency to be courted, open to appeals from the two larger parties but held in thrall to neither. Personally, I think it's a mistake to focus too much energy on campaign politics. Electing a man who agrees with you is fine if you can swing it, but it's much more important to build grassroots movements that can pressure even the pols who don't agree with you. The most effective pressure will come from groups whose members don't necessarily adopt the entire anti-statist agenda but are passionate about one important issue: eminent domain, the drug war, gun rights, Iraq, regulation, homeschooling, police brutality, whatever. Most of their activity isn't aimed at electing candidates. But where it's useful, they can target especially obnoxious politicians for defeat; and a libertarian who wants to engage the political process directly can use them as a base when entering the Democratic or Republican primaries or running independently with their support. At that point a more broadly libertarian party or coalition could lend a hand.

Obviously, William Weld was not that candidate. But his campaign's meltdown shouldn't dissuade the New York Libertarian Party from looking at such a strategy. Here's hoping they're willing to follow through when a better Republican or Democrat comes along—or to provide such a candidate to the Republicans or Democrats themselves.