The midterm elections, we're told, will be determined by gas prices, body bags, and the Democratic and Republican turnout machines. And that's it. Which party controls Congress will be decided by a handful of competitive districts, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads, and fewer than a million swing votes.
What we rarely hear about is how important libertarian-minded voters will be to the election's outcome.
According to a Pew Research Center survey taken after the close 2004 election, libertarians have played a key role in keeping the GOP in power. The Pew definition of "libertarian" won't necessarily match that of most reason readers: By their reckoning, the typical libertarian supports private Social Security accounts, gay marriage, and tax cuts, but also a higher minimum wage. But if it isn't a perfect metric, it does describe the kind of socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters who tend to be attracted to libertarian ideas.
Pew's libertarians amount to 9 percent of the electorate. In 2004, they strongly favored George W. Bush over John Kerry, 59 to 41 percent. If just 127,014 libertarian voters in Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico had moved into the Kerry column, the Massachusetts senator would have landed in the White House. (To put that in perspective, consider that the Libertarian Party candidate for president, Michael Badnarik, pulled 397,265 votes nationwide, including 13,222 in those three states.) Analyzing the libertarian sympathies of the West early this year, New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote that supporters of small government conservatives "would have felt at home in the old fusionist G.O.P. But now they're up for grabs, just like the party's principles."
If the Dems can't draw the libertarian vote, the Republicans are still smarting over the races they've lost because the Libertarian Party served as a spoiler. In a widely discussed New York Times piece from 2002, National Review's John Miller bemoaned the close defeats of Republican senatorial candidates Slade Gorton in Washington and John Thune in South Dakota, complaining that "If there had been no Libertarian Senate candidates in recent years, Republicans would not have lost control of the chamber in 2001, and a filibuster-proof, 60-seat majority would likely be within reach."
Now more than ever, as campaign strategists target relatively small but vital blocs of voters in tight races, it's in the interest of both major parties to court libertarians. Yet the two parties act as the political equivalents of highly dysfunctional companies like Ford and General Motors. Sputtering, rust-bucket relics of the past, they insist on following the same strategies that have brought them declining returns. Indeed, if Republicans have been worrying about a libertarian exodus in this closely contested election cycle, they've done a good job of hiding it. They've made the Iraq war, intrusive domestic surveillance, immigration restrictions, and culture-war issues such as gay marriage the thickest chapters in their 2006 election playbook. And Democrats, presented with the chance to seize a new bloc of supporters, aren't making many overtures to swing voters beyond the storied "security moms" and fuel-conscious commuters.
Yet even as most party leaders look elsewhere for support, cutting-edge conservative and liberal thinkers are actively debating how to make libertarians a larger part of their coalitions. On the right, The Elephant in the Room author (and former Reason intern) Ryan Sager argues that libertarians need to take back the GOP. On the left, blogger Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos has urged pro-gun, pro–civil liberties "libertarian Democrats" to join the party of FDR.
Can the two big parties make a case for libertarian support? Does the Libertarian Party, or some other third party, have room to grow into something more than a spoiler or a disseminator of radical ideas? In September, Reason asked representatives from the Democrats, the Republicans, and the Libertarian Party why their candidates deserve the libertarian vote.
The former executive director of the national College Republicans and current president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist has been a hub of the Republican Party for decades. He has famously argued that the heart of the GOP is a "Leave Us Alone Coalition" of gun owners, homeschoolers, overtaxed businessmen, and other voters fed up with government intrusion.
Reason: Why should libertarians vote for Republicans?
Grover Norquist: If you're in Massachusetts, there's a strong argument for casting a vote for the Libertarian candidate for Congress because your vote is not going to make a difference between the Republican and the Democrat. You might want to send a signal about the size of the libertarian-leaning vote.
But if you have a district or state that is at all competitive I think it's a pretty easy decision. The Republicans have failed in some zones, but none of those are fatal to the ability to fight for freedom in the future. But if you get enough people locked into welfare dependence and taxes high enough, if you take away people's guns, you can turn the country into a social democracy and an inevitable slide toward tyranny.
Reason: Do Republicans still deserve to call themselves the party of small government?
Norquist: The Republican Party votes consistently every year for tax reduction. Limiting government spending is a very long, difficult, tedious fight. But the Republicans—both in reality and in their statements—are trying to move in that direction, and the Democrats are determined to move the other way. This was Thomas Sowell's argument for Bush in 1992: Better a third-rate fireman than a first-rate arsonist.
Some people argue that because Republicans have failed to reduce the size of government in the last 30 years, we haven't succeeded and therefore somehow the party isn't really for it. That's like arguing that the abolitionists were kidding until 1863. These things take more time than you'd like.
Reason: What would success look like?
Norquist: There are no permanent victories in politics, but success would be spending declining, as a percentage of GDP, indefinitely into the future. Three big fixes that we need are school choice, privatizing Social Security and state and local pensions, and a single-rate flat tax that taxes income one time. Then the cost of government is clear to everybody, you've made everybody an owner in the stock market, and you've broken up the largest monopoly in the country, the education monopoly. The rest is just clean-up.
None of these things is going to happen in the next two years. But we are getting cracks in the public school monopoly in Arizona and Pennsylvania. We're getting close to having the power to have complete school choice in Texas, South Carolina, Florida. You have one state with that example and it just breaks the government monopoly. Once you've got it in a large state, you can't keep pretending that all these bad things would happen—that they'd sell your kids to the Arabs or harvest organs or whatever.
On defined contribution pensions, Gov. Jon Corzine has just called for it in New Jersey—the bluest of the blue states. Ten states have moved toward defined benefit plans, including Florida. When you've done that and people are sufficiently aware of it, the arguments against privatizing Social Security also melt.
And each of the Bush tax reforms—trying to get rid of the death tax, cutting the capital gains tax, cutting the double taxation of dividend income, paring back the alternative minimum tax—helps you get to a single-rate tax that taxes income one time only.
Reason: What about civil liberties? When will Republicans rejoin the Leave Us Alone Coalition?
Norquist: I think the first and greatest civil liberty is being able to own guns. Everything else is negotiable with the government. If they get your guns then your leverage is kind of limited.
Secondly, are you allowed to control your resources, your home, your income, your investments? If you don't control those, you're just pretending to have rights that you can't afford to do anything about. If the government cuts your taxes enough that you can own a big house, you just pull the curtains and you're fine.
The Democrats aren't really willing to cut you any slack on those things anyway. Everything that was in the PATRIOT Act that was a problem was asked for by Clinton, and Republicans stopped it. Then they got shaken up by September 11 and gave the president powers that I think were unwise.
But Republicans have shown that they are willing to fight the president on whether or not to torture terror suspects. And it was Republicans who raised some of the questions about extending the PATRIOT Act, and it was the Republicans who fought most competently against the imposition of the first PATRIOT Act unamended. In the House they were willing to prune it back. It was when the Democrats in the Senate collapsed that there was no pruning back.
Markos Moulitsas founded Daily Kos (dailykos.com) in 2003. Since then, the Berkeley-based tech entrepreneur's site has grown to dominate the political blogosphere, promote dozens of Democratic candidates, and provoke controversy with its embrace of pro-gun, pro-privacy, but not entirely pro-market "libertarian Democrats." He is the author, with Jerome Armstrong, of Crashing the Gate (Chelsea Green, 2006).
Reason: Why should libertarians vote for Democrats?
Markos Moulitsas: Aside from the Second Amendment, the GOP seems to have fallen in love with both corporate and government intrusion into the private lives of Americans. Notions of privacy have been tossed aside in the name of "security" and "moral values." They peer into our bedrooms, listen in on our phone calls, toss aside constitutional protections whenever they see fit, and have even abandoned the principle of separation of powers, with key administration legal scholars arguing that Bush has dictatorial-like powers during "wartime."
To add injury to injury, these Republicans have grown the size of government larger than any president since FDR's New Deal. Not just defense spending, but non-defense discretionary spending as well. There is nothing stopping these guys from bloating government even further.
Reason: Democrats weren't all that great on civil liberties during the Clinton presidency. Clinton wanted to expand FBI wiretap powers, but was shut down by Senate Republicans. Would an empowered Democratic Party defend civil liberties? Won't they reverse tack when Republicans lose power?
Moulitsas: We, as people, can't sit around and expect government to fully police itself. We need to keep a close eye on it and demand accountability, transparency, and responsiveness. Perhaps the solution is perpetual divided government. But I'm hoping that technology clues people in to what their government is doing, so the proper amount of external oversight and pressure can be brought to bear.
When was the last time the Bush administration reversed course on a policy issue because of public pressure? Clinton, like most presidents before him, would reverse course in the face of public opposition. The modern Republican Party is a slave to its ideology. And when ideology trumps reality, all of us, regardless of our degree of libertarianism, are in serious trouble.
Reason: The way you've defined the term, a "libertarian Democrat" isn't all that libertarian when it comes to economic issues. Why should a pro-trade, anti-spending votersupport the Dems?
Moulitsas: Democrats aren't libertarians. Just like Republicans aren't libertarians. True libertarians, since they live in a two-party system, will have to decide which party is friendliest to their principles.
Anyone who is "anti-spending" has to look at the record. Clinton balanced several budgets and was on his way to retiring the national debt. The GOP, holding both the White House and Congress, has spent like drunken soldiers. On trade, Clinton passed NAFTA and there's a general realization that free trade is here to stay. Democrats will tinker around the edges—environmental protections, workers' rights, making sure displaced American workers are retrained, and so on—but those are more side questions than substantive assaults on the notion of international free trade. (And on guns, the national Democratic Party is now steering clear of infringements on the Second Amendment.)
Where I'll differ markedly from traditional libertarians is that I don't believe corporations are inherently benign to our liberty interests. They invade our privacy by collecting data about us. They pollute our air, foul our water. They can invade our property interests. In Wyoming, for example, energy companies can set up smelly, noisy machinery to drill underneath your property without redress. And unlike government, these corporations aren't accountable to us. So sometimes government is necessary to ensure that corporations don't invade our liberty interests.
Reason: Your readers have occasionally used the "libertarian Democrat" idea as a piñata—they think, correctly, that we fundamentally disagree with liberals on substantive economic issues. If libertarians joined the Democratic coalition, would we be welcome?
Moulitsas: There will always be critics. This is a big enough party to accommodate a healthy debate about the proper role of government in our society. And unlike the GOP, where dissension is squashed—ask Rep. Ron Paul—the Dems are, to a fault, permissive enough to allow that debate to flourish.
Rep. Jeff Flake
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was elected to Congress in 2000. A member of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which pushes for libertarian ideas within the GOP, he has broken with his party to vote against No Child Left Behind, the Homeland Security Act, and Medicare Part D (which added pricey prescription drug coverage to the program), while voting for comprehensive earmark reform. He was one of the first House Republicans to demand the resignation of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
Reason: Give us your pitch: Why should libertarians vote for your party's candidates this year?
Jeff Flake: Well, if they grade on a curve, we're still a better choice. (Laughs) If you believe in limited government, the Democrats don't offer you very much. I've yet to see a Democrat actually bring a proposal to the floor that spends less or is less intrusive. But having said that, there's nothing we've done as Republicans that ought to make libertarians excited about our record.
Reason: Whatever happened to the class of '94?
Flake: I think Republicans have by and large gone native. I don't know how you can conclude otherwise. You look at any measure of spending—overall spending, mandatory, discretionary, non-defense discretionary, non-homeland security spending—whichever way you slice it, the record looks pretty bad. When you look at where we're heading, with Medicare Part D, it just means that these programs run out of money a lot sooner than they were going to already.
Republicans have adopted the belief or the principle that you spend money to get elected. When I was elected in 2000 it was ingrained in us, and since then it's been even more so: Here's how you get reelected, bring home the bacon. You have the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose job it is to reelect Republicans, saying in defense of his earmarks that it's the job of Congress to create jobs.
Reason: Has the GOP given up on the ideals of small government?
Flake: Well, that's the natural conclusion to draw. There are some—like [fellow Arizona Republican Rep.] John Shadegg and not many others—who still vote for limited government. Of course all of them still profess it, but when you look at their votes you have a hard time concluding that they really believe it. Staying in office, staying in power, has come to overwhelm everything.
Reason: What policies could a GOP-run Congress enact that would appeal to libertarians?
Flake: At this late date? Adjournment.
We're doing some earmark reform, which will have more accountability, more transparency. That alone isn't going to solve much. But it's a first step. There's some recognition at least that the voting populace values that.
Reason: Why shouldn't libertarians vote Democratic this year to punish the GOP?
Flake: We're better than the other guy. Maybe we've learned a few lessons. Maybe the [Terri] Schiavo experience or the prescription drug deal or some of the other items have taught us a lesson. I can't honestly say that they have.
There is one policy Republicans have doggedly defended and sought to expand: the tax cuts. And that's good. At least there's that recognition that Americans spend money better than government. Just don't give it to us first. So that is a positive, and that creates a difference between Republicans and Democrats. Having said that, the spending spree we're on makes it difficult to defend our position. Democrats charge, "Well, we're tax and spend but you're no tax and spend." We're more prone to that criticism. So with hand firmly attached to nose, press the Republican button.
And also, look among the Republican candidates: You have good limited-government candidates running. Groups like the Club for Growth have done a good job putting their seal of approval on them. There are different Republicans running, so get involved in the primaries.
Terry Michael, a self-described libertarian Democrat, was a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee in the 1980s and now runs the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. Of his early political career, he says: "I was a 9-year-old political junkie, riding to the polls with my mother and grandmother, who were paid $10 by our precinct captain to drive neighbors to vote—Democratic, of course."
Reason: Why should libertarians vote for Democrats?
Terry Michael: For better or for worse, public policy in America is made by Democrats and Republicans. They make up virtually 100 percent of Congress and state legislatures and city councils and county boards. So if you want to make actual change in public policy you really have to operate or make yourself heard through one of the two major political parties.
As a Democrat, I am particularly concerned about social and cultural issues and about foreign policy issues. And I know that if I vote for a Democratic candidate I'm more likely to get someone who wants to keep the government out of my bedroom, and hopefully out of Iraq. I'm not going to get 100 percent of what I want. It's a pragmatic voting decision.
Reason: You have lamented the rise of "religion lite" in the Democratic Party. Why shouldn't libertarians run screaming?
Michael: I think the religion lite phenomenon is really consultant-driven. There are parts of the consultants telling the Democratic candidates, "Look, we have to be more religion friendly, so go out and use language that appeals to Christians." I don't really think it's going to change the base of the Democratic Party, which is pretty much opposed to mixing church and state.
Both parties, to use the overworked metaphor, are big tents. They're always trying to figure out where the center is, because that's where many of the decisive votes are in elections. I think that's all the religion lite phenomenon is about. If Democrats really want to talk to the center, they should understand that the center moves. My Depression-era parents with somewhat conservative cultural ideas were the center during the Reagan Democrat era. The sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll baby boom generation, my generation, is at the center now, and it seems to me that it makes a lot of sense for Democrats to be talking in Thomas Jefferson language to that center. The best way to protect your religious beliefs is to separate church and state rather than try to pander to the religious right, who are never going to join the Democratic Party.
Reason: What do you say to libertarians worried about the traditional Democratic reliance on identity politics?
Michael: If one of the bad parts about being a Democrat is that there are far too many reactionary redistributionist left-liberals in the party, one of the really horrible parts is identity politics. Democrats have appeared to the electorate as a party the whole of which is less than the sum of its cacophony of interest groups. I can't really say to libertarians that there is a great deal of hope right now for getting rid of identity politics in the Democratic Party. But again, I'm a believer that you work inside a party to effect that kind of change. You can't just stand outside and say how horrible it is. You have to move ideas inside this two-party political process.
The Democratic Party base is already libertarian on social issues. This is true of the base, not what is oxymoronically called the Democratic leadership, which has colluded with Bush on the war, either out of cowardice or because the neoconservative wing of the Washington-based Democratic Party actually believes in these hallucinations. So we're already roughly halfway there inside the Democratic Party in pulling it in a libertarian direction.
That being said, I hope that libertarians who consider themselves Republicans will try to recapture the Republican Party from the very anti-libertarian religious right, and from the increasingly statist neoconservatives, who are making Lyndon Johnson look like a dime-store liberal with all their spending.
William Redpath is the newly elected chair of the national Libertarian Party. A member of the party since 1984, he has run for office three times, most recently as the Libertarian gubernatorial candidate in Virginia in 2001.
Reason: Why should libertarians vote for your party's candidates?
William Redpath: Because we're the Libertarian Party. They certainly are not going to find libertarianism in the Democratic Party. Beyond Ron Paul and possibly a few others, they're not going to find it in the Republican Party. If they want there to be a viable libertarian alternative in the political process of the United States, they should support the Libertarian Party and vote for its candidates.
Reason: In a closely contested race where supporting the lesser evil could make a difference, are you throwing away your vote if you vote Libertarian?
Redpath: In a close race, if there is a highly libertarian candidate from a major party, I could see where one would make a tactical decision to vote for that candidate. However, I find so few libertarian candidates in the major political parties it seems to me that even in a close race if you want a libertarian society you should vote for the Libertarian candidate.
A big issue for the Libertarian Party is electoral reform, which would make us more viable. The spoiler issue could easily be taken care of through instant runoff voting, and that has real political legs. Beyond the structural reforms in elections, doing away with McCain-Feingold, giving more freedom to support particular candidates than what the law currently allows, would definitely benefit minor-party candidates. The campaign finance reform legislation that passed recently is simply incumbent protection.
The vote for the Libertarian candidate has the most impact when there is an entrenched incumbent who might have, in the past, talked the talk, but then when that person got elected, didn't walk the walk of reduced government spending and respect for civil liberties.
Reason: In general, libertarian voters ally with the major party that is best on the issues that they care most about. Democrats are pretty good on social issues, and Republicans are pretty good on economic issues, right? Why not just vote on the issues that interest you more?
Redpath: This whole idea of settling for the lesser of two evils is not efficacious in the long run. I think that the concept of strategic voting is frequently overblown and ultimately does not lead to the end that that person casting that vote intended. There are just too many instances where a major party candidate wins and then very, very infrequently enacts libertarian policies.
The Republican Party has failed to be fiscally responsible in Congress. The Democrats have had lots of opportunities to work to end the drug war and to bring greater social freedoms through school choice, but they lined up solidly against that.
I think that it's difficult at times for minor-party candidates to shape the debate. One of our roles is to bring up issues that the major party candidates don't want to bring up. That doesn't mean that we're going to get them to talk about these issues. They're going to go ahead and stick to their talking points. But it gets the public to start to consider some of these issues. Our real role is to bypass the filter of the major parties and take our message directly to the voters.