The Libertarian Party in the Midterms: More Important Than Its Candidates


From the hip-and-happening Meet the Press ("these third-party candidates, are going to be making a lot bigger of a difference come November 4th than we thought") to the staid old-fashioned Vice ("these political interlopers smell blood"), not to mention right here at your favorite news and commentary site, everyone is talking the potential importance to this midterm of the Libertarian Party.

Not necessarily as actual victors (nearly impossible), but at least as an ideological swing vote wider than the difference between the two major party candidates, and perhaps most important of a sign that growing numbers of Americans are willing to defy the wasted vote syndrome and express both dissatisfaction with government writ large and with our political choices in the most direct way they can. (Granted, musing about the sudden surprise rise of Third Parties is a perennial for those who have a professional obligation to write many words about elections.)

With that in mind, it often isn't worth that much thought parsing out the specifics of the candidates running under the L.P. label. It is overwhelmingly likely that for the most part, the Libertarian voter is voting the Party, not the person.

In that case, does it matter to a libertarian-leaning voter that not even all people bearing the Libertarian Party label will seem either the type of person you'd want holding elective office, or even one who stands for everything you like about the Libertarian message? The latter point might be vital if you really believed that the candidate is going to win the office—but almost certainly, if you are a sane L.P. voter, you don't think that.

So some of the recent media follies surrounding L.P. candidates seem less important than the L.P. itself does as an outlet for small-state, anti-two-party expression for those who choose to vote.

It's a common plaint from party higher-ups that the L.P. must, alas, go to battle with the candidates they have, not the candidates they might ideally want. L.P. National Committee Executive Director Wes Benedict was especially thrilled at the unprecedented vote percentage last year for governor of Virginia of Robert Sarvis, successful tech entrepreneur, in its potential to attract more well-established humans to run with the L.P.

Sarvis himself is back in the fray, this time running for federal Senate in Virginia, and emphasizing, the media reports, economic growth and fiscal responsibility—some areas where he might be able to outflank Republican Ed Gillespie, and without any stench of disagreeable social conservatism/busybodism (although Sarvis is not polling that strongly, and not tending to beat the spread between a generally behind Gillespie and leading Democrat Mark Warner.)

Those who imagine that Libertarians are just there to outdo Republicans on the shrinking government message might assume that fiscal responsibility is one of their main cards. But that's not true of one of the most talked-about L.P. Senate candidates, longtime Party hand, pizza deliverer, and antiwar candidate Sean Haugh for North Carolina Senate.

Haugh is a living reminder that not all people immersed in this libertarian thing think alike, and that a more "left" orientation is both a real, and apparently really attractive to many, part of the current slightly bigger tent of both Party and movement.

Haugh is such a rebel that when he made comments about his sincere dislike for "dark money," I at first assumed that he must be kidding, since a firm belief that anyone should be able to spend any money they want to speak out about or support politics or candidates is pretty widespread among libertarians as a free political speech matter. But Haugh exhibited a more old-fashioned civic republicanism and condemned the Kochs, and by presumption any rich person's "ways of influencing elections and policy at all, very corrupting & anti-republic…."

Although Haugh got very mad at my colleague Stephanie Slade for writing about it, for reasons he will not go on record about to her (and did not return my call seeking clarification either), Haugh was also not kidding when he spoke up against rampant Medicaid cuts, charging that they cause people to suffer. Although he condemned the Weekly Standard article reporting on this, Haugh said effectively the same thing in one of his own videos on his own web site, tut-tutting harsh cost-cutting policies that could lead to grandma being "thrown out on the street."

Now, Ron Paul also told me that when trying to shrink government, payments that directly helped the indigent aren't the wisest or kindest place to go slashing first. Haugh represents an understandable and real modern trend in what goes out under the name libertarian; though he's old school, having worked with the L.P. since 1980, he has a new-generation tinge in his approach to the Libertarian message.

I cannot defend this proposition chapter and verse, but I've noticed a very real tendency among younger libertarians to stress much more, and in some cases even to seem to only believe in, those aspects of the libertarian message that are on the surface and agreeably "nice"—that is, about the areas where the state (or even an individual) is clearly doing things, from war to drug war to surveillance to police abuse to racism and discrimination, that harm innocent, or at least not so guilty as to deserve that, people.

They shy away—and Haugh deliberately walks away—from the parts of the Libertarian message that might mean the state must stop doing things that do in fact help some people, even if as part of a complicated roundrobin system of theft and subsidy. We libertarians can and will point to studies that indicate that, say, on the whole access to Medicaid seems to have little positive effect on actual health. (The mistaken conflation of health care with health is a category error that has damaged our public policy for decades, at least.) But to those of a more genteel disposition, the mere ability to guarantee access to doctors and health care services without risking penury is something worth fighting for, unabashedly a good thing, and the last step on any path to a night watchman, or less, state. This sort of "nice" libertarianism is something that activists both within and without electoral politics involved in the movement need to grapple with, because it is showing signs of changing the tenor of the movement—perhaps not as radically as the meaning of liberalism changed from 1870 to 1930, but in a similar direction.

Haugh is not the only prominent L.P. candidate taking a leftish tack; see also Lucas Overby, running for a Florida House seat in a race with no Democrat, talking simultaneously about tax reform and veteran care as primary issues, self-identifying as a left-libertarian and at least months ago polling as high as 31 percent.

As a non-voter I reserve the right not only to complain but also to advise voters how to vote, and to vote Libertarian if you must vote. It is not alas, for the reason that L.P. National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark wrote here on Reason the other day, that it has "Libertarian" in the name. As Haugh shows, not even that name guarantees modal libertarian views on all issues. (A candidate for Senate as antiwar as Haugh is worth considering for the Senate regardless.)

Especially when you can be confident that your vote is not actually going to propel any specific candidate to office, you can rest assured in another point Sarwark made: that "Voting Libertarian is the only clear message you can send."

The Libertarian message is still strong, and still appealing, even if every candidate doesn't seem to fully grasp it, or otherwise seems someone unwise to put forward for public office.

Maybe, as the Chicago Tribune complained about Illinois' L.P. gubernatorial candidate Chad Grimm (who is beating the spread between his opponents in polls), some L.P. candidates aren't good at coming across as if he or she is sufficiently wonkishly knowledgeable about policy and government when talking to newspaper editors. (I'll have to take their word that most other major party candidates do, since my own experience as a reporter talking to actual congresspeople makes me doubt that all the "real" candidates come across with high levels of competent understanding of the deep workings of policy and government, combined with ideological sharpness.)

Maybe L.P. candidates will be, like Idaho L.P. Governor's candidate John Bujak, someone who has the unattractive as a candidate traits of a series of professional ethics complaints and contempt of court charges for unpaid child support .While this doesn't mean he wouldn't govern, from a libertarian perspective, better than his opponents, it does alas make it harder for many people to take voting for him, or for a party that endorsed him, seriously.

But as said earlier, when it comes to candidates, the L.P. is largely stuck with whoever is willing to take the trouble to run. And a vote for the Libertarian Party says something loud and clear that no other vote does: that business as usual government is dangerous, damaging, and unacceptable, far more so than some minuscule chance of sending a possibly inappropriate, in ideology or deportment, candidate to office.