The Libertarian Party has always been fractious, but its infighting has intensified since the Mises Caucus, a faction opposed to "wokeism," took control of the organization. Many of the party's more socially liberal members have exited since the takeover—and in some cases, they're trying to take the party's state affiliates with them. In New Mexico, two rival groups, one of them attached to the national organization, claim to be the real Libertarian Party. A similar conflict is playing out in Massachusetts. And in Virginia, the dissidents announced that they were dissolving the party entirely. At press time, the national Libertarian Party was working on assembling a new Virginia affiliate.
We don't know who will ultimately control these institutions. But we do know what it looks like when a political party's branches start to go their own way.
Take the Reform Party, whose roots go back to Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign. The Texas businessman ran as an independent that year, but several of his supporters formed parties at the state level. By the time Perot launched the national Reform Party in 1995, some of these mini-parties were already contesting regional races. Minnesota's Independence Party got its first municipal official elected in 1993, for example, and by 1999 it had produced a governor.
Perot made another run for the White House in 1996, and the party started to fall apart almost immediately after that. In 1997, a dissident faction formed the American Reform Party, which promptly faded into obscurity. When I covered the Reform Party's national convention in 2000, I was actually covering two conventions: As the main event was nominating the paleoconservative pundit Pat Buchanan, a rump down the street was coronating a transcendental meditation enthusiast named John Hagelin. The two tickets' lawyers then battled each other for the right to the Reform Party's ballot lines (and to millions in matching funds). Meanwhile, Perot endorsed the Republican.
The husk of the national Reform Party survives, but the real action has been in the states, where many affiliates (including that Minnesota crew) separated from the national organization. Some of these groups took on their own distinctive identities. In New York City, the Independence Party fell into the hands of Fred Newman, a Marxist psychotherapist whose following was often called a cult. The party gave Michael Bloomberg its ballot line in 2001, a boost that arguably propelled him into the mayor's office. Bloomberg repaid the favor with a $230,000 city grant to one of Newman's groups.
After New York's Independence Party broke with the Reform Party, loyalists responded by setting up the Reform Party of New York. After a while, a group led by Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa took that one over, and it seceded from the national party too. There wasn't a coherent movement here anymore, but there were ballot lines. And ballot access is a valuable property—valuable enough for fragments of the old Perot coalition to persist as zombies long after the original crusade had died.
When George Wallace built the American Independent Party (AIP) as a vehicle for his 1968 presidential campaign, the Alabama segregationist had no interest in starting a permanent third party. Wallace didn't even let the AIP establish itself in his home state. (Instead he appeared as the Democratic nominee, and the Democrats' national candidate had to run on a third-party ticket.) Yet some AIP affiliates put up candidates for other offices, and those affiliates persisted after Election Day. In 1972 they backed a new presidential ticket, which received a respectable vote total of 1,100,896—far less than Wallace, but still much more than the average third-party offering.
The coalition soon broke in two: The American Party was in the John Birch Society's orbit, while the American Independent Party was more likely to nominate notorious segregationists. It was rare for both groups to have a presence in the same state; most affiliates just moved into one camp or another. Some branches started striking out on their own, as when the Kansas wing of the American Party ignored 1980's national nominee and gave its ballot line to a local gadfly.
As new national right-wing parties formed, state parties alternately affiliated and disaffiliated with them. In the early '90s, for example, a bunch of state groups—some of them remnants of the Wallace diaspora—came together to form the outfit today known as the Constitution Party. The California AIP, having recently ended a dalliance with the Populist Party, attached itself to the new national coalition for several cycles. But a 2008 fight over whether to support the Iraq War led it to federate instead with a group called America's Independent Party. In 2016, the California party endorsed Donald Trump. And in 2020, its standard-bearer was also the nominee of…the Reform Party.
The American Independent Party and the Reform Party were both founded to serve a celebrity candidate's ambitions, which probably guaranteed instability when that candidate left. The Libertarian Party does not have that problem. So let's end with a group that was built around an ideology, not a personality—and that found its own way to fall apart.
After contesting almost every presidential election from 1904 through 1956 (and winning many local races too), the Socialist Party started endorsing Democratic candidates instead. Having hitched their star to organized labor at a time when some of the biggest unions were run by cold warriors, many party leaders wound up supporting the Vietnam War. A more militant faction—called the Debs Caucus, after early party leader Eugene Debs—didn't like that. But it wasn't in charge.
The conflict came to a head in 1972, when the organization adopted a new name: Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). The disgusted Debs Caucus exited and formed the Socialist Party USA, which was soon nominating presidential candidates again; it claimed that it was the legitimate successor to the old Socialist Party. A second breakaway group, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, aimed to keep working within the Democratic Party without moving as far to the right as the SDUSA.
The SDUSA eventually became so hawkish that some members got jobs in the Reagan administration. The organization finally dried up in the early 21st century, to the point where just one tiny local affiliate in Pennsylvania seemed to be left—and it wasn't entirely clear whether this was a genuine surviving branch or just claimed to be. Either way, it eventually split into two factions, each declaring itself the legitimate heir to Debs' throne.
The Socialist Party USA is bigger than that, but it's still pretty small: Its 2016 presidential candidate got only 2,705 votes. But the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and it's been booming. In the wake of Bernie Sanders' unexpectedly popular socialist campaign for the Democrats' 2016 presidential nomination, the DSA's membership leapt from less than 10,000 to nearly 100,000. The group grew more radical too. Three decades ago, the most prominent DSA member to hold elected office was New York Mayor David Dinkins, who rarely touted his socialist connections. Today, by contrast, DSA candidates often speak forthrightly of public ownership.
Years after the Socialist Party first sold out to the Democrats and then splintered into pieces, the organization's old ideals turned out to still have some juice in them. If you're a Libertarian worried about the future of your party, that might reassure you.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Life Cycle of a Third Party".