First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.Mahatma Gandhi
One of the age-old controversies in the liberty movement is this: “Is it better to work from within the two-party system, or from without?” This issue came to the fore late last year and early this year when a former candidate for the Libertarian Party presidential nomination opted to seek a US Senate seat in Missouri as a Republican. More on how that turned out later.
Recently, a piece on Reason Magazine featured a debate on this issue, with Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) taking the pro-duopoly side and former Massachusetts governor and LP vice-presidential candidate William Weld taking the pro-Libertarian Party side.
Now, obviously, since you’ve reached this piece on the webpage of the Libertarian Party of Ohio, and since the writer is an almost 20-year activist in this party, it’s safe to assume that I prefer to work outside the legacy duopoly.
But what are the ramifications of fighting our good fight outside the two-party system instead of battling for a place within it? In making his argument in the Reason piece, Massie pointed out that there are two members of the House of Representatives right now with consistent libertarian credentials, himself and Justin Amash (R-MI). (Many Libertarians would take issue with Massie’s claim that he or Amash are 99 and 99/100th percent pure, but that’s another issue; most Libertarians would agree that both have fairly good records and stand head-and-shoulders above any of their current colleagues.) Of course, Libertarians also know quite well that Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) championed consistently libertarian causes in Congress for a generation. To date, no one has been elected to Congress, or to statewide executive office in this country, as a Libertarian. Only Republicans and Democrats need apply.
If the Massies and Amashs in Congress were the norm, this would be a clear indication that the way to advance the cause of liberty would be through the duopoly – or at least through the red half of the duopoly. But they’re not. They, and the handful of other members of Congress who sometimes support pro-liberty causes, are almost as much of an anomaly as Gary Johnson will be, should he beat the odds and be elected to the US Senate this fall from New Mexico.
Much more typical of the experiences of libertarians who try to work through the duopoly is that of Austin Petersen, the former LP candidate to whom I referred above. Petersen ran a quite professional campaign and raised an amount of money that would have been quite impressive – for a Libertarian campaign – and finished third in the GOP primary with 8.3% of the vote.
The American legacy parties aren’t designed to accommodate ideological challenges. Truth be told, they aren’t designed to accommodate ideologies at all. They are, rather, huge marketing machines designed to produce and sell a product to the American people, just like Ivory Soap. Excepting a few niche markets, where an Amash or a Massie can be elected, the system is designed to frustrate principle in favor of selling that product and securing “market share,” i.e., seats in political office. Petersen ran up against a new kind of Big Red Machine, and that machine kicked him to the curb and nominated a bland candidate who won’t challenge either the voters or the status quo. For a principled libertarian – for a person of any kind of principle – running in one of the major parties is to attempt to swim with a brick in each hand.
Proponents of the work-within-the-system philosophy argue that the deck has always been stacked against insurgent parties or independents, and always will be. Yes, it has been, certainly as long as I can remember. But I’m not ready to concede that it always will be.
When I started with the LPO, late in the last century, Libertarian candidates rarely exceeded one percent of the vote. Our presidential ticket never did. In 2016, Johnson and Weld garnered better than three percent of the vote here in Ohio, and that was without the party label (thanks to draconian measures by the GOP) and following a long and expensive petitioning drive that left few resources to promote the ticket. Our statewide candidates have shown similar improvement in the last three statewide elections.
In addition, I can see signs that the “market” is changing, little by little. Social media and other online avenues are undermining traditional media, providing new, and often much cheaper, ways for insurgent candidates to get the word out. Maine recently became the first state to embrace instant runoff voting, also known as ranked choice voting, a method which combats the “wasted vote” argument and is much fairer to insurgents. And this is just my opinion, but I believe that more and more voters are waking up to the calcification of the two legacy parties and their complete inability to entertain new ideas or find new ways of working. Someday, I think, their patience with the two old parties will be exhausted, and more and more of them will be ready to consider a different option.
Now all this being said, I’m not going to condemn the pro-liberty fighters who do choose to work through the establishment parties. Well, let’s be honest; they work through the GOP. There is a so-called “Democratic Liberty Caucus” that parallels the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC), but they have even far less influence in their party than the RLC in theirs. But I have friends in the RLC, and I consider them colleagues with whom I disagree on strategy and means but not, fundamentally, on goals, principles, or ideology. I think a case can be made that the two threads, inside and outside the GOP, have a better chance of influencing that party than either would have alone, faint though I find that hope to be. And I make sure to remind them, whenever I can, that if they ever tire of pushing that rock up the hill against the inertia of their party, there will be a home for them in the LP.
And don’t think the duopoly, especially the GOP, hasn’t noticed our growth, small as it’s been so far. I’ve been around the LPO since the two establishment parties ignored us, and the media and most voters laughed at us, steps one and two on the Gandhi path. Five years ago, Gov. Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature passed one of the harshest ballot access laws in the country, then the Republicans engineered a bogus challenge to our candidate for governor and spent literally hundreds of thousands of Ohio tax dollars defending against a lawsuit challenging the law and the Secretary of State’s rulings on it. And I’ve heard a rumor – which I can neither confirm or deny – that the GOP has legislation standing by to reduce the vote percentage needed to retain ballot access from the current three percent to one percent. Supposedly, this is out of fear that the LPO’s candidate for governor will get that three percent, the Green Party’s candidate will not, and that therefore the GOP would face a presidential election in 2020 with a Libertarian on the ballot but without a Green. Step three achieved! They’re fighting us!
Look, folks, advancing the cause of liberty is never going to be easy. Step four on the Gandhi path is still before us. The present two party system is a century and a half old. It has tremendous weight, a huge majority of the attention of traditional mass media, and inconceivable resources in money and manpower. It’s going to resist change, if for no other reason than because thousands of people are entrenched within it for their gold, power, and glory. Maybe we only have a tiny chance to win. But it’s still, as far as I can see, the best chance we’ve got.