Libertarianism in 2012: Monster Gains at the Ballot Box

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Perhaps one of the biggest news stories in the world of libertarianism this year was former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson’s Libertarian Party record-breaking general election raw vote total of approximately 1.2 million popular votes. This figure wasn’t enough to clear a one percent threshold according to Reason’s Garrett Quinn, but the state by state gains over the Barr/Root ticket of 2008 were astounding. Libertarianism was and continues to be a thick strand in the sinews of the Tea Party movement, and it’s no surprise that a Libertarian Party candidate like Johnson, running against a progressive Democrat and an establishment Republican, garnered record-breaking numbers. Quinn, who followed Johnson on the trail for Reason during the last cycle, has an excellent piece on the future of the Libertarian Party in the December 2012 dead tree edition of the magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

The Libertarian Party suffered a series of fractures after the 1980 campaign, with many of the earlier activists (including Boaz, Rothbard, and Koch) leaving the scrum of party building to concentrate on other pursuits. Boaz, who calls the 1980 election “the most exciting period I’ve ever experienced,” likes Gary Johnson, but he’s not hopeful that the L.P. will break through in this election, or ever.

“It’s difficult to take an ideological party and move it beyond a certain level,” he says. “That’s what in 1980 we thought we were going to break out of. We were going to make an ideological party a major party, or at least a challenger, and it just turned out to be more difficult than we expected. When you get a reputation as a perennial minor party, it is difficult to attract enough people—talented people—and enough politically ambitious people to move beyond the minor-party world.”

Could Johnson be the one to break that cycle? “I don’t know,” Boaz says. “Certainly you would think it would be easier to run against Obama and Romney than it was to run against the non-offensive Carter and the libertarian-sounding Reagan. Maybe [Johnson] will get more votes than Ed Clark did, but I don’t feel confident about that.”

Of course, it’s not just the case that ideological parties don’t make great major parties; it’s also the case that plurality election rule manufactures two-party majoritarian systems. It is not likely that any third (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth) party — Libertarian Party, or otherwise — will ever become a competitive alternative to the Republican or Democratic parties. The libertarian (small-“l”) mission, like Georgetown Law professor and Cato Institute senior fellow Randy Barnett wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Election Day eve, should be to make the two major parties more libertarian.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial (may be paywalled — sorry) on Monday night by Georgetown Law professor and Cato Institute senior fellow Randy Barnett, who was one of the chief architects of the case against Obamacare that was decided earlier this year (if you’ve ever heard the broccoli argument about the individual mandate, then you know Barnett’s work). Barnett endeavored to make the point that the Libertarian Party is a pretty terrible way to advance libertarian ideas, a view I share, and that libertarians should spend their energies trying to make the Republican and Democratic Parties more libertarian. I also share this view.

Small-“l” libertarians also need to remember to play a long game here.

I’m not saying social conservatism has no place in an ideal American society. Someone told me a few days ago, regarding my support for gay marriage, that I have a galling lack of respect for a 4,000 year old institution. I categorically reject that characterization of my position. On the contrary, I have a tremendous respect for all human beings’ dignity and for their right to determine how best to govern their lives — that includes both gays who want to marry, and evangelicals who want to make sure government doesn’t force their church to perform a marriage service for gay couples. The bottom line is that our Constitution largely prevents us from using public policy to interfere with those decisions. This is the great American experiment that makes the American dream possible: we have a supreme law of the land that constrains the influence our institutions have on our personal lives. That’s a winning message for all sorts of demographic groups that the GOP badly needs to engage if it ever expects to win again. Continuing to confer outsized influence on an increasingly small bloc of the limited government coalition when devising a Republican Party platform is a stubborn commitment to continued electoral failure.

Read this excellent Zeke Miller piece at BuzzFeed Politics for more on the growing rift between GOP operatives young and old for further clues about the future of the GOP. We shouldn’t take this task lightly, or assume that change inside the GOP will come easily. Social conservatives have deeply entrenched, well funded institutions. Libertarians should try to find ways to compromise before things get nasty.

Another exciting news story for libertarians from 2012, that you may not have heard if you don’t follow local DC politics, was in how Libertarian Party candidate Bruce Majors fared in a bid to defeat incumbent District of Columbia congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Majors racked up six percent of the vote in DC, giving the Libertarian Party permanent ballot access in future races. In this Reason.TV video, Majors himself talks about DC’s electorate, his race, and what this means for the future:

I think I speak for all of the other contributors and editors when I say thank you, as always, for reading United Liberty. Here’s to a more free, more prosperous 2013!

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