Who'd Bet On This Horse?

The Libertarian Party's Record on the Track Says: Shoot It!

"Past performance does not predict future results", disclaim all the investment ads, after they tout their past performance. What better to judge by? So examine LP's record, especially after discounting properly the glowing reports from its touts, and you'll see it should be liquidated and the loss written off.

The highest office anyone has been elected to in an election in which the candidate had a ballot line reading "Libertarian" has been the lower house of a state legislature, and then only in two states: Alaska and New Hampshire. In Alaska it hasn't happened for 20 years. In New Hampshire it has happened only happened to candidates who were also nominated (cross-endorsed in the same election) by either the Republican or Democratic Party, or who had lost a close primary as Democratic incumbent. In the NH cases it seems the Libertarian label was purely window dressing, and that the candidate would have won with the Democratic or Republican nod alone, meaning the Libertarian Party was of no benefit in those cases.  Similarly, in Woodstock, New York where a Libertarian was elected to the town council, she was also on the Republican line and got the great majority of her votes from it; it was a close election and she needed the votes on the Libertarian line to win it, but the few people who voted for her on that line would've voted for her on the Republican line had only that one been available, so again the Libertarian Party provided no benefit. The same could be said for local elections in NH in which a Libertarian winner was cross-endorsed. This is unlike the situation of official "minor parties" in NY, which frequently do wield the balance with their threat to grant or withhold cross-endorsements.

In general Libertarian Party nominees for public office do better in non-partisan elections, i.e. those wherein the party label does not appear on the ballot. That pattern strongly suggests the Libertarian Party is actually detrimental to libertarian political advancement.

The problem is not, as many have professed over the years (although their protestations are declining), a mere lack of name recognition and/or public understanding. That was certainly true at the beginning, but that time has long since passed. Even in the late 1980s, a poll I took in the Bronx showed most people to have had poor recognition of the Libertarian Party and of the word "libertarian". However, that had turned around by the time I took another poll in the same area in the early 1990s. LP has the advantage over many other political parties in that regard (Democratic, Republican, Green, and Independence) in having an ideologically descriptive name. Even people who'd never heard the word "libertarian" before guessed, correctly, that it had to do with liberty. The LaRouche confusion, once quite prevalent, has for all practical purposes disappeared. The public at large has an understanding of "libertarian" as good as or better than their understanding of "liberal" and "conservative", and know or correctly infer at least as much about the broad policy orientation of the Libertarians as of the Democrats and Republicans. Further publicity won't help the LP.

(At this point some LPers will object that voters at large don't really understand liberty. That may well be, but this excuse is symptomatic of confusion about what a political party is to do. We're not going to turn the voting public into a political philosophy class. Most other political parties do quite well, thank you, without voters having to figure out why Republicans disagree with Democrats over certain matters of policy, or deducing why Conservatives have the constellation of policy ideas they have, or what the Greens have to do with that color, what Independence is independent of, or the policy implications of Working Families or Reform.)

Others say LP is stuck in a rut and needs to try doing things differently. But it turns out that the different things they suggest are things that've already been tried in LP in its now reasonably long history.

Some LP activists have hoped that even if we're stuck with 2-party dominance, that the time would come when the weaker of the 2 would falter, and LP could replace it as the opposition party, from which position LP could build until it could be competitive with the stronger party. That ain't happening. If it could've happened anywhere, it would've been Mass. There in recent years (under Republican governors, interestingly enough) the grass roots of the GOP have gotten as weak as anyone could ever reasonably expect one of the major parties to become. So Carla Howell ran a well funded campaign as Libertarian nominee for Kennedy's US senate seat, and the Republican nominee, who barely made it onto the ballot by default, was an extremely weak one who was repudiated by the GOP's leadership and made fun of by the news media. Still, Howell could not beat him for 2nd place; a 4th-place conservative candidate got the difference in votes between 2nd & 3rd. Nor did the Howell campaign seem to have any delayed effect in increasing the Libertarian Party's credibility as a substantial opposition party in that state, judging by elections and voter party affiliation over the following years.  Hawaii is another state where the Republican Party has been practically shut out, the Democrats there dominating politics even more strongly than in Mass., but the LP is nowhere close to taking over 2nd place in Hawaii, and is probably behind the Greens for 3rd. Where the Republicans are weak (another example is DC), it's because the population is less interested than most in individual liberty.

Partisan public offices to which persons have been elected as Libertarian have almost all been very low level offices with hardly any policy impact, such that the electees would have more effect if they just got civil service jobs with those departments. In many cases the elections were uncontested, so the only victory there for the Libertarian Party was having someone willing to fill the office.  At least some of those offices were purely ceremonial. I've long maintained that being elected to such offices is a good idea, as a stepping stone to higher office for such persons. In other words, we should build up a stable of persons with experience as elected officials from whom some could advance in later elections to higher offices. The resumes of higher elected and appointed office holders frequently include early stints in these "nothing" offices. However, the Libertarian Party has been notably poor at attracting persons interested in such careers. LP has wound up by default with candidates who would not be candidates for public office via other parties or as independents, and are best suited to supporting roles. Wasted on their own candidacies, they would be valuable as help to candidacies that really had legs, principally in the primaries of, or as nominees in the general elections of, larger political parties -- or even behind the scenes in other organizations that frequently have effects on public policies, such as labor unions and business associations.

Even other small political parties have had more success than LP in attracting as candidates persons who already have significant followings -- as important persons in larger parties, as community activists, as organizers of labor and other interests, or as celebrities. In fact, activists within LP tend to react negatively to the arrival of persons who have such followings or histories. For all the seeming optimism of many activists within LP -- seeing the general population as having a great untapped libertarian wing, seeing libertarian tendencies in celebrities who open up their mouths about nearly anything -- there seems also to be the unspoken assumption that success in the world at large requires that one not be sufficiently libertarian for LP. The longer LP exists, the greater the suspicion of every prominent person outside of LP, even as the persons with those suspicions proclaim that LP would be more widely accepted if only it were better known (a topic for another essay); yet if someone's supposedly been operating in favor of liberty out there in the USA, and has not been at least in close contact with (preferably subservient to the leadership of) LP, which of course they must have known about, that casts doubt on their libertarian bona fides! So/because of course, they couldn't possibly be working for freedom other than thru LP. The perfect circle, rejecting all of the rest of the world, and therefore having no effect on it.

In the past I thought it might pay for me to try to reform LP of the above and other negative tendencies. Now, however, I think it would be easier to get libertarians out of LP and into organizations without those tendencies. Given the choice between an organization that has the right ideology but 0 effectiveness, and an organization that's only partially correct politically but has some effectiveness, the better choice is to get into the partially correct organization and work on correcting it, rather than trying to build up the effectiveness of the politically correct organization from absolute 0. Unfortunately, I think (as stated elsewhere), LP's effect on liberty might actually be not 0 but negative!

With a paucity of both voters and worthwhile candidates, and with dynamics that tend to lock those faults in, this horse needs to be shot.

Robert Goodman
revised Sept. 2004
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