The Libertarians' Chance to Matter

The Libertarian Party is stuck in a loop that sustains its electoral irrelevance. Now is the perfect time for a strategy change.

America has long used third parties as forums for statements of dissatisfaction with the big two. But while Theodore Roosevelt, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Perot generated considerable heat, they were populist flares who soon burned out.

Every four, years the Libertarian Party picks a presidential candidate who tallies meager vote totals. In 2008, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr received 523,686 votes -- 0.4% of the national total. Clearly, the purpose of the exercise isn't to win. The candidate aims mostly to advance Libertarian principles. It's the sole option for victory.

For Libertarians, satisfaction comes in exercising free speech in support of their beliefs, even when the inevitable results are inconsequential in the greater balance of national events. In short, although all their votes are counted, Libertarians don't count.

So at the risk of causing offense, it stands to reason that the if victory is the Libertarians' intent, then their particular method of running candidates is a repetitive example of collective delusional behavior. But if liberty is their ultimate cause, then there may be a better way to advance it in the early 21st century -- a way that sidesteps enduring yet another defeat. 

Under the heading of "Principles," The Libertarian Party platform reads, in part:

We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual.

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.

Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the opposite principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, all political parties other than our own grant to government the right to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor without their consent.

Even as the topical content their Platform changes, the Libertarians' tone remains constant: They promote liberty. A more descriptive name for them would be the Liberty Party. Not all of their applications of liberty, however, are acceptable to those who consider themselves conventional conservatives. But "the challenge of the cult of the omnipotent state" looms ever larger in the minds of libertarians and conservatives alike. Both groups feel the nation is at a critical juncture. Will we turn "the right to exercise sole dominion" of our lives over to a constantly expanding, intrusive, and controlling government? Or will we reclaim the right to live as we choose in areas where citizen rights are and have been dissolving?

Will the soft tyranny of socialism further dull the entrepreneurial and innovative edges of American capitalism? Or will Americans decisively vote as capitalists in 2010? In the future, will government or private enterprise fundamentally control our markets?

Is there not a consensus among Libertarians and conservatives that the liberals and "moderates," who are often lite-liberals, of both main parties share responsibility for the expanding complexity and size of government at all levels? But even if that's true, are conventional conservatives likely to swear allegiance en masse to the Libertarian Party and help elect their presidential candidate any time in the foreseeable future?

No, that won't happen.

There's no reason to expect that in 2012 the Libertarian candidate will do anything more than preach to another small-percentage choir. So maybe it's time for Libertarians to shift their strategy and address the realpolitik of early 21st-century America -- where both conservatives and liberals are hardening their opposing positions.

As the political arena becomes more polarized, Independents are on the move. The maneuvering space between the political poles is narrowing. The progressive movement has up-shifted from an incremental advance of its socialist agenda into high gear. The Obama-promised fundamental transformation of the America is well underway, with no signs of abating.

Meanwhile, public opinion feels captive to the 2008 election results as the victors claim the spoils of their conquest. Some who voted for change feel helpless to slow a transformation for which they unknowingly or unwisely voted. The collective mood is replete with tension and anxiety for the nation's future. Turbulent times.

In this environment, business as usual doesn't make sense for the Libertarian Party. The most effective path to "challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual" is to align in the presidential election with the major political party that most closely shares Libertarian aims. They can then use that alignment and their strength -- albeit limited in numbers and funding -- to influence that other party toward Libertarian principles. If you can't beat them, then align yourself to influence them in your direction.    

We know where Democrats stand. The Republicans are in an internal battle to identify their credo. If the GOP continues to move toward a solid conservative stance, it will be simpatico at many touch-points with the Libertarians platform. Libertarians face a choice. They can wait and hope that alignment will just happen, or they can help make it happen.

It's not only their half-million votes or the several million dollars in donations they have to offer that makes the difference. The most valuable contribution Libertarians can bring the GOP is the premise of their beliefs. The parties will always differ on platform details. But if in the next general election, the fundamental battle of ideas falls between liberals and conservatives, Libertarians would benefit themselves and the nation by giving up their quest for the White House and shifting their support to a conservative candidate.

If, on the other hand, their final choice is between liberal and lite-liberal, then there's no reason for Libertarians to avoid falling on their swords yet again.