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Is Lincoln Chafee Really a Libertarian? an Analysis of a 'Big-Name' Third Party Candidate

Updated on January 25, 2020


Lincoln Chafee, former Democratic Presidential candidate for 2016, has announced that he is seeking the Libertarian nomination for president in 2020, after registering with the party a few months ago. Chafee has been all over the map politically, having been a Republican Senator from 1999 to 2007, and an independent Governor of Rhode Island from 2011 to 2015 before running for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and dropping out early (link).

The Libertarian Party for the past three presidential election cycles has nominated former Republicans as their presidential candidates, with Bob Barr in 2008 and Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, both in 2012 and 2016. This has been an attempt on the part of the party to nominate more ‘pragmatic’ or moderate candidates, as opposed to the hardcore party activists they have nominated in the past, on the theory that candidates who are willing to advocate for liberty more incrementally would be more palatable to the general public and get more votes. They also feel that such a strategy would lend the libertarian party more electoral credibility, in addition to adding more registered party members, who may be eventually converted to more purist libertarian views.

As such, Lincoln Chafee appears to be another failed politician from the major parties who feels the Libertarian Party will be eager to nominate a more ‘credible’ candidate for their party again, since they have tried desperately to be viewed as a serious contender. The strategy of nominating more ‘moderate’ candidates, particularly in the form of Gary Johnson, has appeared to pay off, given that Johnson received more votes in 2016 than the party has ever received for a presidential ticket (link). So the LP’s strategy, in my view, appears to be sound. Still, though, if you’ve never heard of Lincoln Chafee, or never thought of him to be a libertarian, that’s completely understandable, because the party appears to be attracting candidates who aren’t exactly the best match for them, but join the party anyway because they don’t really fit in with the two major parties at the moment. Chafee in particular fits this mold, given that he’s been all over the map political affiliation-wise, and the fact that he has quite a few deviations from libertarian principles (as we’ll see), more so than Gary Johnson, who was nobody’s idea of a pure libertarian himself. People may reasonably wonder why the hell this guy is even running under the Libertarian Party’s banner.

In this hub, I will do an analysis of Chafee’s views, give my brief opinion on whether I think it makes sense for libertarians to vote for him, and discuss in the final section of this essay how Chafee’s attempt at the nomination represents a flaw in our current two-party system. Even in these polarized times, I hope some people will still be interested in hearing about third party candidates and what happens with them, particularly people who genuinely don’t fit in with either major party.

How I will analyze his views

When I want to find out the ideology of candidates that I’m curious about or who I may consider voting for, I visit the site (link). It’s a very handy site that has a rigorous rundown of the ideological views of tons of politicians, using the Nolan chart as a categorization tool that can box them into five different possible political ideologies: Liberal, conservative, libertarian, moderate, or populist. I’m a big fan of the Nolan chart so I wholeheartedly endorse this model for categorizing politicians. According to the page on Lincoln Chafee, he’s a ‘libertarian-leaning progressive.’ So, if this site’s analysis is accurate, then he is not a libertarian. I would agree. However, it deserves a deeper analysis than that. In my view, Chafee appears to be a social liberal and an economic moderate. I’ll explain further, separating his social views from his economic views for a more thorough analysis. I’ll be primarily using as my source for this. (Here’s a link to the site’s page on Chafee’s views, so you don’t have to take my word for it).

Social issues

Chafee appears to be vigorously promoting his anti-war bonafides and opposition to deficit spending thus far in his promotion of his candidacy. He was apparently the only Republican in the Senate during 2002 to vote against the Iraq war. He seems to be a solid social liberal, according to ontheissues. For example, he supports abortion rights, even opposing bans on partial birth abortion, supports gay marriage, opposes the death penalty, and opposes bans on flag burning.

Much to the typical libertarian’s chagrin, however, he appears to be a bit mushy on the issue of the war on drugs, supporting decriminalization of marijuana during his governorship of Rhode Island but not legalization, which is what he also advocated during his 2016 Democratic campaign for president, and appears to be advocating now (link). At some point during his candidacy, I suspect he’s going to claim to have “changed” his views on the matter now that he’s running for the libertarian party. I put the word changed in scare quotes because most politicians simply lie about views that are contrary to their party’s dogma when running for president, in order to appear more palatable to their party’s base. I will have no confidence that Chafee genuinely supports marijuana legalization even if he claims to change his mind, because there’s a good chance he could be lying. In any case, marijuana isn’t really much of a federal issue, per se, so the only relevant thing Chafee could do on the federal level to scale back the war on drugs (aside from pardoning federal prisoners), is either take it off the list of controlled substances so it is no longer illegal at the federal level (the preferable option), or changing its ‘schedule’ as a controlled substance out of schedule one and into a less restrictive schedule (link), so it won’t be viewed as one of the most dangerous drugs.

A few other social positions that Chafee takes demonstrate not merely ‘mushiness’ but an outright anti-libertarian approach. For example, his apparent positions on the Second Amendment, affirmative action, and campaign finance reform are not libertarian at all. As a former governor of Rhode Island, a blue state, you wouldn’t expect someone who got elected there to be a big gun rights supporter, but that should be irrelevant for someone running for the libertarian nomination. Many libertarians view it as a very important issue (including me), and an opposition to gun rights, I’d say, is a pretty awkward position for a libertarian to have.

On campaign finance, he supports banning issue ads and banning ‘soft money’ donations. Issue ads are corporate or union-funded political ads run on television during election season that were essentially re-legalized by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (after being banned previously by the McCain-Feingold legislation.). And on affirmative action, he apparently supports it. Thus, he appears to be more of a social liberal than a social libertarian, and there’s a difference. Social libertarians support all personal liberties, regardless of which side is infringing on them. I always found the libertarian position on social issues to be far more reasonable and logically and ideologically coherent than the liberal or conservative approach.

Economic issues

There’s quite a few deviations from libertarian principles here too, but I’ll start with the issues where he appears to be more supportive of the libertarian approach than not. He appears to be a supporter of charter schools and school vouchers. Although education is mostly a state issue, the Federal Government does have authority over the Washington D.C. school voucher program called the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for low income students (link).

As such, who is in Congress and who is president can make a big difference in whether the program is continually funded or abolished. Thus, assuming you care about the parents of disadvantaged black kids in D.C. having a choice in where their kids go to school, libertarians should care about this issue on the federal level.

Chafee supports reforming Social Security and appears to be down with free trade as well (a big controversy during this Trump era.) On health care, however, he supports universal health coverage (although presumably not the single-payer model) and the individual mandate, which would be a source of much consternation for any libertarian considering voting for him. In addition, he supports raising the minimum wage and has a pro-environment voting record.

So, my view is that he is fiscally moderate, or sort of a ‘Rockefeller Republican.’ If you live in the Northeast, like I do, you may be familiar with this kind of Republican. My home state of Maryland currently is governed by Larry Hogan, a Republican governor who is barely a Republican at all but views himself as more of a centrist (link).

Thus, you might ask, what is a politician like this doing running for the libertarian nomination? Good question. I’ll get to that in a moment, but should libertarians vote for him?

Should libertarians vote for him?

I’d say probably not, because he’s not even a libertarian himself, and I say this as someone who is far from dogmatically libertarian (despite leaning that way, and often voting libertarian). It’s one thing to nominate someone like Gary Johnson, who, on net, took the libertarian position more often than not, no matter how much he was viewed as too “impure” by the party base. But if anyone wants to take a fair, honest, and non-partisan look into Gary Johnson’s views as a whole, I think they will conclude that he was certainly more libertarian than Chafee, or Bill Weld (Johnson’s vice presidential candidate in his 2016 run for the presidency, and former Governor of Massachusetts.) (By the way, here are two links, one to the page on Johnson’s views and the other on Weld’s views, so you can make your own judgement: link and link). Personally, I don’t really have a problem with Chafee’s economically moderate views (I’m more of a libertarian “leaner” anyway), but even I would have a reluctance to vote for Chafee for other reasons.

So why is Chafee running as a libertarian (since he’s not really one himself)?

There’s a really simple answer for this: because we don’t have a multi-party system in the U.S. so his options are really limited. Where else is he going to go? If we had some kind of ‘centrist’ or moderate party in the U.S., then perhaps he would join them instead as a better fit. But we don’t have such a system. Although I have always fantasized pleasantly about having such a system here, and do indeed think it would have many benefits over our current system, changing the status quo would be enormously complicated, given that our system of government doesn’t seem to be set up for it. We don’t have a Parliamentary system, for one thing, which is a system of government that third parties tend to thrive under. Still, third parties played more of a role in the United States’ early history than they do now, so I suspect it’s not just some kind of inherent roadblock of our system to not have more viable third parties (link).

In any case, I got a book for Christmas this year that makes the case for a multi-party system in America. It’s called Breaking the Two-party Doom Loop: the Case for Multiparty Democracy in America by Lee Drutman (link). Although I haven’t come close to finishing it yet (I have other reading material on my agenda at the moment), I think it will be quite interesting, and I’ve actually been looking for a book that makes such a case for years but haven’t been able to find one until now. Unfortunately, creating more viable third parties in the U.S. would require a lot of radical change in our system, and it’s a fantasy to think that our current politicians would want to go along with that, much less actively pursue it. There’s too many benefits for our current politicians from the two-party system to think that they would willingly relinquish such a system.

On the other hand, though, one ancillary benefit of such a system is that politicians who deviate from a party’s platform wouldn’t have to necessarily lie about their actual positions in order to obtain that party’s nomination for president or any other office. Lincoln Chafee wouldn’t have to lie or put up the pretense of ‘changing’ his position on say, guns or universal health care if he could run with a potential party more simpatico with his views. Another example is Michael Bloomberg, currently running for the Democratic nomination for president, if haphazardly. Does anyone really think he’s changed his position on, say, stop and frisk or criminal justice, like he says he has? (link) More realistically, he’s lying in order to be more palatable to them, while if we had multiple viable parties in America, he likely wouldn’t even be running in the same party. While that may not be the most important reason to favor a multi-party system, it sure would save us a lot of eye-rolling and groaning, wouldn’t it?


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