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Should Libertarians work within the Republican party?
In my very first hub, which I wrote little more than two months ago, I argued that voting for a third party in the United States is not a wasted vote and that we needed a multi-party system in the country. Yet in that piece, I declined to state which third party I identified with, whether I voted third party, or what my party identification was period. I hope to clarify these things in this piece.
First, I’m a registered Republican, but I don’t label myself a Republican. The only reason I’m registered that way is because my parents are too, and I never bothered to change it. The next chance I get, I hope to register as an Independent. But the party I most identify with, out of all the parties, is the Libertarian Party. However, I am a more moderate, libertarian-leaning voter, and thus, I don’t label myself a libertarian because many self-identified libertarians tend to be hardcore absolutists that play purity contests on the Internet and take very radical views. But as a libertarian-leaning voter, I’m very happy by the fact that there are two libertarian republicans running for president for 2012. Those two candidates are Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.
Libertarian viewpoints have become more popular since 2008, when Ron Paul was treated as a pariah in the 2008 Republican debates for president. I watched the first GOP debate in South Carolina this year and thought it was very refreshing to hear two anti-war Republicans on the stage arguing enthusiastically against our interventionist foreign policy. I also thought it was refreshing that Herman Cain, although not a libertarian, was hesitant about his position about the war in Afghanistan and at least showed some reluctance to being an interventionist.
At the same time, however, I have no illusions that either Ron Paul or Gary Johnson will win the nomination. I’m pretty sure neither of them will. But libertarian ideas have perhaps the best chance of influencing the direction of the Republican party in a long time. Thus, some libertarian blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, have argued that the libertarian party should shut down and put all its energies behind promoting Ron Paul, and/or Gary Johnson and give up the “futile” third party effort. Despite the fact that I think libertarians working within the Republican party is more productive than the third party effort, I still don’t agree with the idea that the libertarian party (or any third party) should shut down.
First of all, the chances that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson will influence the direction of the Republican party in a significant way are marginal at the moment. Perhaps in a decade or two, libertarian ideas will have taken over the Republican party, which is a plausible idea if the gradual trend in public opinion is any indication. But right now, the chances that either Ron Paul or Gary Johnson will win the nomination for president are slim-to-none. Does this mean that the libertarian party shouldn’t put its energies behind supporting one of the two candidates? No, I think it may be a good idea. But libertarian ideas are still pretty marginal at the moment. Any libertarian will likely still be forced to choose between the lesser of two evil’s in 2012 instead of voting who they think will be best for the job. A vote for the libertarian party will still function as little more than a protest vote, but the fact is that people should be voting based on personal convictions, not on who they think will win.
More importantly, I think more ideas offered in our political choices is a better policy than changing the platforms of one of the two parties. The two parties always have an official platform, or talking points. Thus, libertarian and conservative ideas, while similar, still have irreconcilable viewpoints that can’t be combined in a way that will satisfy either constituency. If the Republican party insists on having a “strong” national defense, how could that ever be reconciled with Ron Paul’s view that the U.S. shouldn’t play the world policeman, or that we should immediately pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan? If the social conservative and neocon wings of the Republican party lost their influence and libertarian ideas took over the party, I certainly would be happy, and I could probably proudly identify myself as a Republican at that point. But that would leave out the other ideas. The social conservatives and neocons deserve just as much a right to fight for the public’s vote in a legitimate contest than any other ideology. Thus, I think a multi-party system would be best. I acknowledge that it is more productive in the long run for libertarians or any other third party to work within the major parties for change. But it is not my ideal system.
My ideal system would probably run along the lines of four major parties, each having an equal chance of participating in the presidential debates. On the right wing side, there would be the Republican party, with its traditional neocon and social conservative views, and the Libertarian party, with its message of freedom across the board. On the left wing side of the aisle would be the Democratic party, with its less-than-ideal foreign policy views (to many left wingers) and the Green party, with its more traditional left wing views on foreign policy and single payer health insurance. I, of course, have no illusions that this will happen anytime soon. But it is a better scenario than the one we have now, in which different constituencies of the two major parties work within them under a false sense of “unity.”
This scenario actually may come true someday, however. Polls such as Zogby tend to find majority support for a competitive third party in the United States. And the support tends to become much higher for those under age 30. Thus, if political opinion keeps trending the same way, and the younger generation of third party enthusiasts become the leaders, this multi-party system may eventually happen, and we will all be the better off for it.
In addition, if libertarian ideas have any chance at electoral success in the future, then the libertarian party, as it stands right now, may have to moderate its views drastically. The libertarian party and its members tend to take a hardcore stance on many views that I believe would never win electoral support even if allowed into the debate. For example, many hardcore libertarians are in favor of privatizing all social welfare programs, privatizing education, and legalizing all drugs. These are positions that are beyond the pale for the average electorate. If libertarians want to have a shot at winning elections, they will have to either get more moderate candidates, or moderate their own viewpoints. If libertarians, for example, want to argue in favor of school vouchers and a more free market approach to education, or to legalize marijuana, (both of which I support), this would probably be okay, but arguing for the abolishing of the public education system or legalizing heroin or crack is a nonstarter, no matter how interesting those ideas may be. And in order for these positions to be moderated, they may have to come through the Republican party rather than the marginalized third parties, which tend to thrive on their outcast status and extreme views.
At the end of the day, though, having a multi-party system would be a better option than what we have now. If the libertarian party managed to defeat all the barriers to electoral success, like ballot access or participation in the presidential debates, chances are they would have to change their views somewhat or run more moderate candidates, or they would have no chance of winning. The outcast status of the third parties tends to make them more likely to hold extreme views and isolate them further. If they actually had a reasonable shot at winning, however, their views and efforts to win would likely start to conform more to political reality.