This past Saturday I sat in on an interesting session at FreedomFest in Las Vegas. It was entitled “What will it take to win in 2018, 2020 – and beyond?”, and the panel was populated by several notable libertarian figures, one of whom was Nick Sarwark, the Chair of the Libertarian Party (LP).
During the discussion Sarwark scolded members of the audience that voted for Trump, and wondered aloud how they could be so smart when it came to financial concerns and so mistaken on matters of politics. He exhorted them to let the Republican Party die, and to stop sending “jolts of electricity through its dying body”.
I wish I had been invited to participate on the panel, because I believe I would have brought significant value to the discussion. All of the panelists were attacking the problem from the premise the LP is the only vehicle to move the liberty agenda forward in government.
As the National Chairman for the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC), the “libertarian wing” of the Republican Party, I disagree with that premise. I will be the first to admit the Republican Party is a mess, and I have been an incessant critic for many years for reasons too numerous to count. Having said that, I still believe the best chance for liberty to prevail electorally lies within the GOP. Here’s why:
- The two-party system is rigged in favor of the major parties. From ballot access to the way states handle primaries, the deck is stacked against ALL third parties. I don’t like it, but this is a fact of reality, and it’s not going to change any time soon. While I applaud Sarwark’s “damn the torpedoes” attitude and ability to pull and perfectly recite great George Bernard Shaw quotes out of thin air, it is highly unlikely that the LP’s track record for getting state or federal candidates elected is going to change any time soon, because the laws aren’t going to change any time soon.
- Speaking of track record, the LP has been around for 46 years now, and is indisputably the most successful third party in the history of American politics. While the party has been reasonably successful in getting its message out about free market economics, property rights and the legalization of victimless crimes, it doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to wins at the ballot box on the state or federal level. As I write this, the highest ranking Libertarian in the country is a Nebraska State Senator named Laura Ebke. Laura is the former National Secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus, and was elected to office as… a Republican. She then switched her affiliation to Libertarian in an act of defiance after a few dust ups with the state’s overbearing and hyper-partisan Republican Governor.
In fact, every notable past libertarian-minded elected official I can recall at the federal level was, in fact, elected as Republican. Bob Barr from Georgia? Republican. Ron Paul from Texas? Republican. There is a reason they ran as Republicans, and it isn’t because they were “selling out”. The founders of our organization were LP members that recognized in 1991, after only 20 years, that the third-party strategy wasn’t working, and that working within the GOP to inject the liberty message was a better use of time and resources.
It’s a simple strategy. Think of the movie “Independence Day” – when the earthlings attack the aliens head on, they are decimated because of the alien’s advanced shield technology; they simply can’t get any of their attacks through. Only after infecting the aliens with a virus are they able to take the mother ship down. While you might wince at the notion of liberty as a “virus”, the liberty message really is infectious, and there is demonstrable proof the strategy works.
- To wit: the incredible success of former Congressman Ron Paul, a LP member elected to Congress as a Republican in Texas, should be proof positive working inside the Republican Party is a valid and winnable strategy. While he didn’t succeed in his 2008 presidential run, Dr. Paul literally created a movement, and the effects of his tenure as a Republican Congressman and presidential contender are felt to this day.
His son, Senator Rand Paul, is currently the most outspoken advocate for liberty in the Senate, and guess what? That’s right – he ran and won as a Republican. Same for Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, and House Reps Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Mark Sanford and others. Imagine if we had another 100 others like them in the GOP – it would be a whole different ballgame. Alternatively, imagine if they had run as Libertarians and lost – the world would be a much darker place, indeed.
As one of the panelists – social media phenom Julie Borowski – pointed out in response to Sarwark belittling the success of the liberty Republican strategy because there are only five good Liberty Republicans in DC: “Five is better than zero.” Indeed, Ms. Borowski, indeed. From the mouths of babes…
During his remarks, Sarwark disagreed with one of the other panelists assertion they should focus on local elections, and insisted that having a presidential candidate was essential to keeping the party vital and relevant.
If I accepted the premise a third party was the solution, on this point, we would agree. Here’s the problem: the Libertarian Party squandered a truly historic opportunity in 2016 by putting up a candidate that didn’t represent core libertarian values, and probably couldn’t effectively articulate them even if he did. What kind of libertarian argues the baker should bake the cake for the gay couple? This is Property Rights 101 for libertarians, for heaven’s sake. Instead the Johnson/Weld ticket seemed hell bent on pursuing a strategy of pandering to the left and engaging in cringe-worthy antics with reporters in the hope of getting more media attention – even if it was bad.
To be fair, neither of the other party’s candidates were good representations of their party’s stated values either, but if you accept the premise a third party simply can’t win (as I do), the entire point of the Libertarian Party running a presidential candidate is to expose the masses to the liberty message, i.e., the principles of limited government, free markets, individual rights, sound money, non-interventionist foreign policy, etc. The power of libertarianism is the ideas. If the LP runs presidential candidates that don’t actually believe in or represent those ideas, what the hell is the point?
Perhaps the most disturbing thing I heard Sarwark say, though, was his boast that the LP now controls the margin between the R’s and D’s in many districts and would run Libertarian candidates as spoilers in those districts. It wasn’t clear which party’s candidates they are trying to spoil, but Libertarians usually tend to pull votes from Republicans, so I’m guessing they’re the intended target.
While I understand this is a valid political strategy, and I can see its use in spoiling a truly rotten RINO candidate (like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire), I find it disturbing because I have seen too many instances where the LP ran a candidate against a truly solid liberty Republican and the Libertarian pulled just enough votes to put the Democrat in office. This happened right here in my home town of Brevard County in 2008, and we ended up with eight years of a county commission controlled by said Democrat. This should be considered the “nuclear option” in specific races, not the starting point for every race you engage in. If the approach of the LP is to drop context on races where there is a good liberty Republican and go mindlessly partisan by saying all non-LP candidates are “bad”, I submit it has succumbed to the most base of political instincts and balaity and is in no position to criticize other parties about anything.
While defending the third-party strategy and the accusation he was essentially tilting at windmills, Sarwark quoted George Bernard Shaw’s “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. I like this quote, but I don’t think Shaw would agree with its use in this context.
I really do wish that our electoral system and laws were different, and that third parties had a fighting chance, but if I had been on stage, I would have responded with Ayn Rand’s famous quote: “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality,” or, perhaps, the Lev Grossman classic: “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.”
In closing, I wish Mr. Sarwark and my brothers in arms in the LP the best in their endeavors. I think we mostly agree on the ideas and solutions that can put this great country back on track, we just disagree on the most effective way to get there in regards to electoral success.