The Party of Liberty?

We libertarians already have our own party, but we are more often shoehorned into the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party (the shared standard of the Gadsden flag conflates the issue). But for years we have been marginalized and ignored by the same party that assumes our allegiance. Should we stop working with Republicans and unite behind the Libertarian Party? Should we give Democrats a chance? As libertarians we allow each individual to make that decision for himself, of course, but perhaps some guidance can be helpful.

Like its progressive and conservative next of kin, libertarianism is a diverse an ideology, with many internal disagreements about topics as fundamental as federalism, foreign policy, and abortion. So I’ll be making several assumptions about the general size of the tent for the sake of discussion.

We might begin (and for some, end) with the simple question: Why should there be any question about libertarian party identification when there is already an official Libertarian Party? With Gary Johnson, a popular two-term Republican governor of an overwhelming Democratic state, as the Libertarian Party nominee for President this year, and voter willingness to entertain third party options according to polls, it would seem like now is the best chance the LP has ever had to make a presence on the national stage. However, as fancifully ideological as most of us are, we’re also more realistic than that. Johnson polls in the single digits, as all third party candidates have since Ross Perot in 1992, would be lucky to get into the general election debates, and would almost certainly serve as nothing more than a spoiler to siphon votes from the Republican nominee, guaranteeing President Obama’s reelection. The Presidential election is not the only one that matters, of course, but with no prominent Libertarian Party candidates likely to be competitive in any other races, what real hope is there to make an impact? If libertarians abandon the two major parties and consistently lose races to them, our voice is silenced altogether. So to be frank, we’re stuck with Republicans vs Democrats. Where to turn?

As a starting point, one can assume libertarians agree with each major party on a large segment of  issues, most commonly referred to as social vs fiscal issues. We agree more closely with Republicans on economic and fiscal issues, while we agree with Democrats generally on social issues. Therefore one might expect to find relative numbers of libertarians in each party, with individuals preferring the party that matches the issues on which they are most strongly aligned.  A 2008 study found that about 70% of self-identified libertarians polled had voted for Republican candidates in the House, Senate, and Presidential elections that year. Therefore most libertarians seem to have settled already, at least tenuously, on the GOP. This could be because there are far more fiscal issues than social ones, or at least more relevant ones, tilting the balance to the GOP’s favor. Is this a viable alliance, or should we keep looking?

Back to the issue split, we agree with Democrats on social issues and with Republicans on fiscal issues. Where are these issues likely to lead in the future? With debt, deficits, spending, and taxes as far as the eye can see under any mainstream candidate’s proposals, fiscal issues are going to be front and center for as long as any of us are likely to live. Social issues, however, are a trickier egg to crack, as they are quickly becoming purely generational issues. Poll respondents are increasingly split less by party and more by age on things like gay marriage and drug legalization. Huge majorities of young voters approve of gay marriage, for example, regardless of party affiliation. This could be actually due to libertarians’ already growing influence within the GOP, where there is more room for movement on those issues, or it could be a purely evolutionary phenomenon across the board. Either way it might be the perfect opportunity for libertarians to begin to exert more influence within a party rather than from the outside. If this trend holds (and it has been solidifying for about a decade now), the culture wars will become increasingly marginal, and a new pax libertine will form in their place. That would mean that the issues on which libertarians agree with Democrats are no longer relevant, and the only remaining issues of contention are fiscal ones, on which we disagree completely. It also creates an opportunity for libertarians and conservatives to unite around the core focus of the Republican Party, which is standing firm on the limited role of government to protect the rights of individuals and the states.

It seems to me that looking at the existing party alliances, the issues both now and in the future, and libertarian goals, the only real chance we have is to work within the Republican Party to affect change and promote true liberty in all arenas. It also doesn’t hurt that the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, is (in)famously malleable, has at least in the past been more moderate on social issues, and is already cordial with libertarian standard-bearers like Ron and Rand Paul. There’s lots of room to work here, and we should take advantage of it. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

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