The Libertarian Vote

by on February 23rd, 2004

Mark Schmitt says that Ralph Nader will flop in this election, but that this may be the perfect year for a Libertarian Party candidate to make a good showing:

In 1996, Nader finished a fraction ahead of the Libertarian Party candidate, Harry Browne. 2004 seems like a perfect year for a Libertarian to make a leap forward — at least into the 1-2% zone.

Imagine the potential appeal to conservatives who really don’t want to see federal spending increased, or entitlement programs expanded, who don’t want a federal role in education, who are deeply concerned about surveillance and other threats to individual liberties, and who also don’t like to see the catering to the religious right, who think that people should be able to live and let live and marry whoever they love. I’m pretty sure there are a lot more people with that constellation of views than there are potential Nader voters, and everything about the Bush administration has been an affront to them. This should be the best opportunity in decades for a Libertarian, who might pull significant support in swing states like Florida, Arizona, and Wisconsin (where a libertarian got 10% in the governor’s race in 2002) away from Bush. And yet, the media is obsessed with Nader’s threat to the Democrats, and pays not a moment’s attention to the Libertarian threat to Bush. (Although I admit, the threat is purely conjectural at this point.)

The thing is, the Libertarian Party will likely squander this opportunity to gain traction in the system, and it will be for the same reason I’ve always eschewed the LP. They don’t want to be a third party, pulling votes from mainstream candidates and making compromises to get their issues to the forefront. Instead, they insist on a dogmatic ideological purity–admirable in academic political science, but not in elections–that keeps them far out of the mainstream. They don’t use the weight of their voters to influence the major party candidates, one of whom will actually win the election, because for some reason, they’re convinced that the weight of their voters will eventually be able to win them the election. In other words, they don’t win because they don’t play the game.

What we really need is a new third party (I guess it would actually be a fifth or sixth party, but we won’t quibble) that espouses libertarian ideals, but in a way that isn’t so threatening to non-libertarians. We currently have a party trying to convince mainstream voters that the government should do almost nothing, and while I agree with that sentiment in theory, I understand that it won’t go over well with the majority of Americans. What we need is a party to get out there and tell the voters simply that the government should do *less* than it does now. We should campaign on a general list, with specific examples, of things that are currently done by government that we think should be eliminated or replaced, and tell people how we’re going to do it. We should remind people of the reasons they should have more choices about education, retirement planning, healthcare, and other important life decisions, and point out to them that they’ll never have those choices if the government decides for them. We don’t need to trumpet the fact that deep down, we’d like to get rid of more than half of existing federal agencies. We just need to tell them that if there’s something they believe government should get the hell out of, they should vote for a candidate willing to consider getting out of it, not one of the mainstream candidates who wouldn’t know shrinking the federal purview if it bit them in the ass.

But that’s unlikely to happen. Given that, the question becomes, which of the two major party candidates is less evil. Traditionally, libs have supported Republicans, since they’ve normally been the party of smaller government. Now that that’s no longer the case, it’s more up in the air, and many libertarians are considering voting for a Democrat. Angry Bear (who was kind enough to drop my name in his comment) has made a list of reasons a libertarian should support a Dem this year:

  1. We’ll let you sleep with whoever you want to.
  2. We won’t force you to pray or otherwise interfere with your private religion.
  3. We won’t force you to pay for other people’s religious choices.
  4. We still won’t let you smoke pot on the public square, but Democrats generally support decriminalization. And we’ll do all we can to promote rehabilitation over incarceration. Soft on the drug war remains a damning indictment so there’s not much more we can do. Yet.
  5. We won’t start unilateral wars without evidence of a real threat.
  6. We won’t spend as much of your money, though still more than you would like.
  7. For most Libertarians, those making roughly $100k or less, we’ll tax you either no more, or less than the Republicans will.
  8. We will generally support free trade, or at least do so more often than Republicans.
  9. As you point out, we will–perhaps surprisingly–run a smaller government and regulate business activities less than do Republicans.
  10. We won’t interfere with your reproductive rights and choices.
  11. Despite what you might think, we really won’t take your guns away (possible exception: if you are a criminal).

Most of this is true, although I question some of his more normative statements. For example, many libertarians disagree with most Democrats about what constitutes “private religion.” If the football team wants to pray together on school property before a game, many liberal politicians would like to stop them, while more conservative folks see that as a private choice. Second, there are a lot of Democrats who are just as hard on drugs as some Republicans are. Yes, liberals tend to be more laid back about drugs, especially pot, but that’s not true of many liberal politicians. We all need to scrutinize our candidates carefully.

As for wars, you many not have started the Iraq war without evidence of a real threat, but Democrats have a history of getting us involved in countries not in our direct strategic interest for humanitarian reasons, something libertarians abhor as well. Remember Kosovo? Somalia? Just because you haven’t started an unnecessary war in the last three years doesn’t erase your record of getting us involved where we don’t need to be. I’ve seen no evidence that the Democrats are in favor of lowering taxes, although many have supported reducing deficit spending, which I commend them for. I have trouble believing that Democrats will regulate business activities less, especially on the state and local levels. Many Democrats support smoking bans, oppose right to work laws, and want to enact stricter regulation of small businesses. They also want to expand FDA monitoring activities, which could make our food more expensive.

Finally, on guns: I’m not a gun owner, but I may be someday, and in any case, I’d like to have that choice. And Democrats, regardless of the fact that some have softened their position on guns, are the party that wants to limit gun ownership and use. If Democrats “really won’t take your guns away,” what’s with all of the laws they keep passing to take our guns away? Why does John Kerry support the assault weapons ban, a law designed solely to regulate guns that look scary? Why have Democrats supported waiting periods, federal registration, trigger locks, biometrics, and other measures to limit gun ownership and freedom? Sorry, I just don’t buy it. Not until the Democratic Party stops running candidates who would ban all guns if it weren’t for that pesky Constitution.

It really comes down to a balancing act. Who would be worse, Bush or Kerry/Edwards/Nader/Random Liberal? I don’t know the answer, but it’s not as clear-cut as either side would like us to believe.

Amy Phillips