Radicals and the Two-Party System

Ever since the Iraq War started, if not before, many radical libertarians who long believed that the Right was less bad than the Left have reconsidered their position. Whether there should now be a "libertarian wing" of the Democratic Party remains to be seen. What does seem evident today is that there is greater common cause among radicals of all stripes. Neo-confederates despise the Bush Administration just as strongly as Greens.

The common cause is libertarian in nature: opposition to the Warfare State and Police State. Radicals are anti-imperialist, and pro-Bill of Rights. The problem is expressing these values politically. Should the Libertarian, Constitution, and Green Parties disband and jump completely to the Democratic Party? That's probably a suicide option.

For one thing, the Democratic Party's controlling interest groups: teacher's unions and other government-employee unions, trial lawyers, and feminists, are far too committed to looting the taxpayer. And they appear to be too entrenched for there to be any meaningful change anytime soon. The Republican Party's controlling interests appear to be far less visible. The "Religious Right," pro-lifers, and NRA members aren't committed to economic plunder. The most consistent aspects of the GOP's platform are gun rights and opposition to Roe v. Wade. This may appeal to many radicals, but the Bush Administration, aided perhaps by the death of Ronald Reagan this past year, has transformed the Party into a cult of Leader-worship and militarism.

But returning to the third-party option also appears to be a waste of resources. I am indebted to the Libertarian Party, as I would probably not be a libertarian today without it. The party can be an effective tool for spreading the message of liberty. But we must consider what are the best uses of limited resources in a gerrymandered system.

David Brin has a thoughtful idea here. Although he's a libertarian-leaning moderate rather than a radical, the principle is the same. Political activists are not intellectuals; they must focus on the possible, not the perfect. If your sympathies are Green but you live in a Republican-dominated district, register as a Republican. If you like what the Constitution Party stands for but live in a Democratic district, register as a Democrat. If you were going to run in the general election as a Libertarian, run instead in the primary election of your area's dominant party. Do you think Ron Paul would ever have been elected if he ran as a Libertarian?

In a rigged, two-party system, Brin writes, the primary election is where it's at. Since both parties are non-ideological, both are open to diverse ideas and ideologies. Libertarians are no more out of place in the Democratic Party than are gun owners and pro-lifers, of which there are plenty. Why fight for ballot access and media access, when we could actually be campaigning instead? There are plenty of people, radical and moderate, who have profound concerns about many of the policies of the American government. If radicals of either the Left or the Right want serious change, they must first prioritize their issues to those most palatable to mainstream voters. Centering the issues around war and civil liberties, while advocating moderate reforms in the War on Drugs and taxation, could go a long way toward advancing liberty. Particularly if the struggle is bi-partisan and there are serious reformers on both sides of the aisle.

Building up the Republican Liberty Caucus and the Democratic Freedom Caucus will probably do more good than focusing on getting 1% of the popular vote for President or 5% in a local or statewide race. And if the Presidential primaries produce nominees like John Kerry and George Bush again, there would still be time to support a third-party or Independent candidate for President. But I do believe the Presidency, and the Presidency alone, should be the focus of third parties. Scarce resources should be concentrated there. Locally, activists should fight for their causes within the two parties.

Stephen Cox argues that voting isn't a purely intellectual or ideological venture. If so, the Libertarian Party, which espouses several attractive ideas, would be more successful. Individuals belong to numerous identity groups and have varying interests, and the two major parties are able to connect to individuals as whole persons, appealing not just to their minds but connecting to their traditional loyalties and values. Even so, as Cox writes, "The libertarian idea really does offer something for rich and poor, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, Christian and atheist, doesn’t it?"

Yes! And, I would add, the libertarian idea also offers something for both traditional Democrats and Republicans – to all Americans. That's why right-wing libertarians should neither wholly defect to the Democratic Party, nor remain loyal to the Republican. Rather, the libertarian message should be molded to fit the values of one's own community and its dominant Party. I can't think of a better way, today, of resisting Leviathan and advancing real reform in the direction of freedom.

January 8, 2005

James Leroy Wilson Archives