Tilting at Windmills, Part 2

So to the matter of the Libertarian Party. One big reason I support them as an alternate choice in an obviously broken two-party system is that they’re the only minor party that has enough organization in each state to have a decent chance of getting a presidential candidate on the ballot in all 50 states, implying enough organization to get “down ballot” candidates as well. This means they cover my previously discussed position for a serious party, namely Have a Party.  And to some extent it covers the point of Ask What You Can Do For Your Party, including how to make a party more feasible as a choice on your state ballot or the national ballot.

There are a few other areas where I need to speak to the Libertarian Party directly. Because again, this is not only the party I most agree with (practicality aside) but is in the best position to take over from one of the existing parties. But that requires coming to grips with some things.

First, the dysfunction of the Republican Party is such that maintaining the status quo is no longer feasible. It is going to continue to huckster votes from reactionary groups and continue to be ineffective on a Congressional level (if for no other reason than that the various media and interest groups supporting the Republicans garner more interest when it’s a party in opposition), meaning that the Democrats will be the only ones in position to set the agenda for the government. I postulate that the Libertarian Party is going to have to become a major player whether it wants to or not. And that raises a serious question: Do we really want to be a major party?

Because some people actually watched the C-SPAN coverage of the Libertarian national convention, and they are not quite sure.  (I’m going to give a pass to the fat bearded guy who decided to strip to a speedo and break out in dance. Apparently the freak-flag contingent of Libertarians were concerned that we weren’t keepin’ it 100.) More specifically, national news audiences got to see the five candidates up for the party’s nomination take questions on such issues as whether the government should issue drivers’ licenses.

To me, Libertarians’ radical skepticism on government is simultaneously the best and worst thing about the movement. It’s good insofar as the country in general is not skeptical enough about government (in the wake of 9-11, the TSA got shoved down our throats, and there is a serious contingent of people who would pass Nuremberg-type laws against Muslims for the sake of ‘national security’) but even skepticism has its limits. Plus, apart from the question of whether a Libertarian candidate should fight and die on the hill of getting rid of drivers’ licenses, drivers’ licenses in the US are issued by the State, not the Federal government. This is nothing that the president of the United States would have anything to do with. If one wants to fight on that hill, you do it on the state level of office, not the presidential level. This is another case of a “fringe” party coming up with an idea with no grasp of how the political system actually works.

Same with whether it violates religious liberty if a conservative Christian baker (and I had no idea there were so many of them) is commissioned to make a cake for a gay wedding. (What would the Left say if this was Ernst Rohm and this was a gay Nazi wedding cake?) Those rules are usually determined on a state level. When the Supreme Court gets involved (and that IS a matter where the President’s choices apply) they usually rule that between two groups, the government should get involved only where Group A has no alternative but to get services from Group B. But even here, this betrays a lack of grasp about how the system works. The Libertarian nominee’s opinion on gay wedding cakes has no more bearing than President Obama’s opinion on North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom law. I presume he’s against it, and it doesn’t matter. BECAUSE IT’S A MATTER FOR THE STATE TO DECIDE. Not only that, asking what the nominee’s opinion should be on a small-scale subject falls into the statist mentality of thinking the government at all levels has to be involved in everything. I thought that’s what libertarians were against.

This is all just picking at the margins while the two-party system is eating itself, and voters have NO serious alternative to it. The Libertarian Party could be that alternative. What is the point of having the level of organization that we have (and as Amateur Hour as it seems, the LP has a lot more resources than the Greens, who are the only other party even trying to raise a profile) if we aren’t going to get into government?

Taking the process seriously gets back to the point that a “third” party has to do more than vanity races for President. Just as there are “down ballot” races, there are down ballot issues that are only decided at the state and local level. If you want to have a say on those issues, you need to put resources into electing candidates for local and state offices. For one thing, issues like those mentioned above are dealt with in legislatures and governors’ offices during the years when there are no presidential elections, and if you have a “third” party actually in a bloc of a legislature getting things done, voters can make a better informed decision as to whether it’s worth voting for them on a national level. You still need to have people running for President in order to have a national profile, but without effective representation, having a profile doesn’t matter much. Ask the Reform Party.

This comes to a bit of advice that in retrospect I really should have put in the “Part 1” article. A politician, no matter which party, really needs to ask himself a question to set priorities. One might even call it a categorical imperative.

That question is: “What would I ACTUALLY DO if I had political power tomorrow?

Hypothetically, put aside that a “third” party President isn’t going to have any support in Congress. This applies to mutually gridlocked Democrats and Republicans too. Assume there was enough support for your agenda to get it passed. What IS your agenda? For example, Republicans keep trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). What would they replace it with? If they don’t want to replace it with anything, have they considered that the public dissatisfaction with the status quo ante was why the ACA got passed in the first place? This is something that any anti-statist party (as the LP is and the Republicans falsely claim to be) needs to consider. Government expands because there is a demand for it. Raising objections to a new government program (such as, the reason we didn’t just get Medicare For All is because we can barely afford Medicare in the first place) doesn’t negate the demand, and the demand needs to be addressed, and if it could be better addressed by the private sector, it raises the question of why the private sector isn’t doing that.

Overall, I think the Libertarian Party under Gary Johnson and William Weld is trying to take the steps toward being a truly national party. Calling the party “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” is (to me and other libertarians) a superficial branding of what liberty means, but I think it is intended to appeal to a lot of people who would otherwise be sympathetic but haven’t realized it- in particular the centrist and relatively liberal Republicans who were effectively pushed out of their party but are ultimately not a good fit with the Democrats. This is where there is real potential for growth.

But we still need to address the elephant in the room, which is the elephant not just for Libertarians, but the entire country.

In a New Yorker article  that was otherwise a sympathetic and balanced profile of Johnson and Weld, Ryan Lizza gets to a scene where Johnson said the LP’s lack of “diversity” (meaning ethnic and gender diversity) would not become a problem as the Libertarian position became better known. “A few minutes later, an aide directed him to a room in the convention center that was named for Harriet Tubman. “Who’s Harriet Tubman?” Johnson asked. (After the aide reminded him who Tubman was, Johnson recalled that she will appear on a new twenty-dollar bill.) ”

That is just not going to work.

What both libertarians and “True Conservatives” are going to have to realize about how the Grand Old Party became the Party Of Trump is that the Republicans did not get votes because of a free-market (and ostensibly free-speech) platform but in spite of it. The Republicans did not get votes because of a reactionary social agenda but because of it. Donald Trump is finding that appealing to xenophobia and loutishness sold as “political incorrectness” wins primaries of Republican voters (if only by plurality) but it is losing with general election demographics. In this he is not an outlier but just the ultimate expression of where the Republicans have been headed for quite some time.

What this stuff comes down to is prioritizing getting votes (which every party needs to do in the short term) or getting votes for the right reasons, because that affects how the party operates in the long term. Barry Goldwater might have had a principled objection to the Civil Rights Act, but he and the rest of the Republican Party decided to oppose it (even when a lot of Republican Congressmen ended up voting for it) in order to coup the Democrats’ white, mostly Southern and largely prejudiced base. The fact that Goldwater’s main success in 1964 came in “Deep South” states caused Richard Nixon and other Republicans to further develop the “Southern strategy.” This had some pretty strong short-term benefits, but as America has become less white, the drawbacks have become more inescapable.

If one simply doesn’t know who Harriet Tubman is, that might simply be cluelessness towards the black community rather than malice, but after generations of “dog whistle” politics, it’s not clear whether black voters will see that as a distinction that makes a difference.

The thing is, one can make a pretty strong case that the racial struggle in America is intertwined with the need to promote liberty. The abolitionist and anti-segregation movements were based on addressing the central contradiction of a country that fought for the “liberty” of plantation owners to keep slaves (even as our British mother country banned the practice long before we did) all the while saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Many of our government’s anti-liberty policies, such as targeted anti-immigration laws and the roots of our current War on Drugs, are based on naked appeals to racism and to association of “marihuana” and other drugs with undesirable races. And again, we are now obliged to take off our belts and shoes at courtrooms and airports (which would not have stopped the 9-11 hijackings and will not stop terrorism now) because a bunch of Saudi Arabians got together to blow up American landmarks (and it’s not like the US did anything about that government either).  This is a point that Libertarians can use to seize the initiative in discussion of social issues, which will only grow in prominence in the next few years.

In this regard I would direct the reader toward the Movement for Black Lives site https://policy.m4bl.org/ The six-point agenda presented is not intended to appeal to right-wingers. There are a lot of politically correct buzzwords like “collective” and “economic justice.” But it cannot be accused of lacking in detail. And there are some points where it can intersect with libertarian policy, in particular the concepts of making law enforcement and all levels of government more accountable to local communities. At the very least, even if you don’t agree with such opinions (and I’m not sure I do) you need to know what other people are thinking rather than just assume what they’re thinking or what their “rational best interests” are. Maybe that way you’ll have a better chance of getting them to listen to you. Assuming that’s what you want.

The Libertarian Party is in best position to take advantage of a gap that the Republicans have created by abandoning political responsibility. Failing to seize that opportunity will just make the government that much more dysfunctional as it tries to rationalize abnormality as part of the system. And that’s because the ruling parties have just assumed the power to rule without questioning what their principles of government are. We don’t have that luxury. There’s no point in saying you would do better than the other guys if you’re not going to. And if you can’t present a better party to the public, you won’t even get to try.

Tilting At Windmills, Part 1

In my last post I said I would address how to make third parties more viable. What we need to consider is that the problem has at least two aspects, both stemming from the fact that the Founders of the republic were either against the party politics of the British parliament that preceded them, or did not consider the development of party politics within this country when writing our Constitution. The first President, George Washington, is often quoted in his Farewell Address: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders & miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security & repose in the absolute power of an Individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.   Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight) the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party are sufficient to make it the interest and the duty of a wise People to discourage and restrain it.”

In large respect, Washington has been proven right. But again, this is a problem with two aspects. First, the structure of our federal election system is what is called “first past the post” and only accounts for one winning candidate with no such thing as proportional representation based on returns, or a runoff between leading candidates even when the first-place finisher has less than 50 percent of the vote. For these reasons the “rules as written” discourage more than two political factions within American government. At the same time, this fact encourages two factions to exist. This is an issue that had not been considered in the original Constitution and had to be partially rectified early on with the Twelfth Amendment, which changed the original rule that the second choice of the Electoral College became Vice President, which in practice meant that the opposition candidate automatically became part of the President’s cabinet. The standard from the Twelfth Amendment onward effectively acknowledged the practical reality of partisan politics.

The other aspect of the problem is that while the “two party” setup is formally created by our Constitutional structure, a very large reason for the lack of “third” party success is the creation of laws by our current ruling parties (Republicans and Democrats) to put new or smaller parties under restrictions they themselves are not under. Another issue is that an outlier’s access to the system depends on factors that are technically not under control of the government or the duopoly, but nevertheless serve the status quo. For instance, the Commission on Presidential Debates requires that candidates poll at 15 percent in five national surveys leading up to the three scheduled debates, and that they have enough spots on State ballots to potentially win an election. This qualification has been cited as arbitrary, not least because polling at that level requires a certain amount of media exposure which third-party candidates cannot get because they are not covered by mass media- for example, at debates. It is in fact a barrier that the Greens and the Libertarian Party are taking legal action against.  Prior to the CPD format, televised presidential debates were sponsored and managed by the League of Women Voters (including the 1980 debate with independent John Anderson) but following the 1984 election, the two ruling parties decided to create a debate system under their purview (leading to the creation of the CPD in 1987) and the League cited the new Commission format as their reason from withdrawing their sponsorship of debates since 1988.

With these factors in mind, in this post I intend to address the general issue of how to make any given third party more likely to achieve political goals, such as getting candidates elected. Assuming that’s what you want.

First off, the step that a lot of people bypass:

Have a Party. A lot of people are only considering supporting a third party because they just feel jilted by one of the two major ones. Ultimately they’d rather be in their “home” party when they consider the alternatives. For instance, a Republican conservative might refuse to vote Republican this year because of Donald Trump. You’d ask, “what about Gary Johnson? He’s pro-gun and pro-capitalism.” The Republican would go “he’s also pro-abortion and pro-marijuana.” You’re going to have to accept that going third party will involve at least as much political compromise as working with one of the major parties who were at least until recently trying to appeal to the largest possible voting base. If you’re a conservative who doesn’t like abortion, your most feasible choices are still going to be either Johnson, Hillary Clinton (who is that much more pro-abortion than Johnson) or Trump, whose opinion on the subject seems to be up in the air, and whose most likely first decision will be to appoint his favorite horse the president pro tem of the Senate. (No, wait. That wasn’t Donald Trump who did that, that was Caligula. Sorry, I keep getting them confused.)

Conversely, you could be on the Left and observe that the Democratic Party is in theory more likely to implement “progressive” goals than the Libertarians (who are generally opposed to them) or the Greens (who lack the numbers to vote in their agenda). You may also have observed that in practice the Democrats are very likely to sacrifice what you consider a valid goal for the sake of getting re-elected. You may also have observed that however many political concessions the Democrats made to progressives at their convention, they were rather keen to control primaries for the Clinton team even when the ultimate outcome of Hillary’s nomination was no longer in doubt. You have to weigh whether making the “sensible” choice will actually get you what you want politically. The reason so many people were voting for Sanders in the first place and why Jill Stein’s Green Party has been getting so much attention in the aftermath is the suspicion that the Democratic Party will not achieve progressive goals, or will achieve too few of them at too high a cost in other areas (like foreign policy).

So if you really believe that neither of the two major parties is sufficient, you need to decide what you want your party to accomplish. That means working backward. Ultimately, rather than engaging in a vanity-project presidential race (which even if successful will mean that your President is an orphan with no support in Congress for his agenda), in the long term you need to elect people in “down ballot” races who will actually pass that agenda. That will also mean electing people on a local level. But in order to start electing people on the lower levels, you need to go to the next step:

Ask What Your Party Can Do For You. Specifically, if one is going to focus on the city or state level of government, what do you think your party could accomplish or emphasize that mainstream parties are not focusing on? (Keeping in mind, your group could get its ‘foot in the door’ working on nonpartisan races.) The Libertarians might focus on protecting marijuana rights at the local or state level of law enforcement. Greens or other “progressive” movements would probably focus on making law enforcement in general more accountable, especially on issues of how laws are enforced in different ethnic neighborhoods. (Which is also something that Libertarians could investigate.) Have a candidate or group platform, sort of like the Contract With America, that people can point to as a statement of what you’re going to do, and through what methods it’s going to be done. The next step at that point is:

Ask What You Can Do For Your Party. This is where you need to do the usual things that political activists do. You raise money, specifically to raise awareness of your party and candidate so people actually vote with you. But at this stage you also need to address the aforementioned challenges that the system deliberately puts in the way of outlier ballot access. Concurrently to actual party politics and running individual candidates, you also need to create and sponsor ballot initiatives to remove state and/or local rules that are set up to handicap your candidates.

And frankly, this also means doing some homework on how the system works. For example, Aaron McGruder, creator of the comic strip The Boondocks, often tells the story of how the Green Party had noticed his politics and asked him to run for President in 2004. He had to point out to them that at that time he was not 35 years old and thus not eligible to run for President.

Don’t be that party. Basically, take the process seriously enough to where a decent number of people think that you deserve to be elected. We can’t all be Trump.

Given that the Libertarian Party is the “third” party which is the closest to getting its act together as a challenger to the ruling factions, in my next post I intend to offer some more focused advice to them from a libertarian perspective.