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What is the Purpose of the Libertarian Party?
Justin Amash says the purpose of the political party should be to win elections and appeal to a broad demographic
Justin Amash, the first member of the Libertarian Party to sit in the U.S. Congress, recently announced that he would not seek the 2024 Libertarian Party Presidential nomination. I’m not sure where this quote is from, exactly, as I’ve only seen it in what appears to be screenshots from a text message, so I apologize to the original source for not linking to them and will be happy to do so if they come forward. I’ve transcribed the statement here, and any mistakes or typos are invariably my own:
I continue to get asked whether I intend to seek the Libertarian Party nomination for president in 2024.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and the answer is no, I do not intend to run. If you had asked me the question a couple years ago, the answer would have been yes, absolutely.
When I joined the LP, the party enjoyed widespread ballot access and seemed interested in expanding its reach. Today, not so much.
To be clear, this has nothing to do with ideological differences. If anything, my policy views align more closely with those who describe themselves as right-libertarians. It’s about the proper role of a political party and the infrastructure of the party.
Running for president is a massive undertaking, not one I’m willing to begin unless I believe I can run a competitive campaign that, if I can’t win, substantially impacts the outcome. Right now, I don’t believe the LP is positioned to support an effective presidential run.
This is not an issue likely to be resolved in the short run. Simply put, I haven’t been able to convince party leaders that they should focus almost exclusively on organizing libertarians to win elections. We just have a different philosophy about the role of parties.
I think that libertarian activism should come from outside the party, and libertarian ideology should be driven primarily libertarian individuals, including party members and the party’s candidates for office, not the party itself. That’s not to say the party shouldn’t take ideological stances; it certainly will and must.
But to be a successful political party the LP will have to appeal to at least a third of the electorate. It can’t do that when the party itself is focused on being the ideological torchbearer for libertarianism.
It instead needs to be a place that is welcoming to almost anyone who feels the Republicans and Democrats aren’t libertarian enough. That’s a low threshold, unsatisfying to those who believe the party must be the leading voice of libertarian activism. But if we want Libertarians to compete in elections nationally, that’s what it will take.
I would say that I have a couple problems with this approach, but let’s just look at it practically for a moment. Amash’s preferred approach for the Libertarian Party has been the approach since I became politically active, so to speak, in 2008, as evidenced by the presidential campaigns in that time.
Former Republican congressman Bob Barr, who was at one point a champion of the Patriot Act and Iraq War hated by libertarians, won the Libertarian nomination in 2008 on the heels of libertarianism becoming as popular as it had been in a century at least thanks to the Ron Paul presidential campaign, and received 0.4% of the vote for a fourth place finish behind Ralph Nader. Former Republican governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson won the nomination in 2012 and 2016, and got more than double the amount of votes that Bob Barr received in 2012 and nearly four times his 2012 total in 2016 for the two most successful presidential runs in Libertarian Party history at that point. If Amash is correct, then we would expect to see the Libertarian Party do better in 2020 than it did in 2016, right? Well, that didn’t happen. The Jo Jorgensen campaign got less votes than Gary Johnson did in 2016.
You can make excuses for this all you like: Jorgensen wasn’t a politician like Johnson was, Jorgensen didn’t get the media coverage that Johnson did, and 2020 Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden was not as hated as 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton. All of that merely begs the question, however: If the Johnson campaigns had been successful at doing what they were supposed to do, and the strategy that Amash would like the Libertarian Party to continue to follow was a winning strategy, then Jo Jorgensen and the LP would have been taken more seriously by the corporate media and gotten more votes. But the truth is that even in its best showing with a so-called mainstream candidate with broad appeal to the electorate with two uniquely unlikable nominees running with the major parties, the Libertarian Party could only get 1% of the vote and could not maintain even that momentum going into the next presidential election.
For Amash to imply that this strategy is in some way “competitive” or “substantially impacts” the outcome of any presidential election has no basis in reality. It’s a proven failure over and over. Does that mean that I think that it’s inherently a worse electoral strategy than running hardcore, ideological libertarians? No, as I said, Gary Johnson and Jo Jorgensen, had the three best electoral performances in Libertarian Party history. My point is that electoral success for the Libertarian Party, despite it being a political party that is ostensibly trying to win elections, is the wrong metric to begin with because it is unobtainable in the United States.
The only competitive third-party in U.S. history, that I can think of, was the Progressive Party in 1912, and that is due solely to former president Teddy Roosevelt and the force of his personality propelling that party to electoral relevance. Ross Perot’s independent 1992 campaign comes to mind also, but he was a billionaire who self-financed his campaign. You could bring up the Republican Party in 1860, but the formerly dominant Whig Party had broken up by that point and largely reformed as the Republican Party. The U.S. system is itself, in my opinion, not generally conducive to having three major parties at any one time, and electoral laws have been put into place by Republicans and Democrats that make it even harder for third-parties or independent candidates to challenge them.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Amash is right, however, and that the Libertarian Party could become a competitive major party alongside Democrats and Republicans appealing to roughly a third of the electorate following his strategy. It would require the embrace of candidates like Bob Barr, like Gary Johnson’s 2016 running-mate Bill Weld, and candidates like current Democratic Party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. who may or may not switch to seeking the 2024 Libertarian Party nomination. As none of these people, especially Bill Weld and RFK, are ideological libertarians, I have to ask, what’s the point? The herculean-effort of turning the Libertarian Party into a competitive, major party alongside the GOP and the Democrats in the far-fetched hope that it would remain even vaguely libertarian in the same way that Democrats are vaguely progressive and Republicans are vaguely conservative is hardly worth it, in my opinion. To have three nearly indistinguishable major parties is not more beneficial than having only two.
So what is the point for Amash? I’m not trying to be snarky in asking this question, I’m genuinely curious. If your goal is merely to have a major political party that appeals broadly to the populace, with a libertarian leaning, then a more effective strategy would be to do so from one of the already competitive major parties, right? It would make more sense to me, for example, to try to make the Republican Party more ideologically libertarian where possible than to try to make the Libertarian Party a major-electoral prospect but with a watered-down, somewhat libertarian ideology, “libertarian enough” as Amash says, at best.
And this is actually the electoral strategy that I favor, in so much as I favor any electoral strategy, and that Justin Amash is actually a perfect example of the success of. Amash is an ideological libertarian, as he himself states, who was a multi-term congressman from the State of Michigan as a member of the Republican Party. Congressman Thomas Massie is a libertarian-Republican currently serving as a representative from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and, of course, the best example of all is Ron Paul, former Republican congressman from the State of Texas. Ron Paul ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party nominee, and, as expected, got nowhere. But his Republican runs for president in 2008 and 2012, on the other hand, paved the way for libertarians like Amash and Massie to win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and for Paul’s son Rand, sometimes libertarian-ish, to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Not to mention paving the way for a more populist class of conservative Republicans to gain more power in the party, which, while not libertarian, are closer to libertarians on a number of issues than establishment drones like Mitt Romney or Mitch McConnell.
So I agree with Amash that major political parties must be ideologically diverse, or perhaps ideologically broad is a better way to say it, but I don’t see a benefit in having three blank-slate parties over two and have no interest in wasting my energy trying to make that happen. My vision is for an ideologically broad Republican Party with a strong libertarian-wing that dominates the party in certain quarters. No, libertarians aren’t going to run the Republican Party of northern Virginia, for example, but what about New Hampshire? What about Amash’s own Michigan? Libertarians could, at least in theory, be more competitive against Democrats in places like that for the Republican Party than conservatives could in many cases. It’s, admittedly, a difficult strategy to implement, but, unlike Amash’s preferred strategy for the Libertarian Party, it’s actually possible and has proven, if limited, success.
So if my political strategy is to make the Republican Party, of which I am a member, more libertarian, which is my political ideology, then what do I think the purpose of the Libertarian Party, of which I am not a member, is? Contrary to Amash, I do not see the Libertarian Party as a vehicle to get libertarians elected. It’s not feasible: Success at that will only come by getting partisan Libertarians who are not ideological libertarians elected which is meaningless to me, or via fluke in small, local elections which is not nothing, admittedly. The purpose of the party, in my mind, then is two-fold: Running candidates who are ideological libertarians who can spread the message of libertarianism from the bully-pulpit of a political campaign, which is really the only time that many people pay attention to political matters in the first place, and who ideological libertarians such as myself can vote for when the major parties run non-libertarian candidates to hold them accountable.
Yes, that relegates the Libertarian Party to minor-party status in perpetuity, but that’s the reality regardless of how the Libertarian Party views its role or what it does. So with that in mind, the LP might as well run actual libertarians or disband, because if we want to vote for vaguely, or not even, libertarian candidates then we can just vote for Democrats or Republicans. The Libertarian Party will always be a minor political party, period, and the philosophy and role of a minor party must be different to that of a major party. That’s the mistake that Amash is making, in my opinion.
All of that said, if Amash were to change his mind and seek the Libertarian nomination and win, he is a candidate that I would have no problem voting for against President Biden or Donald Trump. But, he’s also a candidate that I would prefer to see seek the Republican nomination for president, though I don’t think he could win that in 2024.