Politics in Two Dimensions
We have three rules for successful third party politics in the U.S. A party that follows all three has a chance. A party that breaks one of them is doomed to irrelevance.
Rule 1: A successful third party must be moderate enough to win somewhere.
Rule 2: A third party needs some principles.
Rule 3: A third party must have a base of voters/activists that is indifferent to the difference between the Democrats and Republicans.
As long as we view politics in terms of a left-right political spectrum, these rules contradict one another! A centrist party can obey Rules 1 and 3 but breaks Rule 2. A semi-radical conservative or liberal party violates Rule 3. An extremely radical liberal or conservative party can fulfill Rules 2 and 3 while violating Rule 1.
A party can survive with meager success by obeying Rules 2 and 3 while breaking Rule 1. Consider the membership dynamics of a new conservative party. Such a party could be appealing to many activists. However, many of those activists will continue to support the Republicans due to the lesser of two evils dilemma. The activists most likely to join/stay in are those who see little difference between the Democrats and Republicans. Yes, the Democrats are worse (for these activists), but the difference is tiny to one far out on the right fringe. Thus, over time we can expect a party like the Constitution Party to radicalize to the right. The same holds for the Greens, albeit to the left.
The Libertarian Party has also radicalized because of this mechanism, but its radicalism also stems from other factors: its ideological origins in axiomatic philosophy and its membership pledge. In theory a libertarian party could survive closer to the center, because libertarianism is not on the left-right axis. Libertarianism is about politics in more than one dimension.
From the beginning libertarianism has been about breaking away from left-right politics. Eventually, this became formalized by David Nolan with his famous Nolan Chart. According to this chart, liberalism is about increasing government control of the economy while reducing government control over personal behavior. Conversely, conservatism is about decreasing government control of the economy while increasing government control over personal behavior. Libertarianism is about decreasing government control of the economy and over personal behavior.
From a purely left-right perspective, the Libertarian Party is in the center; it is a moderate party of sorts. Thus, in theory it could fulfill Rule 1. Moreover, it is a coherent subset of moderates, thus fulfilling Rule 2. (An authoritarian party could also meet both of these criteria, for the same reasons.) Finally, the Libertarian Party supports a mix of liberal and conservative positions. Some who ascribe to such a mix are equally dissatisfied with both the Republican and Democratic parties. Thus, the Libertarian Party should be able to fulfill Rule 3.
So, according to the previous paragraph, the LP fulfills all three rules. According to my theory, the LP should be much bigger than it is. So, is the theory wrong?
No. The analysis above is incomplete. If we use the Nolan Chart definition of “libertarian,” there are indeed many Americans who qualify as such. The Advocates for Self-Government have demonstrated such through the World’s Smallest Political Quiz. However, the Libertarian Party has historically defined the word “libertarian” otherwise. Membership in the LP requires that one “have certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.” This can and has been read to mean that one opposes all use of force other than for self defense. This can mean:
- No gun restrictions whatsoever – including personal nukes.
- Unlimited immigration rights.
- No taxes other than user fees.
- Legalization of all drugs.
- Legalization of prostitution.
- Elimination of all pre-emptive regulation. Punishment for harm cannot proceed until after harm has occurred. Thus no meat inspections, consumer safety regulations, etc. Torts only.
- No foreign aid or foreign intervention unless the U.S. has already been attacked.
Whatever the merits of these positions, they are not moderate. The LP has historically adopted a mix of extreme liberal and conservative positions. While such a mix may average out to be moderate using one-dimensional politics, few moderates accept such a mix. If we use the Nolan Chart and look at the positions of the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties from around the mid 1980s, we get:
The Libertarian Party was not a moderate party. It was near the extreme top of the Nolan Chart.
That said, the LP has run some moderate candidates at various levels. Some of them have won. (So have some extreme candidates.) One reason why the LP has been able to field moderate, mainstream candidates is that the party does attract a fair number of moderates. The Libertarian octant has room for people close enough to the mainstream to be able win elections. When the LP recruits using the World’s Smallest Political Quiz, it declares many moderately libertarian takers to be “libertarians.” Some of them join the party and become active, because they are otherwise politically homeless. That is, they are dissatisfied by both the Democratic and Republican party messages (Rule 3).
Alas, the purists among the radicals in the party who work diligently to drive out moderates who express their views at conventions. The membership oath gives them a weapon to do so and they use it. For this reason, the Libertarian Party has floundered despite having the potential to become big.
Over the past two convention cycles, the Libertarian Reform Caucus succeeded in getting the LP to adopt more moderate stands in its platform. The platform is still radical by the standards of most, but I guesstimate that the new 2008 platform is tolerable to at least five times as many people as the pre-2006 platforms. This has yet to result in five times as many members, but it may have helped the party get its second-best presidential showing – despite many radical libertarians refusing to support the candidate. It is hard to say. It takes a while to shift brands. The main office has yet to trumpet the party’s more moderate positioning, and many core activists still trumpet a more radical stance. The party still bills itself as “The Party of Principle,” and that principle is enshrined in the anarchist pledge members are still required to take.
Even if the LP were to change its slogan, ditch its membership pledge, and further reform its platform, it would still have a major obstacle to growth. The Libertarian Party would still suffer significantly from the lesser of two evils dilemma (Rule 3) even though the Libertarians practice politics in two dimensions. The Nolan Chart has a problem: one axis is more important than the other. A triangulated LP would still have more overlap with the Republican than the Democratic party – at least when the Republicans adopt Reaganesque policies and rhetoric.
Then again, should the Republican Party remain the party of the Bushes, the LP has a golden opportunity to steal away the GOP’s Reagan/Goldwater wing. This could be a golden opportunity for the LP.
But I am not counting on it. The recalcitrant radicals still hold sway. By the time they are dealt with the GOP could well move back upwards on the Nolan Chart, squeezing the LP once again.
Meanwhile, I have found a much better opportunity for a third party, one which is more stable vs. a shift in Republican leadership, achieves better triangulation, and does a better job of solving this nation’s current problems. To this opportunity we turn next.
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Copyright© 2006-2008, Carl S. Milsted, Jr. All rights reserved.