Saturday, May 13, 2006

Where is the Libertarian Party Going?

Thanks to Jeff Pruitt for asking about where the Libertarian Party fits in to the bigger political picture. This is something I have given an awful lot of thought to over the years, for reasons Jeff pointed to in his comments a few posts back.

Jeff's right- it is frustrating to be a third party within a society that expects a two-party system. So why bother? Because I am a libertarian, and the Democrats and Republicans do not represent my views. My next best choice might be to not participate in the process at all. That's not going to bring things my direction, so I get involved.

In terms of political activism, when I lived in Ohio, I chose not to be terribly involved with the Libertarian Party. Mainly, the ballot access laws in Ohio are incredibly restrictive. For automatic ballot access in Ohio, a party must earn 5% in the presidential contest. Plus, Ohio's Secretary of State Ken Blackwell actively worked to deny ballot access to any third party. Unable to run for office, I opted for talk radio. It was the way I felt I could best be effective in getting Libertarian ideas to the public.

Here in Indiana, with less restrictive ballot access (2% as tied to the Secretary of State race) and a solid, active party (more than 100 candidates statewide each cycle, electoral wins to lower offices, functioning county party affiliates), I decided to get involved with the party upon moving here.

The Libertarian Party of Indiana stands in contrast to the Green Party. The Greens are struggling to gather the necessary signatures so that they can run a Secretary of State candidate in 2006, in the hopes that they clear the ballot access threshold for automatic ballot access through 2010. The Greens are an incredibly top-down party. There's Ralph Nader, and then virtually no party below. There are maybe five county affiates of the Green Party in Indiana. It's ironic to consider their party structure after you listen to Greens speak. I wish them well, as I believe in full ballot access, but I'm afraid they are going to fail.

No third party is going to start by being elected at the top, so Indiana Libertarians have deliberately focused more on running for local office. We comment on local policy, we run for local office, we have an impact on local policy. Mike Sylvester is a good example of this, despite his recent loss in the school board race.

We have had impressive success at the local level. Phil Miller ran for Greenfield city council some years back, and defeated the incumbent Republican- who happened to be the GOP's County Chair! Susan Bell was elected judge in Hagerstown, defeating an incumbent Republican. Libertarians in Hagerstown currently serve on the board of zoning appeals. Libertarians have helped to defeat smoking bans in a number of communities in the interest of the business owners' property rights. We are the only party to take the side of residents fighting forced annexations, and are winning backers as a result.

Mainly, we have changed our approach from running very high-minded philosophical campaigns to running campaigns on issues that deeply affect people where their view of the issue coincides with our philosophy. Again, property rights is the biggest one, whether on the forced annexations, eminent domain abuse, as well as zoning and permitting abuses. We find that people become more interested in some of our high-minded postions once they see we agree on something that is very important to them.

The 2007 municipal cycle is going to be very interesting. In three-way races, 35% is a winner, and with the effort Libertarians are putting in at this level, we are going to win many municpal seats- probably in smaller towns first. This has been our experience thus far. Mainly, it's easier to go door-to-door to the entire district in a Hagerstown or a Greenfield than it is in a Fort Wayne or Indianapolis. It's easier for the candidate's reputation to be known in small towns than in big cities, where reputations are often completely unknown, and candidates win because of expensive TV ads.

This year, our legislative candidates will be working to put pressure on the Republican Party in ways the Democrats cannot credibly do so. The GOP says it is for smaller government and lower taxes, but fails to deliver. Very, very few Democrats are for this, so it is almost impossible for them to credibly attack Republican hypocrisy in the area. Libertarians can do it, and are. We have moved away from our radical calls for cuts and instead take a very moderate postion, calling for a 1% budget cut in the next session. If the Republicans fail to cut 1% with majorities in the Statehouse and with the Governor's office, it will be because they lack the will. In short, Libertarians are becoming more strategic and political. Third parties rarely have a legislative agenda. Anymore, it is rare that the Democrats or Republicans do, as they often work to have no clear position on anything.

Libertarians have to deal with the Wasted Vote Syndrome, so we're taking it head-on. I hear endlessly that people like a lot of Libertarian positions, but they are afraid that if they fail to vote for the party that is next closest to them, the party that is furthest from them will win. To them I say:

  • If you voted Republican hoping for smaller government and lower taxes, you wasted your vote.
  • If you voted Democrat hoping for wider civil liberties and less intrusive government, you wasted your vote.
  • If you keep voting for parties that fail to deliver on what you expect, you are sending the message that it's good for them to take you for granted.
  • In fact, the only way to begin to make Democrats and Republicans stop taking you for granted is to put something at stake for them. Unless they lose votes and financial support, they believe they are doing right by you.

It's crazy. If someone went to McDonald's three times for a Big Mac, and three times they got a Filet O'Fish, they wouldn't go back to McDonald's again. And yet, despite the Ds & Rs failing to deliver, Americans go back over and over again. Consumers don't think twice about ditching an unresponsive restaurant. Why do voters go back to unresponsive parties?

Libertarians are taking on the obstacles before them and offering reasonable answers. The trick now is to raise the money necessary to get the message out. We're working on that, but finding it easier and easier to raise money from people who see us as the only party directly defending them.

In 2000, I believed that the Libertarian Party would grow in about 20-25 years into a significant player. As it grew, I believed that it would suffer the co-opting of its issues. Watch my race this year. If I start polling around 15-20%, my opponents will have to ask why I'm doing so well. When they identify my winning issues, they will steal them in the hopes of knocking me down a few pegs. This will happen repeatedly, but will have the effect of moving policy in a Libertarian direction. It will also focus on the distinctions between the three parties.

Just as the Socialists had great success getting their policy ideas co-opted into law in the first half of the 20th Century, the Libertarian Party will do likewise. Like the Socialists, I believe that the Libertarian Party will become large enough to focus the distinctions of the three parties sharply enough to split the LP off to the other two parties.

With the developments at the state and federal levels since 2000, I believe the timeline for change will be shortened. Here's why:

Whether here in Indiana or federally, we have Republican majorities in both House & Senate, and Republican executives. It is clear that when this happens, budgets and spending grows. Taxes grow. Government gets larger.

The amount of sniping at Republican office holders coming from Republicans and conservative pundits is astonishing. They have noticed that the GOP fails to walk the walk. Here are the distinctions of the three parties:

  • Democrats believe in government solutions to societal problems. They believe in bigger government and higher taxes. They are fiscally and socially liberal.
  • Republicans have moved towards government solutions to societal problems. Despite the rhetoric, they have moved towards bigger government and higher taxes. They are fiscally liberal, but socially conservative.
  • Libertarians believe in private solutions to societal problems. They believe in smaller government and lower taxes. They are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Interestingly, Libertarians and Republicans are opposites in actual practice. The idea that Libertarians take votes from Republicans is bunk.

I believe that the Democrats and Republicans will eventually shift and reshape along the following lines:

  • Democrats will absorb big government Republicans, including social conservatives. I don't think it curious at all that Howard Dean and Hilary Clinton are courting the religious right at the moment. The religious right wants to use government to set societal norms as a matter of law. Democrats will be focused sharply as the party of collectivism.
  • Either the Republican Party or Libertarian Party will be left standing, as the other falls. Democrats who believe in freedom of speech and non-interventionist foreign policy will gravitate here. The resulting party will be focused sharply as the party of individualism.

I think the transformation could take place within 10 years if the national LP and a number of the states identify the opportunity and better organize and raise money. It's probably a 15 year timeline right now, unless there are sweeping reversals in majorities in the upcoming general election.

I don't see these reversals happening, despite the atrocious approval ratings of President Bush and Governor Daniels. Mainly, the Democrats haven't been offering ideas as counter-agendas. All they offer are magic words like "Haliburton" and "Abu Ghraib", and point to Republican ethical lapses. In Indiana, Dems point to things they don't like, but fail to offer a plan of their own.

The magic words aren't any solution. Americans can see the problems there, so Democrats, what's your solution? Crickets. Americans can see the ethical lapses, but what about your own ethical lapses?

If the Dems put forth a coherent agenda- even an awful one- they would sweep the elections with tremendous gains. They've had years to put forth an agenda, and have failed to do so. It's incredible to me.

As for my part, I will put forth a Libertarian Plan for Indiana. We aren't going to be attacking personalities as the Democrats do. We are going to identify policy problems and offer counter-proposals. I believe it is going to be very effective. People are looking for genuine alternatives. We going to give them a solid one.

After that, it's up to the people to decide.

-Mike Kole

9 comments:

Jeff Pruitt said...

Mike,

Thank you for your response to my questions. I appreciate your insight into the libertarian party strategy and think that focusing on issues and incremental change is a wise course of action. It sounds like a lot of the party's hopes are riding on you and your race - good luck and I hope you get the necessary 2%.

I do want to challenge part of your post - namely that the democrats don't have a coherent strategy. This is a typical talking point from the right especially as they sink lower and lower into the abyss of the public's confidence.

The democrats have a clear and concise 6-point agenda for 2006. It's been put forth by Howard Dean and other party leaders time-and-time again. The right always asks where the plan is - well here it is:

http://www.democrats.org/agenda.html

Clearly the republican party has no credibility on energy, open government, or fiscal responsibility. These issues will become central to the democratic campaigns. Rest assured though the fear mongerers will come out w/ the usual list - gay marriage, abortion, cloning, etc. Just take a look at the legislative agenda this summer and you'll see what the republican strategy is. It's the same as it's been the last 6 years - fear and loathing. Only this time I don't believe the American people will buy into it...

Craig said...

Hey Mike.

Ralph Nader isn't a Green anymore. I guess you could have actually done some research on the subject, but I've learned before that isn't exactly your thing.

mikekole said...

Jeff-

Thanks for the link to the Dems' plan. I appreciate it. I'll confess that I simply haven't heard much about the plan in any media, not even from the left bloggers I frequent. I do hear a lot from Dean and others citing -correctly- the GOP ethical lapses, but that's often all I catch them talking about. I'm just reporting what I see.

Craig- I love your ability to ignore the meat of any discussion, in this case the top-down effect of the Green party, and zoom in to a superfluous item. You're good.

Craig said...

I tend to "ignore the meat" when it's served with BS.

Andrew Kaduk said...

Mike,

Craig does that to me all the time. I can write volumes of flawless, factual, rational material, and Craig will dig out one sliver of data which is innacurate (even if it's just me quoting a source who is later proven to be "full of it") and the entire debate will then hinge around that (often) irrelevant detail. It's a tedious and irritating way to exchange ideas, but that seems to be the only way he knows how to do it.

ADK

Jeff Pruitt said...

Mike,

I was wondering what your take is on the Libertarian post on Leo Morris' blog.

Mike Kole said...

Jeff- I get and agree with Leo Morris's assessment that if small-l Libertarians are voting either 'R' or 'D', they are allowing themselves to be marginalized. Our positions do not carry the day within those parties. Just ask Mike Pence how it feels to enunciate a position for less spending only to be taken to the woodshed by GOP leadership and made to recant publicly.

Leo is saying that the small-ls need to stop voting D & R, because they aren't ever going to get what they want by voting for them. In fact, what they are saying is that they can be taken for granted because they aren't going away- they will continue to give Rs & Ds votes despite not getting what they came for.

What he left unsaid is that to put something at risk for the Rs & Ds is to leave and and vote with the Libertarians. The major parties will have to stop taking these voters for granted and reclaim libertarian positions.

And yet, it doesn't surprise me at all that small-l libertarians do vote for Rs & Ds.

We struggle against the wasted vote syndrome. We struggle against the disorganization of the national party. We struggle against the disorganization of other state affiliates. We suffer at the hands of radical Libertarians in California who enunciate far-out utopian positions that are contrary to the incremental positions we take here. Many people who should be voting Libertarian because it is what they believe go elsewhere because of these reasons and more.

A great deal of small-l libertarians are single-issue voters, or have a subset focus. For instance, many libertarians most strongly identify with Democrats because they line up with the Libertarian Party and Democrats on social issues. It doesn't matter that Democrats largely fail to put forward a pro-freedom agenda with regards to sexual orientation, libertarian voters will vote Democrat just to vote against Republicans who are decidedly anti-freedom on these issues.

Likewise, many libertarians most strongly identify with Republicans on economic issues- again, not because GOP action matches the rhetoric of smaller government and lower taxes, but because Democrats often enunciate higher taxes and bigger government positions, so they feel they have to vote Republican to be against Democrats.

Unfortunately, the Sager articles generalizes the Libertarian Party as a whole. Well, what else can a 700-word article do? The Libertarian Party of Indiana takes a decidedly different approach than most LP state affiliates. Mainly, we have listened to the criticisms leveled against us, and dropped the utopian stances. We recognize that if public policy is to be an all-or-nothing proposition, we're getting nothing. Because so many other state LP affiliates choose to keep on with the utopian positions, many people who would vote Libertarian split their votes among Ds & Rs, or stay in the hot tub, as the Sager article referrences.

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