Given the nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP candidate to face Hillary Clinton, the disdain of many voters for both major party presidential candidates in 2016 is likely to be at or near record levels. Americans of all political affiliations frequently express disgust at perceived Washington corruption and the inability of politicians from both parties to work together to accomplish anything of significance.
Obviously Donald Trump’s nomination is evidence that 2016 is not business as usual. And although Hillary Clinton is the odd-on favorite to win the Democrat nomination barring action from the FBI prior to November, the popularity of a avowed socialist in a national race demonstrates the willingness of the American voters to try something new and even extreme in both parties. But if voters are open in Trump and Sanders to arguably some of the most radical candidates ever for their respective parties, why isn’t there more traction at this time for a third party?
Marc Ambinder, writing for The Week, says that the Libertarian Party should be that third party although it thus far isn’t successfully taking on that responsibility:
The Libertarian Party should be having its runway moment: Ballot access in all 50 states. A plausible front-runner for its nomination who served as an actual governor and ran a profitable business. A deep-pocketed set of billionaires, including the Koch brothers, who would spend money if they thought it would make a difference. Mainstream parties getting ready to select their most unpopular nominees in years. Massive squalls of internet-fueled indignation over the seeming failure of the Democratic and Republican parties to align themselves with Americans’ sensibilities. The Wall Street bailout. The failure of government at all levels in Flint, Michigan. And yet, not even Donald Trump, and the hole that his nomination blows out of the center of the Republican Party, has been enough to convince voters to give the party a second look.
So what is the reason for the Libertarian Party’s failure to capitalize on the converging electoral weaknesses of the Republican and Democrat parties? After all, Gary Johnson is a serious candidate by third party standards, having served as the governor of New Mexico. Policy wise, Ambinder also identifies a set of issues traditionally associated with the Libertarian Party platform that increasing numbers of Americans are migrating to: sentiment against government surveillance, second amendment rights, drug legalization (or at least less draconian drug policies), and sentencing reform.
But Ambinder posits that in a number of more critical issues the Libertarian platform fails to appeal:
The party’s fiscal conservative policy planks, always fuzzier than — and downplayed in favor of — its leave-us-alone-stands on social issues, are out of synch of with what Americans say they want from government. There is no real “Libertarian” view on foreign policy; Johnson seems to be all over the map.
Combined with the entrenched nature of the American two-party system it seems unlikely that the Libertarian party will shake up the political system in 2015 despite significant numbers of disaffected voters sympathetic to at least some of their positions and hungry for change. Ironically, the very nature of the libertarian ethic may work against the political fortunes of the party:
Libertarians aren’t well-suited to American politics. Politics is transactional; goods, services, and rights are distributed and redistributed to satisfy competing demands and pressures. We elect people to give us the stuff we want, whether that’s stuff that makes our lives easier or makes life harder for the guys we don’t like. Drugs aside, libertarians reject interest-group politics on principle, which makes them ill-suited to argue that gay voters might enjoy a better world in the near-term if they supported libertarians.
Libertarianism by definition rejects the notion of interest or identity groups (as Ambinder notes) and also the politician’s go-to electoral strategy: promising “free stuff”. So in large part its failure may be due to an inability to “play the game”. If the party did this however, it would only do so in compromising the core values differentiating it from the other parties. So the failure of the Libertarian party may be a symptom of a larger problem with the political system. Although organizationally and policy-wise the Libertarian Party has strategic shortcomings, the failure of the political system to offer more than two legitimate choices may ultimately be as much due to the political system itself as the third parties failing to break in.
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