Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Throughout most of the 20th century, a plurality of Americans identified as either Democrat or Republican. Only a small share of the electorate—from a low of 15% in 1945 to a short-term high of 36% in 1992—did not affiliate with either of the two major parties. Around 2009, however, something changed: political “independents” began to edge out both Republicans and Democrats in partisan identification surveys, topping out at 46% in 2011 and hovering either at or just below that rate in the years since. Even while fewer Americans than ever identify as Republican or Democrat, though, most continue to vote along the major party lines.
Who are this silent plurality? Some, undoubtedly, are truly politically “independent” or apathetic, whereas others might consciously or unconsciously lean toward a third-party affiliation. Among all those official minor U.S. parties, libertarians occupy by far the greatest share of the electorate. But libertarians don’t always vote (a choice often made on political principle rather than disinterest), and when they do, it’s not necessarily for a “formal” Libertarian Party candidate.
So what gives? America’s major parties are less popular than ever. Neither one can hold a majority for more than a couple of election cycles—resulting in a level of legislative turnover not seen since the twenty-year “period of no decision” that marked the end of the 19th century. The tenor of inter-party relations is a disquieting blend of “divide and conquer” and “consolidate and destroy.” Rhetorically, Republicans and Democrats remain vehement rivals. But effectually, their policies are more alike than they are different. And ideologically, both have put first principles second to mandates that contravene them. If we’re not in the middle of a realignment, we’re rapidly heading toward one.
What’s unprecedented, though, is that the lines that delineate our dominant parties aren’t being redrawn so much as they are dissolving into quicksand. More polarized than ever in their speech, our legislators are nevertheless in near lockstep when it comes to the spirit of the policies they promote. Centralized, censorious, and monetarily maladroit tendencies dominate both sides of the aisle: rather than swapping “swing” constituent groups over a handful of wedge issues, today’s Republican and Democrat lawmakers coalesce on everything from helicopter money, to neo-Brandeisian strictures on tech companies, to supply chain seizures that play fast-and-loose with Constitutional federalism. The battles they fight are largely superficial, and tend to revolve around the 280-character caprices of outgoing President Donald Trump.
When our politicians are this divided in rhetoric, but this united in their support for policies that flout fiscal responsibility, local interests, and civil liberties, we no longer have a two-party system. We have two factions of one party that promotes a maximalist government ideology.
Which brings us to the question: If and when that party fuses, could libertarians fill the gap?
The short answer is, “ehhhh…”
Part of the problem libertarians face in making their case to the electorate is that they struggle to identify themselves using the binary terminology that dominates today’s political discourse. Trying to place a libertarian on a “left/right” spectrum is like trying to plot depth on a two-dimensional plane. Libertarianism goes beyond being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative”—especially today, when liberal institutions are increasingly puritanical about sexual mores, and conservatives routinely insist that “deficits don’t matter.”
But libertarianism is different from Republican or Democrat ideology in a still more fundamental way. It’s not just that libertarianism is a different political ideology. It’s a different way of thinking about politics altogether.
Republican and Democrat political ideologies are institutional ideologies. That means they’re fundamentally concerned with systems of representation, and the difference between Republicans and Democrats on this score was (until recently) reflected in their respective policy decisions.
Libertarianism, by contrast, is a rights ideology. That means it doesn’t aim to enshrine a particular political regime as much as it tries to define and defend the rights that came before and extend beyond politics. Classical liberalism is another rights-based ideology, and although some libertarians will disagree, the two are subtly different.
(Here’s a quick example: the concept of liberty. While both liberalism and libertarianism take it as their first philosophy, liberalism allows for a much broader interpretation of the word, which is why you could call both Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher different—okay, very different—types of liberals. Libertarianism, conversely, incorporates a much more specific definition of “liberty,” one that requires the sort of opportunity for risk-taking that you’d find in free market systems. In that sense, you could also argue that libertarianism and liberalism are property-based philosophies, since they both take “property” as some type of inherent right that, in political society, one either forfeits to some degree or relies, to some degree, on the state to defend.)
Put another way, capital D-Democrats and capital-R Republicans are more oriented toward government institutions and the policies they execute. Their claims are “how” claims: How are states and governments supposed to protect or promote individuals’ rights? Libertarians, by contrast, are interested in what those rights are. If they do enter into the world of how, it’s generally to ask how those rights can be protected from states and governments. But they’re vague on the particulars: While libertarianism makes a claim about the types of rights that people have, it doesn’t say much specifically about the state’s role with respect to those rights. This is why you can find ideologically consistent libertarian anarchists, minarchists, “conservatarians,” and left-libertarians. (Try finding an ideologically consistent Republican anarchist.)
On the one hand, being an ideology of rights rather than institutions gives libertarianism a unique advantage during so-called extraordinary moments: times of realignment and dissolution, when party principles disintegrate and partisan identities shift. As a rights ideology, libertarianism is more resilient to these changes, since it’s oriented toward creating personal and communal meaning independent of any particular political or institutional parameters. When those parameters, and the public’s faith in them, begin to collapse—like now—is precisely when these principles and the rights that preceded them (and exist beyond them) become so valuable.
On the other hand, adhering to a philosophy that’s fairly agnostic toward institutional structures makes it difficult for libertarians to agree on policy, even when they’re aligned on principle. (Hence the proliferation of the “Not a Real Libertarian” trope that dominates libertarian Twitter: if someone hasn’t accused you of not being a real libertarian at least once, you’re not a real libertarian.)
Libertarians have a difficult time introducing their ideas within formal political institutions, partly because there’s no agreement among libertarians on whether those institutions should exist to begin with, or how they’re supposed to operate. (How do we fund them? Who runs them? What authority do they have? Why do they have that authority? Should we be phasing them out? Replacing them? Privatizing them? Allowing market alternatives?)
So, where do libertarians go from here? To figure that out, they need to take four initial and interrelated steps:
Step One: Recognize the difference between policy and principle; and recognize what it means to disagree on the former while refusing to compromise on the latter. Libertarians should strive for plurality on policy, and unity on principle.
Step Two: Don’t sell libertarian ideas; sell libertarian policies. Ideas are vague, and ideology is threatening. Policies, by contrast, are clear and discrete. More than that, research shows that ideological and issue-based predispositions—like “big business hurts people” or “we have a duty to promote democracy abroad”—are formed early in life and are difficult to change consciously. People’s policy positions, on the other hand, are rarely well-developed or even thought about until an issue or event raises the matter to public consciousness. Most Americans, for example, likely weren’t thinking a whole lot about whether we should end qualified immunity until the events of this past summer made the question impossible to ignore.
Step Three: Draft and debate those policies, liaising with Republican and Democrat lawmakers to get them a hearing when possible. This is something that several libertarian institutions—from think tanks to media publications to the Koch Network to the Libertarian Party itself—already do. We can always do more, and we can and should be more vocal in our current efforts.
Step Four: Promote these policy discussions and extend existing outreach efforts, especially on non-libertarian platforms. Don’t be afraid to claim the mantle of libertarianism as you do so—and certainly don’t be afraid to point out when non-libertarians are expressing libertarian views! Plug your brand—then tell other people that they’re already using it.
People often remark on the handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans that litter primary fields and press outlets. Fewer observe the small share of left-libertarian sentiments espoused by progressive figures like Andrew Yang and Bill Maher. None of them are registered libertarians. But all of them believe that there are certain social programs whose federalization itself—not just its federalization under an opposing party—jeopardizes choice in a way that’s toxic to liberty. No, don’t call Andrew Yang a libertarian. But definitely point out that his arguments against federalizing the minimum wage, and for using a “freedom dividend” to opt-out of SNAP and SSI, are predicated on libertarian principles. Libertarians should articulate why those arguments’ conclusions are flawed, of course—but our efforts must be grounded in a willingness to, in Frederick Douglass’ words, “unite with anybody to do right.”
Just as libertarian political ideology is not primarily governmental, libertarian political victory is not exclusively electoral. Yes, if libertarians want to acquire a major presence, they’ll face the difficult task of balancing ideological consistency with electoral momentum. And reconciling political strategy with philosophical purity is rarely easy. But the case for liberty is strong—if libertarians can make it.
It’s up to them to take the floor.