The October issue of Reason magazine, the politically and intellectually savvy journal of libertarian and libertarian-leaning opinion, features a terrific debate about whether to work within the two-party system or bust out of it. Congressman Thomas Massie, a Kentuckian who is one of the most independent-minded Republicans in the House, argues for working inside the system with simple logic: “Republicans get elected, Libertarian Party members don’t.”
The counter comes from Bill Weld, who was twice elected governor of Massachusetts as a Republican but who now campaigns as a Libertarian — most notably, in 2016, as the party’s nominee for vice president. “If we want a new broom to sweep things clean in Washington, the answer is not the R party or the D party. It is the Libertarian Party.” To those who don't buy that argument, Weld replies, “It has rightly been pointed out that the odds of a third-party candidate being elected in 2020 are at least as good as the 2014 odds of Donald Trump being inaugurated in January 2017 or the 2015 odds of Emmanuel Macron being elected president of France in 2017.”
Weld tends toward an optimism with regard to his party’s trajectory that may strain the bounds of political realism. But he’s right when he argues that “virtually everyone in the United States is coming to the sad conclusion that the two-party monopoly of Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., is choking off creative policymaking, to the detriment of the country at large.”
I don’t happen to share Weld’s view that the Libertarian Party provides a sufficient solution to the challenge of diversifying American politics. I’d prefer a genuine multiparty system, like what we see in Canada, where a pair of properly named “major” parties (the Liberals and the Conservatives) compete with a social democratic party on the left (the New Democrats), a regional party with nationalist tendencies (the Bloc Québécois), and a scrappy Green Party — all of which hold seats in the parliament. Or what we see in France and Holland, where parties of the left, right and center compete in systems that are open enough, and fluid enough, to allow for the displacement of old parties and the development of new ones.
That openness and fluidity are blocked in the U.S. by gerrymandering, big-money politics, and media that focus on personalities instead of policies. But the Libertarians have put some cracks in the wall. I give them credit for this, and for sticking to a set of principles — grounded in a critique of government — that has made them an identifiable presence in our politics.
I don't happen to be a Libertarian. While I have always appreciated the party’s critique of military interventionism abroad and the drug war at home, I like public schools. And I look forward to the day when our for-profit health care system is replaced by a single-payer Medicare-for-all program.
With that said, however, I’m convinced that the Libertarians have earned a place at the table. They are a serious party that has organized in all 50 states and earned 4.5 million votes for president in 2016.
Of the 176,168 votes that Wisconsinites cast for candidates other than Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, most of them went to Weld and his running mate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. The Libertarians took 106,674 votes in Wisconsin — a bit under 4 percent of the total. (The Green Party’s ticket, led by Massachusetts physician Jill Stein, mustered 31,071 votes, for around 1 percent statewide.) In a number of western Wisconsin counties (Eau Claire, St. Croix, Pierce, Dunn and Grant), the Libertarians finished with closer to 5 percent of the vote. The party’s U.S. Senate candidate, Fitchburg real estate agent Phil Anderson, won almost 90,000 votes, for 3 percent of the total.
Those are not dramatic numbers, but they are certainly worthy of note — especially when we consider the exclusion of the Libertarians from most debates, many polls and the vast majority of the “horse-race” coverage of our electoral contests.
Anderson is back at it this year, running for governor on a Libertarian Party ticket that features Patrick Baird as the nominee for lieutenant governor and a number of state legislative candidates. Anderson got some good news last week, when the latest Marquette Law School survey was released. The headlines from the state’s pre-eminent poll went to Democrat Tony Evers, who has opened up a 5 point lead — 49-44 — over Republican Scott Walker in the gubernatorial race. But some of the more striking numbers belong to Anderson, who is pulling 6 percent of the vote among likely voters and 7 percent among the broader group of registered voters.
Anderson is a factor in this race — not as the potential “spoiler” that those who always try to write off third parties might suggest, but as a hardworking candidate with a sharp critique of both major parties who has gained a reasonable measure of traction. It is absurd that the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association does not intend to include a candidate who is backed by 7 percent of the possible voters in the gubernatorial debates that will be held in October.
The organizers of debates generally try to establish baseline standards for inclusion, but a standard that excludes candidates who are polling more than 5 percent of the vote seems unreasonably high. At the very least, Anderson should be included in the first debate. Give him a chance to be heard. If his numbers decline, then the argument for leaving him out of the second debate will be credible. But if his numbers go up, then, perhaps. Bill Weld is right.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. email@example.com and @NicholsUprising.
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