I had a disagreement with former Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash last night.
First, let me be clear that I think he’s been one of the top 5 Congressmen in the past 10 years, both before and after switching from the Republican to the Libertarian Party, and I hope that he runs for President someday. Congressman Amash is a super nice guy. He’s smart, well-read on libertarian principles, and highly accomplished. It’s conceivable he’s right and I’m wrong on this issue where we have some disagreement.
At our Libertarian Party of Texas dinner in Houston last night, Amash explained that Libertarians need to stop seeing themselves as activists and educators, and instead need to act like a political party, and that the purpose of political parties is to win elections.
On the face of it, that statement seems obviously true and self-evident. It’s something most Libertarians and even non-Libertarians think and say about the Libertarian Party all the time. I like winning elections too. I helped recruit over 100 Libertarians who got elected in Pennsylvania last week.
So how could I have a problem with a statement that “the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to win elections, and not to be activists and educators?”
The fact is, most Libertarian candidates that have run against both a Republican and a Democrat (in 3-way races) have received between one and five percent of the vote, and Libertarians almost always lose 2-way races as well that have one major party opponent. Averages have trended up or down slightly over the party’s 50 years, but not by far.
If having leaders like Amash proclaim that “we Libertarians need to win elections and stop running candidates for offices that we can’t win” actually caused significantly more Libertarians to win significant elections, I’d probably jump on board and would be for saying it more often.
But I don’t think it works.
I think saying that causes fewer Libertarians to run that have a small chance of winning and causes way less to run for offices like Congress where they have slim to no chance of winning.
The practical result is less Libertarian winners and a whole lot less Libertarian candidates that lose. The Libertarian Party shrinks. For a current example, look at the Libertarian Party of Virginia’s results from November 2, 2021 (last week). The governor’s race in Virginia was national news but Libertarians didn’t field a candidate for governor this year. Libertarians didn’t make the national news, weren’t discussed on social media, and weren’t seen by voters on their election ballots. The Party presence in the minds of voters shrank. Meanwhile, some Libertarians in Virginia debated whether or not it was okay to openly admit whether they preferred the Republican or Democrat running for Virginia Governor. Having no Libertarian on the ballot in Virginia in 2021 meant many libertarian voters in Virginia either voted Republican or Democrat, and as a result got a little more used to voting Republican or Democrat, a habit that for some will carry over into 2022 and beyond. Their thinking will be “now that I’ve voted Republican/Democrat in the general elections, perhaps I should vote in the Republican/Democratic primary next year so I can have an impact, since Libertarians aren’t on the ballot."
Contrast 2021 with 2013 and 2017 when Libertarians had a candidate for Governor on the ballot in Virginia. (A PAC I run helped get Robert Sarvis on the ballot for governor in 2013).
It’s already hard to get Libertarian activists to run for offices they’ll likely lose. If you convince them their efforts are worthless, it gets a whole lot harder.
I am proud of our hundreds of Libertarian candidates around America who have run for office and have won. They have made life better in their communities. But the fact is, most of those winners are in quite small districts, altogether representing fewer than 1% of Americans. And when you consider that each citizen has dozens of politicians “serving” them (President, Governor, Congressman, City Councilor, School Board Member, Constable, Waterboard, etc.), the actual control of public policy by elected Libertarians is tiny. Around 350 of the total 500,000 (0.07%) elected officials in America are Libertarian.
Over the 50-year history of the Libertarian Party, I think that the thousands of candidates that have run for offices like President, Governor, and Congress, yet have all lost their elections, have had more impact (though indirect) on public policy than the Libertarians who have won elections.
Even when Libertarian candidates lose, I believe they educate the public, get some news media coverage, and put pressure on elected Republicans and Democrats that causes elected Republicans and Democrats to move at least a little, towards a more Libertarian position. It’s something that’s impossible to measure and prove, but I think that’s the case.
I think Libertarians’ vocal opposition to wars, support for legalizing marijuana, support of free markets and free trade, opposition to corporate welfare, support for the freedom and safety of gays, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, and other minorities or oppressed people, has helped improve public policy including the laws on paper and the personal behavior of people (the culture). I don’t know how much. But I think it’s significant when considering the annual expenditure of time and funds by Libertarians. Our grand total of a few million dollars per year spent on Libertarian Party activism is small in comparison to our impact. We deliver a big bang for the buck.
I don’t want to discourage Libertarians from running for President, Governor, Congress, or any other office, even though they’ll likely lose. Instead of our typical 50 winning and 500 losing Libertarian candidates each cycle, I’d like to be ten times bigger overall, and see 500 winning plus 5,000 losing. A bigger party. More impact.
I served as national executive director of the Libertarian Party for 8 years plus 4 years for the LP Texas. I’ve recruited hundreds of candidates myself and have inspired others to recruit hundreds as well. I now run the Libertarian Booster PAC which has recruited many more candidates. I’m in search of another billionaire to help lift my PAC from a six-figure organization to a seven-figure organization so I can help lift our candidate recruitment nationwide from 500 to 5,000. I think that will make Americans' lives even better than they are today. Until those extra resources join us, I’ll keep struggling along with thousands of other Libertarian activists across the nation to keep the Libertarian Party’s influence as big as we can.
In our history, several elected Republicans and Democrats have switched to the Libertarian Party, run for re-election, and have been shocked by how far their vote percentages have dropped. I usually wasn’t shocked. Our historical elections results are public information. The data is easy to interpret.
I think we’re very lucky and fortunate to have former Congressman Justin Amash in the Libertarian Party on our team working with us. I hope he does enough research and learns from some of his predecessors like Ron Paul, Bob Barr, and Gary Johnson. I hope he carefully considers his strategies and tactics so that he can be highly effective.
Working as a Libertarian Party activist is hard. We tell ourselves and each other it’s fun and personally rewarding, but most of us know we’re usually exaggerating the personal benefits. We don’t do this for personal benefit. We are Libertarian activists because we think we know how to make people’s lives better and we’d be negligent if we didn’t try our best.