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Pragmatism and Republican-Lite Are Both Losing Political Strategies
To Prevail, a Different Policy Strategy is Necessary
During every presidential election, Libertarian Party members hope for a breakthrough that will take them from their standard 1-3 percent vote total to much higher levels. That hope has long been predicated on the “pragmatist” strategy for electoral success in L.P. presidential and congressional campaigns. Today, that same hope is now based on adopting and advancing Republican-oriented reform measures, a strategy that can be called the Republican-Lite strategy.
Although these two political strategies —the pragmatist strategy and the Republican-Lite strategy — appear to be different, in fact they are really just variations of each other, for they both are based on abandoning genuine libertarian principles in the hope of garnering a large number of votes from the electorate.
The pragmatist strategy is based on compromise and concealment of libertarian positions and principles. Its targeted audience consists primarily, but not exclusively, of Republicans. The idea behind the pragmatist strategy is that if Libertarian Party presidential and congressional candidates water down libertarian positions or conceal them from voters, mainstream voters will be more likely to vote for L.P. candidates for president and Congress.
A good example of the pragmatist strategy involves Social Security, which is the crown jewel of America’s welfare state. Social Security is, of course, a program that is supported by both Republicans and Democrats. The genuine libertarian position calls for the immediate repeal of this program, not only because it’s a socialist program but also because it necessarily is based on the initiation of force. Since calling for the repeal of Social Security necessarily alienates both Democrats and Republicans, over the years pragmatists have come up with ways to “save” or “privatize" Social Security or “phase it out” over a period of decades, notwithstanding the fact that such schemes necessarily entail a continued violation of the libertarian non-aggression principle as well as the Pledge that every L.P. member takes promising not to support the initiation of force.
Another example involves the CIA, which is, without a doubt, the most evil agency in U.S. history. The Libertarian Party platform once called for the abolition of the CIA. Not anymore. The pragmatists succeeded in having that plank of the platform removed, in an obvious attempt to garner votes from Republicans and Democrats), both of whom cherish the CIA and are convinced that it is necessary for our “national security.”
But the pragmatist strategy of compromise and concealment has never worked. Some sixty years after the Libertarian Party was formed, the vote totals in presidential races and congressional races continue to fall within the 1-3 percent range.
As far back as 1997, I argued that the pragmatist strategy, which was gaining sway within the Libertarian Party, would result in failure. See my 1997 series “Compromise and Concealment: The Road to Defeat.” It did more than that. It also ended up destroying the Libertarian Party’s brand of principled libertarianism, which is problematic given the Libertarian Party’s self-imposed label as the “Party of Principle” in the political arena.
The Republican-Lite, reform-oriented political strategy involves adopting Republican-oriented reform proposals. Examples include immigration reform, Social Security “privatization” or “phasing out” over a period of decades, school vouchers and school “choice,” health-savings accounts, selective foreign interventionism, regulatory reform, and other Republican-oriented positions.
The Republican-Lite strategy is also partly based on recruiting members of the Republican Party to come over to the Libertarian Party to run as L.P. candidates. (See my Substack article “The L.P. Leadership and the ‘Party of Principle.’”) Obviously, this recruitment strategy is based on the notion that there is no real substantive difference between a “free-market-oriented” Republican candidate and a Republican-Lite Libertarian Party candidate. (See my Substack article “Marc Victor’s Surrender to the Republicans.”)
The primary targeted audience under the Republican-Lite strategy is the Republican Party. The idea is that by adopting Republican-oriented reform proposals, the Libertarian Party presidential candidate and congressional candidates can induce Republican voters to vote for the L.P. Republican-Lite candidates rather than their Republican opponents. Thus, the Republican-Lite strategy necessarily involves measures that are designed to curry favor with Republican voters, such as endorsing or praising “free-market-oriented” Republican candidates.
While they each would be loathe to admit it, there is considerable overlap between the pragmatists and the Republican-Lites. For example, they both favor immigration controls, Social Security reform, school vouchers and school “choice,” regulatory reform, and selective foreign interventionism. They both embrace Republican-like mantras like favoring “smaller” government. They both target Republican voters. Both strategies are based on abandoning the Libertarian brand of principled libertarianism and embracing reform-oriented proposals instead.
From a political standpoint, both strategies — the pragmatist strategy and the Republican-Lite strategy — are doomed to fail and are destined to keep L.P. presidential and congressional vote returns within the standard 1-3 percent range. That’s because both political strategies are inherently defective. They cannot — and will not — ever bring success to any Libertarian Party presidential or congressional campaign.
The Bill Weld phenomenon helps to explain why both the pragmatist and the Republican-Lite political strategies are inherently defective. (See my Substack article “The Bill Weld Phenomenon.”) There is an important aspect to that phenomenon that is pertinent to this particular discussion.
Weld had served as the Republican governor of Massachusetts. He was recruited to come over to the Libertarian Party to run as the 2016 L.P. vice-presidential candidate. After the 2016 election, L.P. pragmatists began grooming Weld to be the 2020 L.P. presidential candidate. They were conducting featured interviews with him. They were featuring him in L.P. fundraising drives and fundraising letters. They were featuring him at L.P. conventions. They were extremely proud when Washington Post conservative columnist George Will implicitly endorsed Weld in an article entitled “Can This Man Save Conservatism?” They were also extremely pleased with the publicity that Weld was bringing the Libertarian Party. As a former Republican governor, Weld embraced “watered-down,” “free-market” perspectives that could garner votes from mainstream Americans, especially Republicans. For pragmatists, Weld was the ideal Libertarian Party presidential candidate.
And then he suddenly left to go back home to the Republican Party to fight against Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.
But here is the kicker that explains why pragmatism and Republican-Lite will never succeed: The L.P. pragmatists who were supporting Weld did not follow him through the revolving door that has been established between the Republican Party and Libertarian Party.
Why not? Weld hadn’t changed. His positions and principles were still the same. The only difference was that now he was fighting as a Republican rather than as a Libertarian. The L.P. pragmatists could have followed him into the Republican Party and supported him there.
But they didn’t. The reason? Party loyalty. The pragmatists placed party loyalty above their devotion to Weld. That’s why they were unwilling to follow him into the Republican Party, even though they had been eager to make him the L.P. presidential candidate. In fact, many pragmatists were angry at Weld for what they considered was a grave betrayal. They considered Weld to be a traitor.
That is precisely the reason why the pragmatist and the Republican-Lite strategies will never work. Party loyalty. No matter how much libertarian positions are watered down or concealed and no matter how many Republican candidates are praised or endorsed, there is no reasonable possibility that Republican or Democratic voters in large numbers will ever cross over and vote for a Libertarian Party candidate over a candidate of their party.
Consider the case of Brandon Phinney. In 2016, he was elected to the New Hampshire legislature as a Republican. In 2017 he switched over to the Libertarian Party. In 2018, he ran for reelection as a Libertarian. His positions as a Libertarian in 2018 were exactly the same as when he ran in 2016 as a Republican. The Republican candidate received 1,740 votes. The Democratic candidate received 1,548 votes. Phinney came in last with 377 votes. In a Reason magazine article, Phinney explained that “voters care more about party than literally anything else.”
Consider the case of Caleb Dyer. In 2016 he too was elected to the New Hampshire legislature. In 2017, he switched to the Libertarian Party. In 2018, he ran for reelection as a Libertarian. According to his Wikipedia entry, he won “fewer votes than every other candidate on the Republican and Democratic tickets.”
Consider the case of Laura Ebke. In 2014, she was elected to the Nebraska legislature as a Republican. In 2016, she switched over to the Libertarian Party. In 2018, she lost her bid for reelection, garnering 43.6 percent of the vote to her Republican opponent’s 56.32 percent.
Even though the L.P. pragmatists did not follow and continue to support Weld after he returned to the Republican Party, it certainly is not beyond the realm of possibility that L.P. members could support a Republican presidential or congressional candidate. Many Libertarians supported Ron Paul’s bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012. But the possibility that Republicans or Democrats would cross over to vote for a L.P. presidential candidate or congressional candidate is virtually nonexistent, especially given the popular mindset that L.P. candidates have no chance of winning, a mindset that certainly did not apply to Ron Paul.
Does that mean that the Libertarian Party and L.P. candidates for president and Congress are forever doomed to fail? Absolutely not! But I remain more convinced than ever that Libertarian Party political success turns on three things: (1) restoring the Libertarian brand to one of principled libertarianism; (2) attacking both Republicans and Democrats for what they have jointly done to destroy freedom, peace, and prosperity; and (3) targeting an entirely different group of people for votes.
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