The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives, wrote G.K. Chesterton. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.
This pretty much sums up modern politics.
And it pretty much explains my lack of sympathy for Republicans who blame Libertarians for their election losses. Change Progressive in the Chesterton aphorism to Democrat, and Conservative to Republican, and modern partisan politics falls into place.
Libertarian candidates, Republicans often tell us — sometimes with earnest admonishment, often with churlish skirl — whittle away enough votes from GOP candidates to throw elections into Democratic hands, leaving us with progressives and even socialists in office, doing great harm.
Thus Gary Johnsons 2012 challenge against Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was viewed with deep worry and suspicion in some quarters. Robert Sarviss Libertarian Party run in Virginia was blamed for Republican Ken Cuccinellis loss to Democrat Terry McAullife both before and after the election. A number of prominent Democratic luminaries owe their long stays in office not only to a lack of term limits, but to Libertarians who helped put them in office — one of these being Washington States Senator Maria Cantwell.
Many of these charges are disputable. Libertarian candidates often pull votes from both Democratic and Republican ranks. Not equally (the ratio is usually something like that of three Republican votes for every two Democratic votes), but enough to make the margin-of-victory analysis tricky at best.
Libertarian candidates also pull many votes from the ranks of independents and the indifferent (indifferent to the two dominant parties), people who would not likely have (or even never have) voted R or D in any case. On the bright side, for those who are serious about political participation, Libertarian Party candidates bring people into the community of voters. Which is something almost all politicians say they want. (They usually lie, only really wanting more voters for themselves. Of course.)
But even though most charges of spoilerhood (spoilage?) are misguided, lets say that its true. You know, arguendo.
Who should do what?
Republicans tell Libertarians that they should stop running against the GOP, since the GOP stands for limited government, as do Libertarians.
But the Libertarians response makes just as much sense, if not more: Republicans are LGINOs, Limited Governmentalists IN NAME ONLY. Why help them?
Right now Republicans are all up in arms about Obamacare, a vast increase in regulation and the scope and extent of the redistributive state, a new entitlement that threatens to destabilize budgets further. True. Obamacare is bad, bad, bad. (I write against it multiple times per week, at my Common Sense site. I try to cover all the angles.) But when Republicans had united control of the federal government — House, Senate, Executive — they provided a precedent, pushing through a new jury-rigged medical entitlement that was also underfunded, threatening the stability of the country, increasing the redistributive powers of the modern state. Remember Medicare Part D? (It deserved an F.)
Libertarians have almost zero reason to respect the Republican Party as a party.
Its only a few candidates and a vast swath of earnest (though often misguided and frustrated) supporters who get libertarian sympathy. The bulk of Republican politicians simply stink of Big Government and traditionalist progressivism. Their job is precisely what Chesterton said it was: to make sure that Democratic mistakes never get corrected.
And many of Republican stalwarts, such as the last two presidential contenders — John McCain and Mitt Romney — have been members in good standing of the progressive advance guard, pushing disastrous legislation. And war. And increased government. And surveillance.
The list goes on and on. Ill just mention two: McCain-Feingold and Romneycare. Case closed. Those two candidates deserved to lose.
So its Republicans who have to change. Theyve got to stop putting up big government candidates. The Libertarian Party exists as a presence on the landscape because of Richard Nixons wage and price controls. Thats a simple historical fact. It continues to play gadfly in electoral politics because Republicans havent seen the progressive error of their ways.
And if Republicans still fear the persistent challenge of Libertarians? Try something different: consider doing the opposite of their instincts on electoral reform.
Usually, major-party politicians build up the walls, securing their positions with barricades. In electoral politics, this always entails making it harder for minor-party challengers, often by requiring larger and larger numbers of petition signatures for ballot access. Many states have done this, Oklahoma being the most rigorous. But the Libertarians keep on chipping away, never giving up.
You might even look at their Sisyphean efforts as heroic. Could it be that libertarians are patriotic, and wont give up for the same reason that the Founding Fathers spoke of eternal vigilance?
Do Republicans really want to spurn such interest in American betterment?
No. They shouldnt.
So they should reform against their instincts. They should open up the electoral system.
They should work with open-minded, fair-play Democrats and end first-past-the-post elections in the United States. There are several ways to go: ranked voting methods, from Instant Runoff Voting to proportional representation, ending the election of Representatives from gerrymandered districts, electing them, instead, at large. The work of my friends at FairVote.org (I serve on the board), provides many insights and proposals that could take the spoiler danger and make it a plus — for all of us. If you wonder how, you really should look into it.
You owe it to the country. To your cause. To the future.
In the meantime, Republicans should consider whether they arent part of the problem, rather than the solution. Too often the conservative has served as merely a yes-man to yesterdays fools. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, Chesterton perceptively wrote, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.
Dont call those who hate ruination spoilers. That word better applies to those who do the real spoiling. [references]
December 8, 2013
This column was sent to Townhall.com,
but was not published there on schedule.