Bruce Bartlett

A few months ago, I caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that the best way for libertarian ideas to advance is by destroying the Libertarian Party. Since it cannot win, due to the nature of our political system, it is impotent and only ends up crushing the spirits of libertarian-minded political activists. After spending some time with the party, they often become so frustrated that they exit politics altogether, leaving fewer libertarians in the Republican and Democratic parties.

For the benefit of those who still cling to the idea of a political party explicitly devoted to libertarian principles, today I want to talk about some political reforms that might make such a party viable.

One, obviously, is a European-style parliamentary system where the president is, in effect, elected by Congress. The Founding Fathers rejected this idea, and I see nothing in the way parliamentary systems govern that seems better than what we have.

Another would be to get rid of the Electoral College or change it so as to allow a candidate to win with a plurality of the votes. Right now, an absolute majority is required -- a minimum of 270 electoral votes. This tends to enforce a two-party system even at the local level.

But if we allow a candidate to win with less than a majority of the electoral vote, then there is the danger that someone representing one section of the country or a big state like California could win while losing the rest of the country. This would also be a problem if we just elected presidents by popular vote, which many Democrats like because they got robbed twice, in 1876 and 2000, by Republicans who lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.

Theoretically, either proposal would empower third parties, but the results could be disastrous if there were many parties dividing the vote and the winner ended up with just a small fraction of the total. It would be almost impossible to govern in that case.

Personally, I like the Electoral College as it is. It prevents someone who is merely a sectional candidate from winning, it forces candidates to campaign nationwide and not ignore the small states, it tends to magnify the victories of the winners and give them a mandate to govern even if their popular vote margin is small, and it prevents the viability of third parties.

I think one of the great strengths of the American system of government is the two-party system. It forces people to compromise and keeps both parties fairly close to the middle of the political spectrum. I think these are good things, but they necessarily frustrate those with strongly held views, who gravitate to third parties because they prefer the company of like-minded people. They get great pleasure out of congratulating each other on their adherence to principle and on how much better they are as human beings than those who compromise and work within the major parties.

This is fine if politics is just a game. But at the end of the day, third parties cannot win the White House under current rules. Some third party advocates say that may be true, but the Republican Party started out as a third party and rose to become one of the two major parties. The same thing could happen again, they say.

To this, I have two answers. First, the Republican Party was never really a third party. The Whig Party had completely collapsed by 1856, when the Republicans ran their first presidential candidate, so we went from one two-party system immediately to another two-party system. Second, the problem of slavery is the greatest one this nation has ever faced. Nothing remotely similar exists today or likely ever will upon which a viable new party could establish itself.

Therefore, I will continue to argue that only by changing our electoral system in some fundamental way will it be possible for third parties to become viable. My preferred solution, if we really want to empower third parties, is twofold. First, change state laws to make it easier for new parties to get ballot access. Right now, the laws are rigged against them. Second, allow cross endorsements and aggregation of votes.

I would like to see all states have a system like New York's, where there is a viable Conservative Party, Liberal Party and others. They often endorse the Republican or Democrat, and the votes they get on the third-party line also count toward their total. This way, voters can send a message to politicians without wasting their vote.

To sum up, third parties cannot win unless there is fundamental electoral reform. Those who favor third parties like the Libertarian Party must, therefore, work for such reform if they hope to become viable.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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