The Libertarian Party is an American Third Party whose members espouse a consistent political philosophy of government non-intervention, in both economic and social issues.
History and Influence
Founded in 1971 by a small handful of disillusioned political activists, the Libertarian party has since gone on to become America’s largest and most successful third party. With organizations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, it’s rare to find yourself in a voting booth these days without a Libertarian on the ballot. Over 600 Libertarians currently hold public office--more than all other third parties combined--and in any given election year the Libertarians run as many as 1500 candidates in races all across the country, from local school board to president of the USA. In 2000 they fielded candidates for 255 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House as well as 25 of the 33 Senate seats up for election -- the first time in eighty years that any third party had contested a majority of the seats in Congress.
The Libertarian Party fields candidates across a broad range of offices, and regularly scores a visible percentage of the vote in Presidential Contests, as well as being able to reach double digits in many otherwise uncontested districts. Libertarian style third parties are influential in Alaskan politics, where the Republicans are often considered too prone to raise taxes or restrict individual liberties, and find strong support in states such as New Hampshire, Colorado, Maine, California, and Texas, as well as historically red states, such as Utah, Georgia, Alabama, and others. On a grassroots level, the Libertarians are perhaps the most organized and most pervasive of all the third parties, and while most people balk at actually voting for them, they find people sympathetic to their cause all over--from Clint Eastwood to Howard Stern (who announced his run for mayor of New York City on their ticket, before dropping out when he realized he‘d have to publicly disclose his finances).
Libertarians have also maintained a strong presence on the internet in particular. Theirs was the first website for an American political party, and they maintain some of the longest running newsgroups and newsletters on the internet. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz, a tool created and run by affiliated organization “Advocates for Self-Government”, remains one of the most popular and widely distributed political quizzes on the internet, having been online since the late 80s.
Politically, the Libertarians have had particularly strong ties to the Republican party, as a great many of their numbers come from former disenfranchised conservatives. Bob Barr, Dick Armey, Ron Paul and others are current Republicans who find themselves particularly receptive to the Libertarian agenda (Paul, in fact, ran for President as a Libertarian in 1988 before switching his registration back to Republican to run for Congress), and it’s not uncommon to hear of prominent Republicans publicly changing their registration from Republican to Libertarian as a statement of disgust.
The Libertarian Party, in that sense, is one facet of a larger libertarian movement - a quasi-utopian vision analogous to anarchistic socialism in the 19th century. For years the perception was that the libertarian movement was used as a virtual front organization for Republican Party elements seeking to pump rabid attacks on Democrats and Liberal Policies into the political discourse - books calling FDR a "fraud", and accusing liberals of being proto-stalinists were standard fare. Prominent Libertarian think tanks such as the Cato Institute has also been far more receptive to conservative agendas than to progressive ones.
In the wake of the rise of the neo-conservative movement, a radical shift has occurred, with many libertarians breaking with the image of being Republican attack dogs, and standing on principle on such topics as the growth of government. In 2002 libertarian style challenges cost the Republicans the governor's race in Wisconsin, Oklahoma and, nearly, Alabama, and the party has been as critical of the Bush administration as they have any administration since FDR.
Thus, as a party and a movement, the Libertarians have long been on the fringe of more conservative leaning platforms, but with the rise of the neocons in the Republican party, and with them such initiatives as The Patriot Act, the War in Iraq, a constitutional amendment precluding gay marriage, the massive increase in the scope and power of the federal government, the penchant for rabid deficit spending, more and more Libertarians have found themselves on the outs with the Republican party.
Believing in extremely limited government, the Libertarians are neither uniformly conservative nor liberal in terms of the conventional Left-Right political spectrum. Instead they seek to apply their "smaller government" philosophy regardless of the issue at hand: whereas Republicans believe in greater government control over social issues and less control over economics, and Democrats believe in less control over social issues and more control over economics, Libertarians seek less government control over both. Laissez-faire capitalists and social liberals, the Libertarian Party attracts both far right extremists and fiscally conservative liberals, as well as a significant contingent of pro-gun rights and anti-drug prohibition activists.
While many individuals identify themselves as lower-case libertarians and many of their ideas find support in the mainstream, the Libertarian Party itself advocates across the board changes, some of which are considered decidedly fringe, such as a complete abolition of the income tax, repealing most federal agencies including the Dept of Education and FDA, legalization of prostitution and an end to the prohibition of drug use, among other things.
It’s that across the board application of the less-is-more ideology that has caused the Libertarian party to remain on the fringes of American political discourse for over thirty years. While perhaps a more focused single-issue perspective might yield better results, the Libertarians continue to tout a comprehensive platform for scaling back the federal government, some of which is attractive to certain segments of the voting population, but much of which is seen as too “far-out“. The current platform for the Libertarian Party can be found in its entirety here: .
The basic Libertarian platform summed up, however is that laissez fare ideals should govern the economy, “government protection only against force or fraud” should be the social norm, and “armed neutrality” should be the guiding principle in foreign policy.
In the past the Libertarians, as far as Democrats have been concerned, have been viewed as little more than conservative gun-nuts, "Republicans who smoke pot," and tax dodgers. That reputation is partially deserved, but in the past few years, as the Republican party has promoted a sharply neoconservative foreign policy, and an undisciplined fiscal policy, Libertarians have become less and less involved with or sympathetic towards the Republican party. Bush has received no free pass from the Libertarian party, having become the target of a multitude of scathing criticisms and indictments, and many libertarian-leaning conservatives have found themselves in the Anybody But Bush crowd.
This creates a unique opportunity for Democrats, who can appeal to libertarian-leaning voters on a number of social issues, as well as an opposition to the preemptive war in Iraq. At the very least, the Libertarian party provides a refuge for disenfranchised conservatives, creating a wedge between neoconservative elements of the Republican party and its more socially moderate and fiscally responsible former brethren, and in that role can function well as potential spoilers.
It remains to be seen if the Libertarians can ever create enough of a groundswell to make a significant impact in a national presidential race. Barring a well-known and well-funded celebrity candidate, probably not. However, considering the power of their grassroots organization, the pervasiveness of the party on nearly every ballot in the country, their influence on the internet, and their appeal, on an issue-by-issue basis, to certain elements of the voting public, they can certainly make things interesting.