Duverger’s Law

As I mentioned in my last post, libertarianism is once again making a dent on the national conversation or at least a few of us are coming around to make some noise. Our movement seems to be growing but what the hell do we do with it? Do we take our new found members, our guns and our gold out to the woods to hide? Well maybe, but it probably won’t solve our problems in the long run.

The libertarian movement might have an opportunity to seize the momentum and translate it into policy victory. Elections are only consequential insofar as they deliver the policy results you hope for.  I could not care less if the politician is red, blue, yellow or green so long as they advance the causes I believe in. Unfortunately we have to play the game to win and that might require picking a team.

Libertarians have had an on again off again relationship with the Republican Party. Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ron Paul were in many ways great advocates of liberty from within the existing partisan infrastructure. Ronald Reagan, although not a particularly great example of the movement, once called libertarianism “the heart and soul of the conservative movement.” There are new advocates such as Justin Amash that are the vanguard of the liberty movement within the party and folks like Rand Paul who might bridge the gap between mainstream conservatives and libertarians. Then again, there are people within the Republican Party people like Rick Santorum and the folks who made an effort to shut grassroots liberty activists out of the Republican Party in the 2012 convention.  I’m cautiously optimistic that the Republican Party will shy away from big government solutions on social issues, foreign intervention, and maybe one day crony capitalism.  But even if the rhetoric matches up, the Republicans on the whole, are far from being libertarian.

Then there’s the blue team, but might be even more problematic. Although many Bush era Democrats agitated against the abuse of executive power, privacy violations, and draconian drug laws, they’ve failed to deliver on these promises while in power. The Democrats can’t seem remain consistent in their support of civil liberties, are highly critical of second amendment rights, love utilizing the power of the state to solve social ills, and often (inaccurately) invoke the label of libertarianism as a punching bag for Republican economic policy.  Again, I’m generalizing a little but I don’t think I’m too far off. So much for picking a lesser of two evils.

Other alternatives? Well there’s always a third party right? Down with the two party system! If Republicans and Democrats won’t we’ll leave ‘em both!

There are a number of smaller political parties out there like the new Whigs, the Conservatives, the Independent Party but two of the biggest and most relevant to the conversation are the Greens and the Libertarians. We’ll get to them but first we have talk about why breaking out of the two party system is going to be damn near impossible: Duverger’s Law.

Besides ballot access and media coverage issues, Duverger’s Law is a political theory that helps explain our Republican-Democrat Duopoly. It says that plurality rule electoral systems with single member districts tend towards two party regimes. There’s a nice Wikipedia article about it here.

When a third party challenges the legitimacy of the two party system, one of a few things tend to happen:

First, most third party voters end up voting for one of the major parties because they would rather have “the lesser of two evils” in power. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Second, (the most unlikely possibility), the existing party system collapses only to be replaced by another two party system. The last time this happened was 1856 when the Whigs went out of style and the Republicans proved more popular than the Know Nothings.

Third, one of the major parties incorporates the issues of the rebellious interest group to gain their voting power. Think of the Populists in 1896, Progressives after 1912, the Dixiecrats in the 1960s, and perhaps the libertarian movement today. One day we might explore voting systems that will provide greater choices for the electorate like an instant run off system, but until then we have to deal with what we’ve got.

So back to the third parties. Although the Green Party may be on the right side of electoral reform and civil liberties, their underlying political philosophy is antithetical to free market principles and limited state power. The Green movement could be a temporary ally on a few select issues but is hardly a permanent haven for the free market wing of the emerging libertarian movement.

Then of course there is the Libertarian party, the big “L” Libertarians. Probably the closest in line ideologically with my beliefs, I would think they’d actually deliver on their limited government promises. However, as outlined above, it is tremendously difficult to try to operate outside of the two party system: I don’t have a ton of faith in the LP’s ability to become a serious national presence. Gary Johnson’s record breaking 1% of the vote is not quite inspiring a party realignment. Damn, Duverger’s Law Strikes again.

That being said, the Libertarian Party might fare better on the local level. As a leader in Greater Rochester Libertarian party noted the first time I attended one of their events, we need to gain power from the bottom up. Libertarian candidates are in office at lower levels. This might be the push the liberty movement needs to gain political power or at least force one of the major parties to absorb its issues.

Again, I’m not sure what the solution is or how best to achieve policy victory. The two major parties are each problematic in their own way and we’re unlikely to see the two party system break anytime soon. I know it’s an easy way out, but perhaps it all depends on the context of the situation. Either way, I think about this subject often and figured it was about time to spew these thoughts onto paper.


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