I have just finished the third volume of the ongoing series “Others“, an encyclopedic history of American third parties and independent political movements by my friend — and onetime Pennsylvania Consumer Party U.S. Senate nominee — Darcy Richardson. The series is captivating for a guy like me, and I eagerly await the day when Darcy finally gets up to the Libertarian Party’s history. (The first four volumes, those that are published so far, only go up to 1928, and the LP did not come on the scene until 1971.) Perhaps by the time he gets to the modern day, in Volume 15 perhaps, I will have done something worth a mention.
The books leave me both hopeful and pessimistic as someone who has dipped in and out of alternative parties for years and who has cast his lot with one. I am hopeful because the books show that despite the rarity with which they actually win elections, alternative parties do change the debate and can impact policy. The best example of this is the Socialist Party, which had much of its agenda implemented in a bastardized form under Franklin Roosevelt (my Socialist grandfather, a Norman Thomas man, despised F.D.R. for this until the day he died). The Prohibitionists also had their agenda implemented after their rise threatened the established parties throughout the 1910s. Even today, though not so much on the national level, we see Republicans trying to win over Libertarians and Democrats trying to win over Greens by giving lip service to aspects of their agendas.
I am pessimistic, though, because the books imply the heyday of the third party is over. It used to be comparatively easy to start up a new party, get on ballots, and win over voters. New parties rose and fell throughout the post-Civil War era with great regularity, but even those that were doomed still often attracted governors and senators to their ranks. That is very rare today. True, both the Libertarians and the Greens are running former members of Congress for president this year (both from Georgia, and both voted out of office in 2002, interestingly enough), but this is an anomaly. In 2004, the parties nominated a software engineer and a lawyer, respectively. And ballot access laws adopted since the 19th century party boom now make it nearly impossible for a new party to form, unless it has a celebrity candidate or a billionaire behind it.
I do not really think the Libertarian Party will ever achieve high office, but I do think the party plays a role in getting an otherwise little heard message out to the public. It also provides a home for people like me who have no place in the R-D duopoly. I plan to stay with the party — though whether or not I’ll ever actually be a candidate for anything remains to be seen. I’d probably be awful at it.