A three-party America?

As Hillary Clinton joins Donald Trump in having secured enough delegates to win nomination on the first ballot, thus becoming the (even more) presumptive nominee, many Americans are still unhappy about the choice they’re being offered. Hence the continued interest in Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, whom we talked about a bit last week.

An interesting read on the subject is by Jeffrey Tucker in Newsweek. Tucker is a committed libertarian, and he is enthusiastic about the opportunity that has opened up:

The difference with the Republicans and Democrats is unmistakable. The LP is neither left not right, neither Labor nor Tory, but a third choice: Liberalism as traditionally understood. That is the ethos of the party and the message of its candidates to the American people and the world at large. It is a breath of fresh air.

We’ve remarked before on how most democracies have three main clearly discernible political tendencies – left or centre-left, right or centre-right, and liberal or centrist – but how in the Anglosphere, and especially in the United States, the liberals have tended to get squeezed out between, as I put it earlier this year, “a market-hostile left and a freedom-hostile right.”

So it’s worth reading Tucker’s exposition of the three tendencies in the American context. It’s very one-sided – he’s not pretending to be impartial – and a bit tendentious in places, but he’s got the right idea:

Consider the way politics has fleshed itself out in most developed democracies over the last 150 years. There have been three broad camps (or parties), which we can call Labor, Tory and Liberal. The names of the first two have changed (…) but the themes have remained the same. The third force is known in most parts of the world as liberal except in the U.S., where it is called libertarian today.

Labor was born in opposition to free markets, from the conviction that wealth was being wrongly distributed toward “capital” and at the expense of labor. This party has included labor unions, welfare statists, social democrats, socialists and even communists. It favors higher taxes, more regulatory control, and restrictions on commerce. Over time it came to represent the public sector bureaucracies and, finally, to embody every resentment against free enterprise you can dream up.

The Tories represent a different branch of the ruling class: the large banks, corporations, landed aristocracy, the dominant racial heritage and the rich generally. They later came to include the interest groups that had a strong interest in an imperial foreign policy.

This party had a different set of complaints against commercial freedom. It is too disruptive of tradition. It rewards the wrong people. It threatens business monopolies. The Tories long favored their own flavor of government control to restrain the “excesses” of freedom.

Tucker goes on to explain the way many liberals aligned themselves with the right in the late-twentieth century, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan incorporated some liberal elements in their programs, but how this had a serious downside: “The message of freedom became mixed up with other concerns central to Tory ideology: war, corporate monopoly, financial manipulation, prohibitionism and social control.”

The rise of Trump, he says, was the last straw: “the liberal spirit had finally been purged from the Republican Party.” He calls this “the single most significant political event of our times.”

This all seems to me to be pretty much right, and I agree that the Libertarian Party, at least in the hands of moderates like Johnson and Bill Weld, is potentially the equivalent of a normal European liberal party. It’s worth noting, however, that this sort of “broad church” approach is controversial within the party, and many Libertarians have a much more narrow and sectarian vision of what it should be doing.

It’s also important to recognise the huge obstacles in the way of a third party in America. European countries run parliamentary systems, usually with some sort of proportional representation. The US has a presidential system, with a legislature elected by first-past-the-post and a long-standing set of institutional arrangements that privilege the major parties.

But the biggest flaw in Tucker’s reasoning, it seems to me, is the moral equivalence he draws between the Republicans and the Democrats:

What we have developing here is a new epoch in American politics: an authentically liberal (in the classical sense) political movement in the US is being born as an alternative to a deeply corrupt and ideologically dangerous mainstream dominated by two parties that have trended inexorably socialist and fascist.

Now for a start, “socialist” and “fascist” aren’t really comparable terms of opprobrium. If you’re looking for moral equivalence, you want something like “Bolshevik” rather than “socialist”. But more importantly, even “socialist” fails as a descriptor of today’s Democratic Party. (Maybe “fascist” doesn’t work to describe Trump either, but at least it picks out the direction in which the Republicans are moving.)

It’s true that Bernie Sanders markets himself as a socialist, but the ideological content of his message is pretty mild, even compared to past Democrats. He probably has less faith in big government than, say, Lydnon Johnson did. And in any case, Sanders lost.

There are many reasonable criticisms you can make of Clinton, but “socialist” is hardly one of them. Her victory demonstrated that, while there are certainly socialist tendencies within the Democrats, they are far from being central to the party’s identity. It has never been as far to the left as a typical European social democratic party, and it still shows no signs of wanting to move that way.

If you think that Clinton and Trump are somehow equivalently illiberal or anti-freedom but from different sides, then you’ve missed most of what’s important about the current political scene. That would be an unfair thing to say even about Sanders; about Clinton it’s manifestly absurd. The Republican Party has enabled extremists in a way that the Democrats have not.

Nor is it surprising that there would be a lot of liberals* within the Democratic Party. After all, it’s not as if the number of liberals in America is limited to the 1% who voted for Johnson last time. The truth is that both major parties have always been broad coalitions that have included large numbers of liberals.

The Republican Party of late has been systematically marginalising and discouraging its liberals, but they still exist within the Democrats. And with the threat of Trump and Trumpism in their minds, most of them will probably stay there for the time being.


* Liberals, that is, in the classical sense that Tucker is using, not the sense in which Democrats themselves use the term – although one of the implications of what I’m saying is that the two are not as far apart as it might sometimes appear.


4 thoughts on “A three-party America?

  1. The Libertarian Party are basically just pot smoking Republicans. Many of their standard bearers have come straight from the Republican Party – Gary Johnson, Bill Weld, Bob Barr, Ron Paul…

    So their appeal is limited to one faction of one party. And it’s a tiny faction. The Libertarian share of the vote at presidential elections has always been paltry. The evidence suggests there just isn’t any sort of mood for a socially liberal, economically rightist party. It’s probably the case that a socially conservative, economically leftist party would have greater appeal.


  2. You’re right, David, about the Libertarian Party to date – that’s why I was careful to say “potentially”. But I don’t agree that the appeal of a party backing both social and economic freedom, provided it was done in a mainstream fashion, would be inconsiderable. Liberal parties in Europe often do very well, and I think if the US could only break down the 2-party duopoly there’d be room for one there as well.

    But the actual Libertarian Party, for a variety of historical reasons, doesn’t really see itself that way. The question is whether this election might change things.

    Jacob Weisberg had a very good piece in Slate the other day on the Libertarian Party: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/06/libertarians_are_blowing_a_huge_opportunity_in_2016.html . He’s biased in the opposite way to Tucker, but even he ends by admitting that “an intellectually coherent alternative to the Republican party, grounded in the principled restraint of classical liberalism, has never been more wanted.”


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