Why Liberty Advocates Should Join the Republican Party, Not Abandon It, Despite Trump

Disgusted with Donald Trump’s success within the Republican Party, some Republicans are burning their party registration cards. More people are checking out Libertarian Gary Johnson, who is actively seeking the support of disgruntled Republicans.

I too am disgusted with the state of the Republican Party. Although I continue to disapprove of Johnson’s Libertarian affiliation, this year it’s hard to criticize any vote made in protest of the “choice” between Trump and Hillary Clinton. I’ve thought maybe people should start a write-in campaign for Boaty McBoatface. I’ve thought about putting up twin yard signs for Giant Douche and Turd Sandwich. Absent a viable independent run (possibly throwing the race to the House of Representatives), it seems like this year the American people are just hosed.

But, paradoxically, the fact that the Republican Party is in such a sorry state is a reason for liberty advocates to stick with the Republican Party (or join or rejoin it), not abandon it.

Please note that I am calling on liberty activists to officially join the Republican Party and become active in it, not necessarily to always vote for Republican candidates. (Certainly I will not vote for Trump.)

Sometimes, the most effective way to participate in a party is to refuse to support its unworthy candidates, so as to encourage the selection of more-worthy candidates down the road.

More broadly, people have got to get off of the idea that voting counts as serious activism. How you vote matters barely or not at all. The ideas and strategies you publicly advocate matter; your participation in Republican caucuses and networking events matters; your beating the pavement and making phone calls for candidates you support matter. How you vote is irrelevant unless how you vote influences how many others vote.

I sympathize with the impulse to break up with the GOP. I did that myself, long ago. I first got involved in party politics by supporting George H. W. Bush (George I); I even adorned my truck with a Bush sign. At the time, I was part of a Reagan family, so it seemed natural to support Reagan’s vice president.

But within a few years I abandoned the GOP and joined the Libertarian Party. I was even a board member for the Colorado LP, and I produced its newsletter for a few years. Eventually, I figured out that the Libertarian Party is even more dysfunctional than the Republican Party. For me, tensions came to a head when the state party nominated Rick Stanley for U.S. Senate in 2002. He was disastrously bad; Donald Trump looks sane and thoughtful by comparison. (Stanley eventually went to prison for threatening a judge.)

The Libertarian Party is unsuccessful not only because America’s electoral system favors a two-party setup, but because the LP is an ideological basket-case, an organization littered with anarchists, militia kooks, America haters, conspiracy theorists, and the like. There are also many good people in the LP, but the anti-government thrust of the party attracts plenty of crazies and always will do so.

The LP has never been successful, having never elected a single person to the U.S. Congress. Currently the LP boasts 144 office holders, only 38 of which are for partisan offices. These positions are for city councils and fire district boards and the like; hardly earth-shaking.

Johnson, having served as a governor (as a Republican), is probably the best, most viable candidate the LP has ever run for president. This year, he might even break double digits. But regardless of how well Johnson does, he will never win major office as a Libertarian, and the Libertarian Party will never build on whatever success he might have to become a serious political player.

In practice, the Libertarian Party has one and only one significant political result: It drains the Republican party of its liberty advocates, thereby leaving the GOP to the John McCains and Donald Trumps of the world.

Put simply, if you think that “voting your principles” means you should support candidates with zero chance of winning office or significantly influencing the political landscape, you don’t understand what principles are or why they matter. It is not a betrayal of principles, but rather a manifestation of proper principles, to become politically active in a way that actually matters.

That is not to say that a new party can never be achieved. Even constitutional scholar Randy Barnett, who has “long vocally opposed third parties as irrational in our two-party system,” thinks that the Trump fiasco could lead to a viable new party.

America’s original parties, the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican Parties, no longer survive. The Democrats came on the scene around 1828, with the now-defunct Whigs; the Republicans arrived with the national crisis over slavery. But today’s major two parties, through their changes, have remained stable for well over a century. It’s foolish to think that will change absent some major crisis or realignment.

I do not think the arrival of Trump will be an extinction-level event for the Republican Party. But it could mark a significant turn for the party; it could morph from the anti-slavery party of Lincoln and the free-market party of Reagan into the xenophobic protectionist party of Trump. If that happens, even more people will find themselves without a party home.

The alternative is to let Trump be a wake-up call to liberty advocates. Rather than sit on the Libertarian sidelines or the like or take the feckless “bitch and moan” approach, liberty advocates could begin the hard work of reshaping the Republican Party into their image.

But, as I’ve Tweeted, some people want to leave the Republican Party because it’s hard to reform, to join a third party that is impossible to reform. It’s like saying that passing the mountain is hard, so we’re going to sit on the side of the trail play with pebbles.

What would a new party take even to have a chance of replacing the Republican Party? I’d say that, at a minimum, it would have to have a half-billion dollars in resources and three major Congressional leaders to come aboard. If you can’t get at least that—and preferably more like a dozen Congressional leaders out of the gate—then all you’re doing is diverting precious resources to make-believe politics.

Absent a real, truly viable new party, all available resources (starting with time) are far more effectively spent reforming the Republican Party.

It is too late in the game for liberty advocates to “play house” in the political arena. Libertarians and other minor-party activists are like preschoolers who “cook” prefabricated plastic “foods” in unworking plastic “stoves” as their mother bakes bread in adult-land nearby.

It’s time to grow up and get serious about the future of our country—before it is too late.

May 12 Update: I discussed these ideas further with Andy Hooser of 1480 KQAM; I’m on for the first eighteen minutes.

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· Still, Never Trump
· Reason and Rights Republicans
· How You Can Stop Voting Naively and Start Voting Strategically

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I’ve Given Up

After 19 years trying to pull the republican party in a more libertarian direction, I’ve mostly given up on the project. I’ve spent money going to their state conventions, and time going to the caucuses, and they just seem to keep getting further and further from both liberty and sanity. My confidence in ever being able to pull them in a liberty direction was shaken by the 2012 state convention where the Log Cabin Republicans were getting booed at the convention, but I stuck it out for another 4 years.

I’m out now though.

Those local offices may not seem like much, but that’s really the only way to try and build a party. Trying to take the presidency without building up support locally is probably impossible.

May 10, 2016

Ari Armstrong replies (May 12): Again, I sympathize with the sentiment, but by giving up on the Republican Party absent a viable alternative, you are only helping to guarantee that the Republican Party will continue to get worse over time. I acknowledge that reforming the GOP is a monumental task, and one that requires extensive grass-roots activism. But I think that’s the only viable path toward restoring a party that champions individual rights and constitutional government.

A Few People Can Make a Difference

Good article.

I learned several years ago (with your help) that a few people can make a difference at the state level in the Republican Party by taking one state issue and fighting for more liberty on that issue, be it health care (my issue in the years before ObamaCare), education, gun control, or whatever.

What if every state had a few good people fighting passionately for a handful of issues pushing for more freedom every year within the party?

I think the party platform could change for the better a lot faster than one might imagine. And we could have real advocates for liberty leading those changes.

—Lin Zinser
May 12, 2016

Actually Vote for Liberty

Can you avoid the voting for the lesser of two evils error? Some say you should vote for Trump because it would be worse to have Hillary. And this is repeated throughout all levels of political office. You vote for a anti-liberty Republican because you don’t want the Democrat to win. The result is the current anti-liberty Republican party. Are you willing to let the Democrat win and actually vote for liberty? If there are more and more votes for Libertarian candidates, won’t the Republicans (and the Democrats) try to court this vote? Voting for the status quo continues the status quo.

—Mike Spalding
May 13, 2016

Ari Armstrong replies (May 14): As I’m sure you know, I made essentially the same argument for years. But it’s just a bad argument. First, I’m saying liberty advocates should get active in the GOP, not that they should vote for every Republican candidate. Second, consistently voting for Libertarians has the opposite effect of what you suggest. If a Republican (or a Democratic) candidate knows a voter will pull the LP lever no matter what, that candidate will pay zero attention to that voter. On the other hand, a GOP activist who strategically threatens to vote for no one or for a non-Republican can wield disproportionate influence (as I’ve discussed).

Retrench and Continue the Fight

That was a very nice analysis of the state of the principles and practicalities involved in reforming the political landscape. It would be easy to throw up our hands in disgust at the current Republican Party, but I think it is more a reflection of the state of our culture than a problem with the party per se.

I also thought that the Republican Party was making progress before this year. Recently, there have have been a number of principled constitutional conservatives elected to Congress. Although I understand the impatience of voters with the Republican Congress, the fact of the matter is that with Obama is still in the White House coupled with the fact that a two thirds vote of both houses is required to overturn a presidential veto means that the Democrats actually retain more power in Washington than the Republicans have.

Some people have argued that Congress should have used the power of the purse more forcefully, but that is basically a game of brinkmanship which has trade-offs. House members serve for only two year terms, so anything that they do that is unpopular is going to subject them to the wrath of the voters almost immediately. Unfortunately, brinkmanship and gridlock are the only real tools that Congress has, absent a super-majority, to use as negotiating levers when the government is divided. I just hope people who are throwing in the towel understand that fact.

This could have been a very good year for Republicans, but the voters chose another course. Now is not the time to give up, but time to retrench and continue the fight.

—Darrell Hougen
May 13, 2016