Why Your Mayor Has Never Been a Libertarian

A partial list of the factors that keep local and state politics in the hands of Democrats and Republicans

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An e-mail correspondent, James Byrne, makes an astute point about libertarianism in America, and why, although it is a serious political orientation, it often isn't a serious political movement. "Libertarianism has essentially no organized presence in state and local politics in America," he writes. "With some scattered exceptions, even if I want to vote for a candidate or slate of candidates with consistently libertarian platforms on a state or local level, I can't. And when a libertarian-leaning candidate like Gary Johnson does get elected, he often has trouble implementing the parts of his agenda that don't align with the priorities of at least one of the major parties. This lack of any kind of organized local presence is a serious flaw. Every major American political movement has begun and remains grounded in local politics. Think of Christian conservatism."
 
He goes on to theorize about what libertarians must do to remedy the situation:

The Christian right didn't start with the presidency, they started with school boards and state legislatures, and a lot of their power is reflected in those institutions. Having a presence in local politics would eventually lead to better candidates on a national level. Think of the political trajectory of Barack Obama, or even Michele Bachmann. It would also offer the possibility of putting libertarian policies into place on a local level, with successful local policies serving as arguments for national ones. Again, this is how political change often happens in America.
Of course, there is no Christian Party in America. Christian conservatives work from within the GOP. More than most groups, they have some built-in advantages: a shared set of beliefs they regard as God given! And nationwide gatherings of the faithful that meet up once a week. (Even so, they're steadily losing on issue after issue because the GOP knows that it can sell the out.)

There is a Libertarian Party. And folks who lean libertarian try to work within the Republican Party too. There are scattered examples of libertarian success at the local level. For the most part, however, my correspondent is right, and it got me thinking about disadvantages particular to libertarians.

-- There are lots of libertarians who just don't want government or politics to play any bigger role in their lives than is absolutely necessary. These folks aren't inclined to run for city council or seek jobs in the civil service. They just want to be left alone. And if they have to spend a substantial part of their leisure time organizing for a political cause, they've already lost.

-- Another subset of libertarians like their own communities just fine. They aren't seeking major changes at the local level. They're upset by what goes on in the federal government. And electing someone to the school board, so that 5 years later he or she can run for State Senate, then Congress, and then maybe one day the Senate, or even the presidency ... it doesn't seem realistic. Or worth the effort for people who, unlike Christian conservatives, don't care that much about school curriculum, and would only be focusing on local politics as a means to a distant end.

-- If you're a libertarian who feels especially strongly about a single issue, whether abortion, or the death penalty, or the tax burden, or onerous regulations placed on business, or most other single issues, your best bet for effecting change is working within the system, and cultivate alliances within a major party. This does lead to libertarian victories. But those victories don't empower a libertarian coalition. They empower Democrats or Republicans who are good on that one issue.

-- For all these reasons, folks who identify as libertarians on most or all issues and participate in politics are few. They're also often purists whose views are so far outside the mainstream that they aren't electable. (Never having to govern means never being forced to moderate your views).

-- Finally, the Democratic and Republican Parties have colluded to erect institutional barriers to third parties.

That isn't an exhaustive list. But it helps explain why libertarians are so tempted to try to elect a Harry Brown or Ron Paul or Gary Johnson before they've built a real political party from the ground up. Even these losing campaigns change the public conversation and highlight libertarian issues. I expect that, when the drug war ends, it'll be a Republican or Democrat who signs the legislation. But libertarians will have played a roll. And the successes that result? They'll be credited to the Republican or Democrat. Libertarian ideals will win. But the political movement may lose.

Image credit: Flickr user hummyhummy
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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