Virginia’s Libertarian Party has voted to dissolve itself, a reaction to the party’s national convention earlier this year where a hardline faction took control. Depending on your point of view, this so-called Mises Caucus will either “make the Libertarian Party libertarian again” (the caucus view) or is “endorsing thinly-veiled antisemitism, explicitly welcoming bigotry into the party, reversing the LP’s 50-year legacy of support for LGBTQ+ rights, and openly denouncing women’s suffrage, the civil rights act, and democracy itself” (in the words of the resolution approved by the Virginia party’s central commmittee, as reported by the Virginia Mercury).
This is ironic, historically speaking, because Virginia is so far the only state to cast an electoral vote for a Libertarian candidate for president. In 1972, Charlottesville lawyer Roger MacBride, then the state Republican treasurer and one of the state’s electors, cast his vote for Libertarian John Hospers instead of Richard Nixon. For this, MacBride achieved a certain level of fame — and the Liberatarian Party nomination for president in 1976.
It’s also fair to look at this and wonder: Does this really matter?
After all, the Libertarian Party has never come close to winning anything in Virginia – not the General Assembly, not statewide elections. True, it’s not good to have a party “endorsing thinly-veiled antisemitism, explicitly welcoming bigotry into the party” and so forth, but in practical terms, why should we care what happens to some party whose vote totals barely register? Hold that thought.
Meanwhile, earlier this year Andrew Yang (a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and the New York City mayoral nomination in 2021) and Christine Todd Whitman (a former Republican governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush) announced the formation of a new political party: the Forward Party.
The Forward goal: to establish itself as a centrist party between a Democratic Party being pulled further left and a Republican Party pulled further right.
Together, these two actions – the turmoil engulfing the Libertarians and the formation of the Forward Party – prompt an obvious question: Is there room for a third party and, if so, what would it look like?
In theory, voters say yes to the first part of that question.
A poll by YouGov America finds that 39% of Americans say a third party is necessary while only 30% say having Democrats and Republicans is sufficient; 31% are unsure.
In 2021, the Gallup polling group asked a similar (but differently worded) question and found that 62% of Americans agree that “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” That’s an all-time high.
Now, there’s obviously a lot of space between 39% and 62%, but that also shows how much the wording of a question matters. Perhaps a better way to look at those two different polls is that YouGov America found that 30% were happy with two parties and Gallup found 33% are. Those numbers are pretty similar so perhaps those are the ones to pay attention to.
Clearly voters are unhappy (although they tend to be perpetually unhappy, in my experience). In theory, that means there’s lots of room for a third party to flourish, right?
The key words there are “in theory.”
Now, I’d love to be proven incorrect. I’m one of those who believes that both parties have strayed too far from the center, and that the country would be better off if they both moderated themselves. What I think doesn’t really matter, though, as I’m often reminded. What matters is human nature and the American political system. Here are the reasons why the Libertarians have failed to become a significant force and why the Forward Party won’t, either.
- Libertarians don’t fit easily on the political spectrum. Most people see politics as a simple left-to-right spectrum. Libertarians are better understood on a three-dimensional political scale. Maybe this current faction will refashion the party into a hard-right party that’s easier to understand, for better or for worse. Historically, though, Libertarians have been hard for many voters to understand because they’re on a completely different axis – some of their positions have seemed liberal, some have seemed conservative, when, in fact, they’re simply libertarian. That’s because both major parties are inconsistent. During the depths of the pandemic, and the debate over vaccine mandates, many Republicans chanted “my body, my choice.” That’s not what they say on abortion, though, where Democrats are the ones essentially saying “my body, my choice.” Democrats want to regulate guns and not regulate abortion; Republicans want to regulate abortion but not guns. Both parties want to exercise state power for something. Libertarians historically haven’t wanted much state power for anything. The best-performing Libertarian in any statewide race in Virginia was Robert Sarvis, who took 6.5% of the vote in 2013. I doubt, though, that many of those voters were really endorsing the Libertarian platform; most were probably registering a protest vote because they didn’t much like either Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Republican Ken Cuccinelli.
We’ve seen the same thing nationally. The best Libertarian Party showing came in 2016, when the main choices were Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, two candidates with high unfavorable ratings. That year, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson took 3.3% of the vote. Otherwise, the Libertarian vote has rarely topped 1% in a presidential year. Historically the party has done best in Western states; its best showing in a presidential race was 1980, when Ed Clark took 11.7% of the vote in Alaska. The best Libertarian showing in a Senate race came in Arkansas in 2020, when the Libertarian candidate took 33.47%. The catch: There was no Democratic candidate on the ballot, just a Libertarian against Republican Tom Cotton, so a lot of those votes were likely from Democrats who had no other place to go.
Bottom line: The Libertarians can rightfully claim to be America’s biggest third party but that’s not saying much, given their small vote share. Nor does that seem likely to change. As traditionally constructed, their views just don’t square with most people’s understanding of politics. If they become a hard-right party, then there’s very limited space on the spectrum to be occupied.
So, what, then, about this new Forward Party? Why am I so down on its prospects? Here’s why:
- Moderates don’t make for good rebels. You know the saying “well-behaved women seldom make history”? The same thing applies here. Moderates tend to be, well, moderate. Maybe most people are disgusted with both Democrats and Republicans. But most people aren’t inclined to give up their time to do the things necessary to change that. Working in politics requires passion – giving up nights and weekends for the cause. I haven’t met many moderates with that kind of passion. Those on the left and right – oh, yeah, some of them are a little too passionate sometimes. It’s hard to build a political movement from the center.
When we look around the world, we see lots of countries that have more than two parties; parliamentary systems make that more possible than ours. But we don’t see many centrist parties. In Canada, there’s a Liberal Party and a Conservative Party (Canadians have very straightforward names for their parties). There is a third major party – the New Democratic Party – but it’s to the left of the Liberals (and has never won enough seats to govern). There was an attempt in Great Britain to create a centrist party. In 1981, four senior members of the Labor Party left – saying the party had gone too far left – and formed the Social Democratic Party. Today they’re called the Liberal Democrats, but they’ve never displaced either Labor or the Conservatives.
- Math + fear. Elections require a winner to get more votes than the other candidates. That seems simple enough to understand, right? But consider the dynamics of getting there. Maybe third parties bring out some voters who otherwise would stay at home but, generally speaking, they’re going to take votes away from one of the existing parties. So which ones? Let’s consider a hypothetical race between Hamlet and Macbeth. Maybe some voters are so turned off by this choice between the moody Dane and the regicidal Scotsman that they’d rather support Juliet of Romeo and Juliet fame. And let’s assume that Juliet takes support away from Hamlet. But there’s a lot of institutional support for Hamlet’s party and Macbeth’s party so they remain the leaders in the early polling. Come voting time, a lot of those Juliet voters fret that they’ll “waste” their vote. They aren’t keen on Hamlet but they really detest Macbeth and are afraid he might win so in the end they abandon Juliet and vote for Hamlet even though they don’t really like him. Juliet’s third-party bid sputters. The math is that somebody is going to win, and to defeat the candidate you despise, your candidate has to get more votes. Third-party candidates sometimes poll well initially but historically have a hard time becoming true contenders and then fade when reality sets in. The necessity of getting enough votes to defeat Macbeth overrides everything else. In our language, it’s hard to see moderate Republicans leaving the party for fear that Democrats might win. Likewise, it’s hard to see moderate Democrats leaving their party for fear the Republicans might win. Maybe there are enough of both that if they joined together, they’d win an election over both a Democrat and a Republican, but it’s hard getting them to that point.
- No big animating issue. The classic example of a third party that became a major party is the Republican Party. It also had a hot-button issue to rally around that wasn’t being addressed by the existing parties in the 1850s: slavery. What is the issue for the Forward Party? The party’s platform calls for universal health care; many Democrats would go along with that. It’s also for a Department of Technology, nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting. All those may be good ideas but they don’t sound like something that’s going to motivate people not currently involved in politics to sign up for a door-knocking, get-out-the-vote campaign. We’ve seen other third parties spring up, generally around a specific leader, such as Robert La Follette and the Progressive Party in the early 1900s, or George Wallace and the American Independent Party in 1968, or Ross Perot and the Reform Party in the 1990s. Absent a charismatic leader, or a galvanizing issue, they have failed to make much of an impression. Sometimes their ideas get absorbed into the political mainstream but no third party has stuck around and become a major party since the Republicans. Simply making the case for sound, practical governance that’s neither too far left nor too far right probably isn’t enough.
- Party infrastructure. Both Democrats and Republicans have a whole system of party structures, from local precincts up to the national level. Granted, these may not be as strong as they once were. And both parties have places where they are quite weak. Still, if you want to find the Democratic chair in the strongest Republican county, or the Republican chair in the strongest Democratic county, you can. Here’s the thing the Forward Party or any other third party faces: Most people who want to be involved in politics have already chosen sides, and they’re generally not inclined to change. The Forward Party begins as a top-down exercise. Sure, Yang and Whitman are reasonably big names, but who is their precinct captain for Bedford County precinct 504, which votes at Suck Spring Baptist Church? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
- Lack of diversity. The Democratic Party and the Republican Party look very different from each other, but they both have a certain amount of diversity in their ranks. Both have their white-collar voters, both have their blue-collar voters, for instance. All I see from the Forward Party so far are two people from the Northeast and a chattering of opinion writers. That doesn’t sound very diverse to me. This sounds instead much like the Social Democrats-turned-Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. The party has done pretty well with white-collar professionals, but not with blue-collar voters, who have divided their ballots (in varying proportions) between Labor and the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats are really just a niche party, if you will. I suspect the Forward Party – if it even goes beyond the talking stage – will be much the same. When Yang and Whitman can tell me who their party has at Suck Spring, then I’ll change my mind.