The US is universally known as a strictly bipolar party system, with the Republican and Democratic Parties splitting every elective office in the country. Although this belief holds most of the time, it is not always true. At the margins of the political debate, there is a third party with wildly different principles than the aforementioned two: the Libertarian Party.
Born in Colorado in 1971, the Libertarian Party quickly established itself as the most prominent third party to run for states’ and federal elections throughout the US. Already in 1980, a Libertarian candidate ran for office in each of the 50 states, albeit with no success, which would be a recurrent outcome ever since. The electoral efforts of the party remained steady for every subsequent election, with minor successes. However, it has to be recognized that support for the Libertarian Party surged between the ‘90s and early ‘10s, as the public discontent for the two-party-system soared. In this timeframe, Libertarian Party Presidential candidates shattered numerous records for the highest numbers of third-party voters. For instance, the Libertarian candidate in 1980, Edward E. Clark, received almost a million votes, around 1% of the total. Still, he obtained 0 out of 538 Electoral College Votes (270 is the ‘magic number’, the Electoral College votes needed to become President). In 2016 the most advertised and popular Libertarian Presidential candidate ever, Gary Johnson, got more than 3% of the total vote, again without grasping a single Electoral College vote, due to the peculiarities of the US electoral system. Still, in the 2020 Presidential Election, the Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen barely broke the 1% threshold, severely undermining the future ambitions of the Party. As of now, there are no Libertarian elected officials in the US, except for a handful of seats in local elective bodies.
More successfully than its consistent but largely negligible influence on the US political landscape, the Libertarian Party has promoted the global spread of libertarian tenets, both in academia and in popular culture. The Cato Institute and Hoover Institution, affiliated with the Libertarian Party platform, are among the most authoritative think tanks in the world, according to the 2020 Global Think Tanks Report by the University of Pennsylvania. Moreover, cryptocurrencies originally draw from libertarian ideals of individual autonomy and limited power of central governments.
In fact, the Libertarian Party’s principles have been influenced by two streams of thoughts, one concerning ethics and the other economics. The philosophical foundations of libertarianism stem from John Locke, but were popularized by Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he rejected any paternalistic intrusion on one’s individual boundaries. This entails that one can rightfully do anything with her own body. Hence libertarians advocate for the legalization of all drugs, unrestrained gun ownership and same-sex marriage. The economic side of the Libertarian platform draws instead from the notorious Austrian School of Economics. Consequently, the Libertarian Party supports limited government intervention, which entails a set of policies ranging from repealing minimum wage laws and keeping governmental subsidies to a minimum, to the complete privatisation of healthcare.
These two sides are joined in the popular motto used by Libertarian candidates ‘Socially liberal, fiscally conservative’. These self-proclaimed traits reflect the aspirations of a catch-all party trying to establish itself as a feasible alternative to the two dominant parties in American politics. Nevertheless, its persuasive efforts and the vast intellectual background of the platform conflict with the quirky behaviour of many Libertarian figures. The Libertarian activist Vermin Supreme has become famous for wearing a boot as a hat and ‘glitter bombing’ the anti-abortion advocate Randall Terry. Even the 2012 Libertarian National Convention has drawn curiosity over its debate on the legitimacy of a mandatory driving license. There, Gary Johnson was booed for suggesting that driving licenses are necessary. Conversely, Darryl Perry was acclaimed for having compared driving licenses with compulsory licenses to operate toasters. Needless to say, these remarks gained remarkable attention on the Internet.
On one hand, the solid supporter base and the popularity of libertarian ideals in the US has made the Libertarian Party far more than a simple nuisance for the two parties, especially the GOP. In fact, the presence of a libertarian bloc in the 2020 Georgia Senate Elections drained votes from the Republican Party. This forced a runoff that will later hand both Senate seats for Georgia to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it is likely that the Libertarian Party will never become a serious contender to any national office as the UK Liberal-Democratic Party. Both due to the rigid two-party system and the continuous oddities of the libertarian community, the Libertarian Party will remain an ambitious yet underachieving organization.
Author: Ludovico Campagnolo
A brief history of the Libertarian Party:
UPenn Think Tank Report:
Libertarianism and Cryptocurrencies:
Odd behaviour by Libertarian public figures:
The future of the Libertarian Party:
Photo by Gage Skidmore: