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When a Political Party Becomes a Death Cult

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Last Tuesday’s Republican victory in the fiercely-fought special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District produced more relief than jubilation as the GOP barely managed to secure a seat the party had controlled for more than four decades. To win the contest, newly-elected conservative David Jolly had to overcome both a well-known, lavishly-funded Democratic challenger and another factor that will bedevil Republicans in local battles across the country in the fall: the presence on the ballot of a goof-ball Libertarian contender who can capture just enough votes to tip the results without the slightest chance of actually winning the election.

In the special election in Pinellas County, the Libertarians nominated Lucas Overby, a twenty-seven year old with no college degree but with neatly trimmed, bright orange, Captain Ahab chin-whiskers, who works as a “commercial dive manager” in a company owned by his dad. He won nearly 9,000 votes, or some 4.8% of the total –considerably more than the Jolly margin of victory of 3,417 votes. Had the election gone the other way, with a victory for Democrat Alex Sink, Overby’s votes easily could have determined the outcome due to the normal assumption that candidates for the Libertarian Party draw more heavily from Republicans than they do from Democrats.

In fact, in last year’s achingly close Virginia gubernatorial race, many campaign veterans believe that the showing by Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis tipped the election to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Sarvis got 146,000 votes (6.5%) for his quirky campaign, while conservative stalwart Ken Cuccinelli lost by only 56,000 votes, or 2.6% of the total. In a similar battle, dynamic black conservative Mia Love barely lost her 2012 race in Utah’s 4th Congressional district, falling short by just 768 votes, or 0.3% of the total. Meanwhile, Jim Vein, the Libertarian nominee whose official statement to the voters ignored traditional rules of capitalization, spelling and grammar, drew 6,439 votes and 2.63%.

Apologists for the Libertarian Party insist that their candidates draw more or less evenly from Republicans, Democrats, and the unaffiliated who wouldn’t choose one of the major party nominees in any event. For several reasons, however, most GOP operatives question that contention. On the most important issues of the day – the sour Obama economy, the growth of government and the repeal of Obamacare — Republicans and Libertarians take very similar if not virtually identical positions. Moreover, Libertarian nominees, who often wear bow-ties and seem to live in their mother’s basement playing World of Warcraft, exert little appeal to the ethnic minorities, union households and single mothers who comprise the Democratic base. But they do go after younger, prosperous, white, business-oriented voters who otherwise tilt heavily Republican.

The biggest problem with these campaigns isn’t the damage they do to the Republican cause but their failure to achieve anything at all for the Libertarian cause.  Two years later, does it make any difference to the world or to anyone in politics that Libertarian nominee Jim Vein managed to eke out 6,439 votes in Utah? But his presence temporarily blocked the ascendancy of Haitian-American firebrand Mia Love, a rising star in conservative ranks (who is running again in November and is heavily favored to capture the seat).

Die-hard enthusiasts for the Libertarian Party resort to the mantra that it takes many years of effort and investment to build the base for an ideologically adventurous third party. But this contention conveniently ignores the fact that they reached their high water mark some 34 years ago, when Ed Clark ran for the presidency again Ronald Reagan and drew 1.06% of the popular vote. Eight years later, when the Libertarians nominated a tart-tongued Texan named Ron Paul as their standard bearer against George H. W. Bush, he drew half as many votes – only 0.47% of the electorate. In 2012, with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson running an aggressive campaign for the White House, the Libertarians remained reliably below 1% during the Obama-Romney race.

In fact, the narrative that claims that successful third parties evolve gradually and patiently from the primordial ooze of politics counts as a ludicrous lie. In 1854, the first year the newly-minted Republicans fielded candidates for any federal office, they won 108 seats in the House of Representatives and took control of the chamber. Two years later, their presidential candidate (John C. Fremont) finished a close second and four years after that, Lincoln won the White House. Third parties sometimes keep operating without success for decades– like the old Socialist and Prohibition Parties, or today’s Libertarians– but this history offers year after year of futility and irrelevance without evidence of even intermittent triumphs.

The sad part of this record involves the prodigious waste of time, energy, investment and idealism with no evidence of progress or influence. The Libertarian establishment has refused to follow the obvious example of the Paul family which years ago escaped the third party sandbox for the meaningful arena of influence within the GOP. Rand Paul stands now on the verge of a serious and credible bid for the Republican nomination and has clearly found the right vehicle to advance libertarian (small ‘I’) ideas.

Candidacies like the idiosyncratic bid of Florida’s Lucas Overby actually break faith with their voters. Conservatives who wanted to dismantle Obamacare and rein in federal spending made no meaningful contribution to those causes by voting for daddy’s dive manager. Meanwhile, social liberals who may have embraced his advocacy for legal marijuana and redefining marriage, did nothing to advance those causes if they threw their votes into the pile of Overby’s meaningless 4.8%.

If a party achieves an uninterrupted losing streak that lasts for more than thirty years, it’s fair to characterize them as Losertarians, as I have on the air on many occasions. It’s true that libertarian (small ‘I’) ideas may be bracing and worthy in their own right, but the party that flies the Libertarian (big ‘L’) banner isn’t so much a political organization as it is a quasi-religious death cult, that embraces the sanctimonious satisfactions of inevitable and unenviable martyrdom.

This column originally appeared at on March 13, 2014. 

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Comments (12)

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  1. Alex  •  Mar 21, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Michael I love the show, but you can’t ask people to compromise their core beliefs for the sake of winning. If Republican candidates want to support lax immigration policies to win the Hispanic vote then fair enough, but you can’t then complain when those who oppose such ideas make themselves heard at the ballot.

    If this 5% of the vote is so important to win, then perhaps the candidates should try appealing to them rather than Hispanics, millennials, and moderates.

    • Sam  •  Mar 21, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      Hispanics, millenials and moderates (a.k.a independents) – all the emerging demographic trends :). As a progressive Democrat I applaud your commitment to losing while deeply respecting your core values on civil liberties and avoiding foreign entanglements. One day when America finally achieves a vibrant and moderate multicultural society with an economy based on inclusive and sustainable technology there will be a nice sub chapter in history on how you provided an important nail in the coffin for the regressive and desperate rearguard tactics for a Republican political establishment as it drifts loudly into that good night. As a white, middle aged business owner and entrepreneur creating new jobs for a new economy I salute you!

      • Linda Siegel  •  Apr 10, 2014 at 3:34 pm

        Wow Sam, perfect comment, you hit all your marks:
        Established smart, hip bonafides w/ terms such as progressive, entrepreneur, business owner–>check!
        Used important populist-progressive catch-phrases such as moderate, independent, vibrant, multicultural, inclusive, sustainable–>double check!!
        Referred to your Republican foes with powerful negatives such as losing, establishment, regressive, desperate, rearguard, coffin, loudly, good night–>triple check!!!
        Really, these are such timeless, universal remarks that they take me right back to the 1930s (with the possible exception of the more newly-minted “sustainable”)…

  2. Matthew  •  Mar 21, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Your “core beliefs” rot like apples if you never win.

  3. Kathleen  •  Mar 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    “Can’t compromise their core beliefs for the sake of winning?” No they are compromising their core beliefs for the sake of losing. Libertarians never win; they take votes from republicans and give them to democrats.

  4. Richard Adams  •  Mar 21, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Mr. Medmev the really disconcerting part of the Flordia election is the “Old Guard” Republicans gave resources to the Libertarian candidate. Then then threw Mr. Jolly under the bus the weekend BEFORE the election, which was on the following Tuesday. The “Old Guard” was more than willing to have a Liberal Democrat win over a true Conservative.

    NOW THAT SIR! IS disgusting!

  5. Stephen Boneau  •  Mar 22, 2014 at 4:33 am

    Michael is spot on! You clowns who talk about compromising core beliefs totally crack me up. Instead of voting for the Republican who can actually win and shares at least close to 50% of your beliefs, you waste your vote on someone who doesn’t have a snowballs chance which helps the candidate who shares close to zero of your core beliefs. Good one! A lot of conservatives stayed home or wasted their votes the last two presidential elections which is largely responsible for our current fiasco as well as Justices Sotomayor and Kagen for LIFE! Well done.

  6. LMS  •  Mar 23, 2014 at 9:08 am

    This discussion reminds me of the attacks now being made on Bruce Rauner, Republican candidate for governor in Illinois, because he might not be “pro-life” enough. Illinois has huge, huge financial problems, and if Quinn (the current governor) wins again, Illinois will go completely down the tubes financially, so a vote against Rauner is really a vote for the awful “status quo” in Illinois.

  7. gary  •  Mar 23, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    The republican party has done nothing since Reagan to better this country,every president since Reagan has progressively been worse .Bush held the honor as worst until Obama came along.They are all corporate sell outs.

  8. Fred Sisneros  •  Mar 25, 2014 at 2:26 am

    To me a Democracy is a sacred trust and if others want a Democracy in their sovereign territories only to flourish enough to fund a war against us, then we need to take a second look at who we lend the reins to a Democracy.

  9. David  •  Mar 25, 2014 at 3:19 am

    The solution, like we have in Washington state, is the top two primary system.

    With the current general election plurality system third parties are perhaps *under* represented because the vast majority of Libertarian preferring voters vote for the Republican candidate because the Democratic candidate is so much worse. The misguided 5% to 10% that actually vote for the Libertarian are usually just enough to hand victory to the Democrat.

    In a top two primary system where everyone is free to vote their conscience in the primary knowing that will have the chance to select between the top two in the general election, we will have a good idea of people’s true preference and may very well see a general election between a socialist workers party candidate and the Libertarian candidate. Now that would be interesting…

  10. Jerome from Layton  •  Mar 28, 2014 at 1:31 am

    The Republican Liberty Caucus is something Libertarians should consider. It keeps Libertarian ideas in the fight, keeps the Republican Apparatchiks alert if not honest, and keeps the Republican nominee in the fight. It’s the best chance to get liberty candidates elected.

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