Last week was a bad one for Gary Johnson. The Libertarian presidential nominee has spent his whole campaign arguing that he would be able to recruit voters if only he were given the chance to make an appearance at the presidential debates.
Yet in what was one of his few breakout moments of media exposure this campaign season, Johnson totally blew it. “And what is Aleppo?” was the death knell for Johnson, and for the Libertarian Party in general.
I sympathize with those who make the very valid point that Johnson’s gaffe is only a single instance, compared with countless gaffes made by Donald Trump. It’s a fair critique, but it overlooks an important detail: We don’t give credence to Trump because of his way with words or because he’s particularly insightful; far from it — the only thing that gives Trump his political stature is his astonishing rise through the Republican Party.
And why is this important? Because the Republican Party is a well-established political institution. It controls Congress. It has a huge support base. It boasts 18 U.S. presidents, including such famous ones as Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. And what does the Libertarian Party have? Essentially nothing.
I don’t mean to be dismissive. But the problem with the Libertarian Party presenting itself as a legitimate third-party option for disenchanted voters is that it has so little to offer in terms of established institution in our political system. Even in the improbable hypothetical that Johnson does end up with a winning amount of votes, what resources does he have to build an entire administration? Or to develop working relations with Congress?
This brings us to a broader point. We often hear people (including Johnson) bemoaning the control that our two-party system holds over our government. “It’s a duopoly!” they say. “We need to be like Europe and offer voters more options!”
But that’s not a realistic understanding of how democracy works. You need institutional infrastructure in order to run a government. And it’s not just about gathering the resources needed to take the White House. You also need strong, broad parties to organize a political majority and to legislate.
As I see it, there are three possible outcomes regarding how representatives organize themselves:
- The dominant-party system: In this system, most representatives join a single party that has essentially unchecked legislative power. There might be other parties available, but their constituencies are so small that even if they were to band together, they still couldn’t offer much of a challenge to the people in charge. We see this every once in a while in actual democratic states (such as South Africa, where the African National Congress dominates the political system). But for the most part, this type of political system is associated with totalitarian states. (China and Russia, I’m looking at you.)
- The two-party system: Here, you have one ruling party that controls legislation, but only marginally. There’s another sizable party in the minority that has the potential to take over if voters swing to its side. This is by far the most common outcome in world democracies. Even in countries where there are many political parties, in order for one party to achieve majority control, they must band together to form ruling coalitions. In Britain, for example, Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had to form a governing coalition, while Labor and the smaller parties made up the minority. It gets more complicated in countries with even more parties — such as Israel, where five parties make up the ruling government — but the outcome is essentially the same. We come out with two major powers: those who are in the majority and those who are not.
- The true multi-party system: This one is more theoretical than practical, but I think we should include it here to round out all possibilities. This is a system in which no party is able to reach majority status and none of the parties are able to agree with each other to form a ruling coalition government. It’s hard to think of good realistic examples because it essentially describes a government that doesn’t work. The U.S. party system in 1860 might be a good start. Here we in effect had four parties: the newly christened Republicans, the Northern Democrats, the Southern Democrats and the Constitutional Union Party. Abraham Lincoln won the presidency with only 40 percent of the vote, and (spoiler alert) none of them got along, leading to a nasty civil war.
Now you may push back: Britain and Israel do end up with functioning multi-party systems. They have coalitions, sure, but at least their voters have a more diverse pool of parties to choose from.
To which I respond: Yes, that’s true, but can we honestly say that the two major political parties in the United States are not coalitions? American voters are directly involved in building those coalitions in a way that voters in parliamentary systems aren’t: It’s called primary elections.
Besides, what is a Republican anyway? Does Rand Paul share the political ideology of Lindsey Graham? Or Ted Cruz? Or Donald Trump? No, of course not. If you really study the Republican Party, you’ll quickly realize that it’s just a bunch of overlapping sub-parties tentatively put together.
And what about Democrats? We’ve certainly seen the liberals show their ideological diversity this election, thanks in large part to Bernie Sanders. They’ve put together a grand coalition of leftist ideologues, but this coalition can just as easily be broken up given the right political issue (think health care, education subsidies, free trade or finance regulations).
So is Johnson right that we should be frustrated with our two-party system? Truthfully, I see no alternative (or at least, no alternative that doesn’t involve political chaos or putting a dictator in charge). As Paul has discovered, Libertarians probably would have much better luck in influencing the political system if they worked within the parties we already have. And on many issues, they already have: same-sex marriage, gun rights and free trade, to name a few.
I suspect purists in the Libertarian Party will wave off these arguments as selling out to the establishment. That’s fine, because it is selling out to the establishment. More accurately, it’s working within the establishment — and that’s not a bad thing. Often in government you have to work with people who don’t agree with you.
If Libertarians were serious about making change, they wouldn’t be trying to overthrow our party system. Instead, they would be working to change the minds of people in power.