Rep. Justin Amash’s announcement that he is leaving the Republican Party to become an independent surprised no one who has followed the principled libertarian’s career. It shows, however, the opposite of what he intended it to demonstrate: Parties matter, and principled libertarians are too tiny to form an effective one.
The Michigan congressman’s op-ed decried the spirit of partisanship that he contends has taken over our politics. Quoting extensively from George Washington’s farewell address, he argues that today’s parties care more about lockstep agreement and victory at any cost than they do about the good of the country. Anyone who follows politics in this town knows there is more than a germ of truth in what he says.
But his path — leaving both major parties and becoming an independent — does not follow from his conclusions. Washington spoke at a time when mass democracy was in its infancy. The voting rolls in 1796 were limited in many states, and electors had the opportunity to know the candidates personally and make judgments according to their principles and character. But what of democracy when the sheer size of James Madison’s extended commercial republic rendered that impossible?
Political parties solved that problem by providing a way for the people to organize themselves peaceably and effectively. Parties are a vehicle for bringing the views of hundreds of millions of people, through their representatives and politically active citizens, into something that can be communicated to a mass electorate. Adopting the brand of “Republican” or “Democrat” means something: It communicates something essential about your views on a range of issues, and it tells something about your priorities in those cases where you might disagree with the party’s majority.
Our electoral system effectively pushes us toward having two national parties. Single-member districts with a first-past-the-post system whereby a winner does not need a majority to triumph mean that smaller parties won’t win much representation even if they get a fair number of votes. That encourages factions to combine into larger parties so they get something of what they want. And our open primary system makes it easier to form these large, ideologically broad parties as competing party factions can fight it out internally without risking losing to their competitor.
Amash’s decision means he will be effectively powerless in Washington. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is a Democrat, and she has no reason to deal with Amash or afford him any slots on committees. The Republicans now have even less incentive to accommodate him. With Democrats comfortably in the majority, they will not need his vote to pass any legislation. So Amash will be alone in the political wilderness and free to cast whatever votes he chooses — and affect absolutely nothing.
His real complaint, of course, is not that the partisan system has broken down; it’s that his brand of free-market, noninterventionist libertarianism no longer has a comfortable home within the Republican Party. This puts him in the company of former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who chose not to run for reelection last year after polls showed him losing his primary to a candidate more in line with today’s Republican Party. Flake decried this turn from Barry Goldwater’s libertarian-tinged conservatism, going so far as to write a book that borrowed Goldwater’s 1960 cri du coeur, “Conscience of a Conservative,” arguing for a return to those older values.
The different reactions to those two books speaks volumes about the state of modern conservatism. Goldwater’s book, which was essentially an attack on Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s moderate policies that accepted the New Deal, was a runaway bestseller. It propelled the craggy conservative into the national spotlight and was a major reason he became the GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee. Flake’s book, on the other hand, sold poorly and sunk quickly into obscurity.
Amash is right that millions of Americans are unhappy with the choices the two major parties give them. But he is wrong in his implicit assumption that they yearn for a more consistently principled libertarianism.
Political analyst Lee Drutman showed this conclusively in a 2017 paper. Using data from a massive national poll sponsored by the Voter Study Group, he broke the U.S. electorate into four groups. The libertarians — socially liberal and economically conservative — were the smallest group, comprising only 4 percent of the electorate. Most of these people, moreover, were only slightly libertarian, meaning they are likelier to be suburban moderates than true Goldwaterites.
Conservatives are much more numerous — about 23 percent of all voters — but it is clear they don’t have the same priorities as Amash and Flake. Conservatives are the most partisan of Republicans and share Trump’s views on immigration and free trade. They may trace their lineage to Goldwater, but their views are decidedly less doctrinaire.
Amash is a man without a party because a party that embraced his ideas cannot win. Whether he loses a reelection bid or runs a quixotic presidential campaign, as many expect, on the Libertarian Party ticket, he will soon be gone from political life. And the dream of a libertarian-dominated Republican Party will go with him.