The Hard Truth: Libertarians Will Never See Political Success Until Pragmatism Defeats Principle

Libertarians of both the big L and small l variety have a common problem: they absolutely suck at winning elections. Obviously, they face an uphill battle to begin with since most Americans don’t even have a proper grasp of what libertarianism is, but the movement would still have trouble even without that hurdle.

Libertarians suffer from the belief that you can put principle over politics, but that’s just not the case in the real world. It wasn’t the case when the Libertarian Party was founded 45 years ago, and it clearly isn’t the case now.  The principle-versus-pragmatist debate has always featured prominently both inside the party and out of it. The debate seems to have no clear resolution, and it won’t be resolved unless someone comes and makes people see the light.

There are two choices here:

  1. Libertarians may stay true to principle,. They can yell and scream and make all the ruckus they want about how taxation is theft, seatbelts should be optional, heroin should be legal and so on. They can do this to their heart’s content, but in doing so, they will have to sleep at night knowing that they will lose every single major election they enter. They will lose and, despite all their noise, fail to alter the political landscape of America whatsoever.
  2. Libertarians can become pragmatists in full. The infighting can stop. Libertarians can seize the initiative of the two old parties showing weakness and unite behind the already-existing infrastructure of the Libertarian Party. They can tone down the more hardcore ideas within libertarianism and preach a message of small government and tolerance that will attract moderates fleeing from their former parties. As success grows, the party could reincorporate more and more of the originally shelved principles.

The libertarians in America could take this second path, they could try for once to win elections, and you know what would happen? Things would change. Imagine a Libertarian caucus in half the state legislatures in the country. A Libertarian governor in Missouri and Alaska. US Representatives in Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Oregon. A senator from Montana. These are all real possibilities if libertarians would just try. Just try.

And people will argue, “but they’re not real libertarians!” Well, no, they’re not. They probably wouldn’t be at first, anyways.

Here’s the way I see it: America is a country full of steak-loving omnivores. What libertarians have been trying to do all these years is to convince Americans to put down their big, juicy cheeseburgers and pick up some vegan libertarianism. Can you honestly expect voters to straight to veganism just like that? Hell no! That’s why you need this interim period of some nice, gradual vegetarianism.

The small-government moderates could be those vegetarians. People in America, moderates especially, want something different. They’re begging for something different. If the libertarians would all unite behind the Libertarian Party and broaden the platform enough to allow moderate, small-government politicians a place to plant their feet, it could be the start of something big. The floodgates could open, and success very well may follow. All it takes is a little change in perspective.


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