The Long-Term Prospects for the Libertarian and Green Parties

by Michael Dorf

My latest Verdict column pitches Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) as an idea that both small parties and the two major parties should support. Don't know what IRV is? Read the column. The basic idea is that IRV makes it possible to vote for a minor-party candidate without risking playing spoiler, because if he or she (as expected) does poorly, your second-choice (or successive-choice) candidate gets your vote after a reallocation. Reducing the likelihood of spoilers, I argue, is good for both third parties and major parties.

In this post, I want to look at the long-term prospects of the two currently most viable third parties: the Libertarians (currently running Gary Johnson for president) and the Greens (currently running Jill Stein). I'll focus on the long term rather than their impact on the 2016 election, because I regard the current election as highly unusual. Much if not most of the support we are now seeing for Johnson and Stein is rooted in opposition to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as candidates, rather than simply opposition to their respective policy positions or--what I'm really after--dissatisfaction with the policy space occupied by the two major parties.

Politics occurs around a potentially infinite range of issues, so I'll have to make simplifying assumptions. I'll assume that we can break down national politics into three groupings, each with policy positions falling on a spectrum from left to right between:

Economic policy: Redistributivist/Regulatory versus Laissez-Faire

Social policy: Liberal versus Conservative

Foreign policy: Dovish versus Hawkish

Of course, even that oversimplification needs to be even more oversimplified to give us a sense of the parties, but I'm up to the task! So, here is my chart of the major and minor parties:

PartyEconomic PolicySocial PolicyForeign Policy
RepublicanLaissez-FaireConservativeVery Hawkish
LibertarianVery Laissez-FaireLiberalDovish
GreenVery Redistributivist/RegulatoryVery LiberalVery Dovish

Now one can quibble with some of these characterizations. For example, some politicians who are generally libertarian hold positions on some issues--especially abortion--that code as conservative in our politics.  No doubt there are other ways in which one could quibble with my typology, but that's because, as I've noted, it is a deliberate oversimplification in order to try to gain some perspective.

Okay, so what can we observe about the chart?

1) Both the Greens and the Libertarians are more dovish than either major party. That observation (if correct) suggests a number of possibilities. One is that there is an unsatisfied demand for a more dovish/less interventionist foreign policy, i.e., the American people are not being adequately represented in foreign policy matters. Another--given the fact that the major parties have incentives to align their policies close to the center of public opinion--is that the center of U.S. public opinion is fairly hawkish, except when a foreign war goes badly. Even then, it takes quite some time for the electorate to punish a party for being too hawkish. For example, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were already going badly in 2004, but it wasn't until the 2006 midterm election that the incumbent party paid a price. Whatever the explanation, the fact that both the Libertarians and the Greens are more dovish than either major party suggests that if there is to be a competition between these two third parties, it will be over domestic policy.

2) With respect to (both economic and social) domestic policy, the Libertarians look to have a clear advantage over the Greens, if the goal of a third party is to win elections and supplant one of the major parties. The Libertarians occupy a policy space -- economically conservative and socially liberal -- that neither major party occupies. By contrast, the Greens are simply more extreme versions of the Democrats.

There is nothing set in stone about the upper-left-hand four boxes of my chart. We could well imagine a two-party system in which one party is economically progressive and socially conservative (think Mike Huckabee early in his Arkansas governorship) and the other is economically conservative and socially liberal (think Bill Weld as Massachusetts governor). Indeed, Trump's success among white working-class Republican voters as an anti-trade pro-entitlements candidate suggests that there is a possible post-Trump Republican Party that is redistributionist/regulatory and socially conservative. If one major party were to drift that way, it would make sense for the other to take the other two positions, i.e., laissez-faire and socially liberal. Because the Libertarian Party already occupies that space, it is also possible to imagine a post-realignment world in which it supplants one of the major parties (which one?!), while the remaining major party drifts to occupy the economically progressive/socially conservative niche.

3) Accordingly, I conclude that the Libertarians have a better chance than do the Greens of becoming one of the two major parties. (In the column, I note that our system ensures that we will mostly have two dominant parties.) But that doesn't mean that the Libertarians have a good chance of supplanting either the Republican or Democratic Party. Despite numerous shifts in our politics, we have had those two major parties for over a century and a half. If there is to be realignment into parties that split up economic and social issues differently from the way that the two major parties do, it is much more likely that the realignment will occur within the existing parties. And I suspect that what we are likely to see is not a new axis of politics but the growing realization that there isn't much appetite for laissez-faire. It may well turn out that the answer to Thomas Frank's question What's the Matter With Kansas?, is nothing: It's just that heretofore, if a voter wanted to vote for a social conservative, he also usually had to take him in a laissez-faire package. A future GOP that is socially conservative and at least modestly redistributionist/regulatory would deeply frustrate closeted socially liberal laissez-faire GOP donors, but would do better at election time.

4) Meanwhile, although there is little likelihood of the Green Party succeeding in supplanting the Democrats (and even less likelihood that the Greens would supplant the Republicans), the people who currently support the Greens will likely find that they can do reasonably well by moving the Democratic Party. Here the math is, or at least should be, obvious. If you're trying to move policy to the left of the more left-leaning party, you will have a much better chance of succeeding by operating within that party--where your primary electorate is substantially to the left of the median voter--than in the general electorate. Put differently, the Green Party cannot hope to succeed as a national party qua party, but it can accomplish many of its policy goals by moving the Democratic Party to the left.

5) I am aware of a line of criticism of the Greens and other third parties in the U.S. that says that they should build themselves up in state and local elections, rather than by running spoilers for the presidency. I generally agree with the bottom line of that criticism, but I would add that much of the dynamic that makes third parties fail in presidential elections operates in other elections as well. First-past-the-post elections tend to create a two-party system. That's Duverger's Law. Some jurisdictions allow "fusion" candidacies--in which a minor party can cross-endorse a major party candidate, thereby allowing adherents of the minor party to vote for a major-party candidate on the minor-party line, and thus keeping the minor party viable (i.e., above some threshold of support needed to be on the ballot). But not all jurisdictions permit fusion candidates, and the SCOTUS upheld fusion bans in a 1997 case.

6) Thus, to quote either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, the system is "rigged" in favor of two parties--although most of the rigging is done by Duverger's Law, not by any conspiracy.