So often in close, high-profile elections, we hear Republicans complain about the potential “spoiler” effect of third party candidates. The 2013 race for Virginia governor was no exception. Many claimed both before and after the election that the presence of Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis meant Republican Ken Cuccinelli had a greater chance of losing. In this particular case, maintaining the claim is in defiance of empirical evidence to the contrary, including exit polls as well as a county-by-county analysis of where Sarvis performed the best. While Sarvis’s vote total was greater than the margin separating Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the best available information shows Sarvis garnered about 7% of the liberal vote, compared to just 3% of the conservative vote, meaning he most likely helped Cuccinelli not finish as far behind McAuliffe as he would otherwise.
Still, Republicans have cried foul by zeroing in on high-tech entrepreneur Joe Liemandt, an Obama donor who gave $150,000 to a PAC that later gave $11,454 to Sarvis’s campaign. One has to wonder why conservatives get bent out of shape over $11,454 from a Democratic donor, but no one smells a rat when the wife of AOL founder Steve Case gives heavily to both Sarvis and several Republican campaigns. One can infer many others who lean conservative gave to Robert Sarvis. However, unlike Republicans, nary a Democrat has whispered about him being a plant from another party.
This raises the question: why are Libertarian Party candidates usually assumed to help Democrats win elections, but not Republicans? Why are accusations of “spoiler” effects leveled by one side? There are probably a myriad of answers, but one reason for this notion being so deeply engrained is probably because there are enough identifiable libertarians in the GOP that conservatives assume big-L candidates will pull from the same voters who help elect these small-l politicians. The most famous recent example is former U.S. Representative and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul, but other Republicans who have been identified as libertarian include Representative Justin Amash, Senator Rand Paul, Representative Mark Sanford, and Senator Jeff Flake (who, during his tenure as a Representative, once said of Ron Paul, “When I’m the only ‘no’ vote, I can usually rest assured he’s on a plane somewhere”). Are there possible examples of what some would call libertarians on the left (and whom we would call “free liberals”), and if so who are they?
Free liberals on the Democratic side might not fit into what most people have come to assume a libertarian should act like per se. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, for instance, has a record of voting on land management issues that would not strike most as libertarian, particularly when it comes to collecting oil royalties from federally leased areas. But his philosophy conforms to a geolibertarian view on property ownership, in which the citizenry has a common stake in common natural resources. This collective view of property is reminiscent of historical examples such as the Aztec calpulli. A more conventional libertarian would assign rights to the commons to individuals so that each actor has a vested interest in the sustainment of a resource. The Maine lobster fishery is a good example of an industry that basically self-regulates its consumption of a resource for the sake of longevity. But even if someone like Wyden thinks differently about private property than most of us, he still believes in property rights.
To be free liberal is to be open-minded, so our definitions of who is with us should not be narrow. We have to be willing to see the glass half full to have a movement that makes progress, and Wyden has the track record of supporting civil liberties that signals free liberals can work with him. He has been critical of the Obama administration’s lack of transparency and Justice Department tactics, believing that “seizing phone records of journalists is in effect treating journalists as accomplices in committing crimes” while also claiming the administration leans toward “over-classification.” Wyden, a supporter of a federal shield law for whistleblowers, recently called a bill codifying the NSA’s mass collection of phone records “a huge step backward for the rights of law-abiding Americans.” He also questions the CIA’s use of drone strikes. There are other liberty-minded Democrats, such as Senator Mark Udall and Representative Alan Grayson, but Ron Wyden is one of the more vocal examples.
Appealing to Democrats may be easier in some ways than appealing to Republicans. Some dogmatic religious ideologues will never believe social tolerance should be public policy. On the other hand, many peace-loving Democrats who are suspicious of American overreach abroad could be convinced that excessive taxation is a domestic form of the coercive, imperialistic intervention they abhor. Of course, there are major institutional hurdles to overcome. When Dartmouth Professor Charlie Wheelan ran for Congress in 2009, he “realized it is very hard to get out of the Democratic primary if you hold some of those views which, in my view, are dictated just by math.” He has since written The Centrist Manifesto, which calls for deficit reduction and social tolerance, among other things.
My father was elected as a Democrat to the Virginia House of Delegates long before I was born, and served in that body from 1968 to 1988. In the 1990’s he was very attracted to Harry Browne as a presidential candidate, particularly when he heard him declare “I want a government small enough to fit inside the Constitution.” Since 2000, he has voted for most Libertarians that he’s seen on the ballot. His beliefs didn’t change, but the importance the major parties placed on the rule of law did. The value politicians placed on their offices changed as well—in years he ran unopposed, my dad returned donations with a “no thanks” letter, rather than build up a war chest.
He was proud to support Robert Sarvis in this past election. So was a friend of mine who has voted Democrat almost every election; she cares deeply about social tolerance and gun rights. There are deep historical ties between modern libertarianism and the Republican Party, and certainly libertarianism is visible in that party today. But that does not mean libertarianism cannot thrive elsewhere. A strong free liberal, libertarian wing in both major parties will help the cause of freedom. Conversely, this past gubernatorial election shows that traditional Democratic voters can provide a big boost to the liberty movement as well.