Libertarians As the ‘Normal’ Alternative to the Democrats

Let’s explore two questions: First, will a third party candidacy matter in the 2016 presidential election?

TRAHANT REPORTS—Let’s explore two questions: First, will a third party candidacy matter in the 2016 presidential election? And, if so, what does that mean for the Native American vote?

The first question ought to be easy to answer because the arc of history says no. Democrats and Republicans have owned the presidential field since the mid-19th century when the Whig Party collapsed.

The Whigs were an unlikely coalition that included citizens opposed to Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Yet in order to win, or so they said, the Whigs nominated generals who were famous as Indian fighters, General Zachary Taylor or “Old Rough and Ready,” and finally, General Winfield Scott, whose earned nickname “Old Fuss and Feathers” wasn’t exactly the warrior image a politician is eager to project. The Whig era reflects the irony of U.S. politics. On one hand there was the Democratic Party that championed Jackson’s criminal treatment of Native people and, on the other, a party that rejected Jackson’s removal policy, but nominated as its standard-bearers, soldiers who made their name killing Indians.

George Wallace and the Dixiecrats

There is a consistent theme that emerges when you look back at the history of third-party movements. The movements are most successful when the two major parties are realigning. That’s exactly what’s occurring with the Republican Party today.

Mark Trahant

The other consistent theme: The third party rise is often associated in a time when hate is also on the rise.

After the Whig Party ceased as a national political force most of its southern members created the Native American Party. Of course not that Native American Party. American Indians and Alaska Natives were not citizens. Indeed, the party later became the American Party and was often referred to as the “Know Nothings.” The party platform included provisions that “Americans must rule America … and to this end native-born citizens should be selected for all State, Federal, and municipal offices of government.”

After the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, many Southerners again went the third party route in 1968 supporting former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his American Independent Party. That party championed racism and segregation. Wallace was the last third party presidential candidate to win states, five of them, and 45 electoral votes.

Wallace’s strategy is what’s important to think about in a 2016 context: The primary objective of a third-party run is to deny the other two candidates 270 electoral votes. If that happens, the House of Representatives decides the election, not the voters. (Previous: America and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Election)

One more point of context: That 1968 election was one where the Republican Party realigned. Richard Nixon recognized the importance of Southern white voters and made them a key GOP voting bloc. (Before Wallace the South was the base of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party.) As Kevin Phillips wrote in his book, The Emerging Republican Majority, Nixon played the “Southern strategy” with “wedge” issues such as affirmative action that would pit the white working class against African American voters.

It’s the fallout of this strategy that’s one reason why the Republican Party is splitting today because its southern base has evolved to become even more intolerant on a host of issues such as civil rights and voting. And that’s what makes 2016 so extraordinary: It’s now the Republicans with Donald Trump as their party nominee that’s almost the platform of the Know Nothings or George Wallace. “Make America Great Again!” would have been a familiar theme.

Candidates With Practical Experience Governing

This weekend the Libertarian Party nominated two former governors to champion their cause in this election. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (who was the party’s candidate four years ago is running with former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

These two candidates are different from the Libertarian routine (I know, this is Johnson’s second run) because their message will be about experience. In a way they will be asking voters to ignore Libertarian purists and move their party to the center. That’s a tall order. Because they have to convince their own party members about the value of the center and they have to recruit disaffected Republicans as well as a few Democrats.

Johnson’s reputation as a governor was frugal. He brags about the number of bills he vetoed as governor. In his first race for governor, he was supportive of New Mexico’s tribal gaming industry and received nearly $250,000 in campaign donations from tribes. He signed gambling compacts with the tribes shortly after taking office.

The Libertarian Party is a mix of conservative and liberal issues. Like the Republicans, the party advocates a significantly smaller government. But it’s also to the left of Democrats on the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. Johnson has also dismissed Donald Trump’s immigration policy as racist and says his call for a wall on the Mexican border only leads to taller ladders.

Johnson said he wanted to run this time around with Gov. Weld because he thinks the pair can win or at least participate in the coming presidential debates. (Candidates must poll at 15 percent or better to be included.)

The two can call on traditional Republican sources of funds, ranging from Mitt Romney supporters to the Koch Brothers. They basically will make the case that they are not crazy like Trump. And they can point to their records as former governors.

Johnson is polling at around 10 percent and the Libertarian ticket will be on all 50 ballots (compared to about 20 states for the Green Party.)

So will Johnson-Weld matter? Can they win any states? That’s a good point to explore the role of Native American voters.

Donald Trump is not a traditional Republican and his very presence changes the electoral map. He could, for example, be a contender in Rust Belt states where there are a lot of white, working class voters. As The New York Times put it: “Mr. Trump’s best play for the White House is to cut a swath through the Rust Belt, flipping states traditionally won by Democrats that harbor large numbers of the white working-class voters who have welcomed his hard line on immigration and trade.”

But travel into the West and it might be a different story. Montana Sen. Jon Tester won re-election with only 48.56 percent of the vote. The Libertarian candidate for Senate, Dan Cox, earned 6.56 percent of the vote. And that percentage represents a smaller number than Native American voters.

So a state normally not in play for Democrats, Montana, could be up for grabs. And Montana is one of the best states for Libertarians. Several other Western states where the Libertarian message could win votes include Arizona, Nevada, and even Alaska.

But Libertarians are hoping to do better than that. Many see 2016 as the year when it becomes the alternative party to Democrats. And, if history is a guide, the Libertarians could have a remarkable year. There is a major party realignment occurring and one campaign spews messages of hate rather than optimism (just compare the speeches of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump if you want proof.) That’s a theme from the past.

No one could have predicted the Libertarian presidential candidate to be a representative of normal. Especially a party campaigning with a ticket comprised of former governors who have practical experience actually running governments. It will be interesting to see if there message gets out and connects with voters.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports.