In the 1856 election, the country was bitterly divided between the Democratic Party – which had dominated the office of the Presidency since Thomas Jefferson – and the new parties that came about from the destruction of the Whigs. In 1848, members of the Whig party had been branching off and forming third parties, mostly due to the contentious issue of slavery in the western territories. In 1848, former Whigs formed the Free Soil Party, the platform of which revolved around the issue of territorial slavery. In the 1850s, the anti-Irish immigrant American Party (known colloquially as the “Know Nothings”) began to flourish. The division of the Whigs seemed like good news for the Democrats.
But in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was an attempt at a compromise between the “Slave Power” and the Free-Soilers, created a division among the Democrats. In the same year, the Republican Party was formed. Two years later, the Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate in a three-way election. The Democrats nominated James Buchanan, the Republicans nominated John C. Fremont, and the American Party nominated former-President Millard Fillmore. As can be expected, the Democrats won the election.
The Republicans, though, referred to this election as a “victorious defeat.” Even though they lost and the Democrats retained their hold on the Presidency, the Republicans did surprisingly well in the Northern states. In 1860, their second Presidential nominee – Abraham Lincoln – would win the election.
What does this mean for American politics today? It is possible that the American electorate is more divided than it has been since 1856, and this bodes well for the Libertarian Party. Since Ted Cruz has announced that he has dropped out of the race, Donald Trump appears to be the certain nominee for the Republican party, and Google searches for the Libertarian Party and its potential candidates skyrocketed overnight. It is incredibly unlikely that a Libertarian Party candidate will win the office of the Presidency, but this election cycle may result in what one may perceive as a “victorious defeat.”
This election has the potential of making the Libertarian Party a major political party. This possible short-term victory for the Democrats may lead to a long-term challenge unlike anything the Republican Party is able to offer any longer. For liberty-minded voters, this seems like an unquestionably good thing, but that remains to be seen. When the Libertarian Party was formed in 1971, there was no delusions that the candidates would win elections. But winning elections, they believed, would be little more than a happy accident. Knowing that political victory was a pipe-dream, the candidates campaigned for the purpose of educating a public who was consistently fed the same tired ideas from a one-party system masquerading as one of choice. The goal of the Libertarian Party at the time was education. Convincing people to support liberty on principle was the route to real change, these candidates believed.
Once victory is a legitimate prospect, though, goals can change. Parties have a natural tendency to adopt compromising positions to appeal to specific demographics and bring a wider voting population under the party umbrella. Principles take a back seat to politics, and that is the root of destruction in any major political party.
This election will almost certainly bode well for the Libertarian Party, but it should not be taken for granted that this necessarily means that it bodes well for libertarians. I’m not against voting (although I’m not a fervent proponent of it either), but the dangers of seeking to bring in voters for the purpose of winning elections, rather than the adherence to the principles of liberty, should be well observed. This is not to say that liberty voters should not support the Libertarian candidate, and it is not to say that there is nothing about which to be optimistic.
This is simply a plea for voters to remain true to principles. Many libertarian-minded voters have been voting for Republicans for years, not because they necessarily approved of the candidates, but simply because they believed it to be the best of two bad options. The results of this compromise of principles has been the nomination of Donald Trump (and prior to this, it has been people like John McCain, who are hardly better, if not worse). This is the tactic – this strategy of compromise – that needs to be changed. A failure to do so may mean the emergence of the Libertarian Party as a major political body, but it will also be the destruction of libertarianism within the party.
And then, just like the original supporters of a federal (decentralized) government who got their name hijacked by the so-called “Federalists” who opposed a federalist constitution, and like the liberals who believed in free markets and individual liberty who got their name hijacked by the so-called “Liberals” who are nothing more than quasi-socialist progressives, the libertarians today are set to have our name (and with it, the perception of our principles) hijacked by the same neo-conservatives and progressives who have produced the anti-liberty candidates we are now facing.
Let’s not let that happen.