Building off of what Matthew Reece said in his Ohio Strategy article, I thought it might be worthwhile to brainstorm some additional possibilities in the field of breaking the two-party stranglehold. I’m calling mine the California Strategy, because, in contrast to the Ohio vision, it aims at states regarded as “safe” by the major parties.

In addition to all the existing obstacles to third parties (ably documented in that piece; I won’t restate them all) we also face potential threats from some well-supported calls for reform. It is likely that in the future, “Get the money out of politics” legislation will have been imposed in some politically corrupted form; if this amounts to public funding for campaigns and a prohibition on campaigns funded from other sources, this will be the literal end of third-party campaigns unless they can be conducted without any funds at all. If it amounts to limiting campaign finance to only pass through the channels of political parties as such, this could actually increase the importance of the Libertarian Party as an organization, yet at the same time subject it to heavier oversight and interference. In any case, reforms passed by an existing congress are going to have a built-in effect of favoring the existing parties, especially in states they regard as contentious and valuable.

The likelihood of further increases in the power of the two major parties only worsens an already bad situation; the third parties are up against enormous discrepancies in funding. In the Ohio Strategy, we aim to act as a spoiler in Ohio, by concentrating all our resources there. According to Reece’s numbers, this reduces the spending discrepancy from 922:1 to 65:1 in that particular state. I like the idea of concentrating our resources, I question its efficacy when we remain at such a disadvantage. I think all of us our dissatisfied with this outcome, but is it the best we can do to address our shocking disadvantage?

According to a table I found on the internet (how’s that for rigorous research?) there are a number of states where the combined spending of both Obama and Romney in 2012 is so small that a typical Libertarian could outspend both political machines out of his own savings account (ok, he might have to sell one of his rifles or an ounce of gold, but that’s beside the point). These states are the ones regarded as “safe” by one political machine, and unwinnable by the other. This very distinction between safe state and swing state is what has produced the concentration of funds by the major candidates, exactly as Reece would advise. It does provide us (in aiming, not for nationwide victory, but for education, publicity, a place on the debate stage, etc.) with some food for thought.

  1. If we are not aiming for a nationwide victory in this cycle, the importance of swing states nearly vanishes. Swing states are significant because of their marginal impact on the final election result; we are not hoping (realistically) for an overall victory, and a victory in Ohio does not have the same marginal impact on the Libertarian Party as it does on the Democrats or Republicans, since its importance depends on controlling the many other safe states those parties control. Without those, the only value of a swing state to the Libertarians is an opportunity to give one party or the other a particular sort of black eye.
  2. Unconstrained by the Democrats’ and Republicans’ obsession with a half-dozen swing states, the Libertarians can, rather than reducing the margin by which they are outspent, instead be the dominant campaign force in any number of undefended safe states. Johnson would not even require his entire Ohio budget to be the biggest campaigner in California, by many orders of magnitude. Why? The Republicans spend nothing because they expect nothing, and the Democrats spend nothing because they expect everything.
  3. The effects of powerful campaigns operating unchallenged in “safe” states could actually be more beneficial for the specific practical aims of the Libertarian Party than struggling to be heard in a hotly contested state. The message of a third party is more likely to be heard in the absence of two enormous, high-profile competing campaigns, simply as a matter of loudness. Secondly, the minority in a large safe state is not afflicted by the “wasted vote” argument; their vote has been regarded as wasted as long as the state has been considered safe. The opportunity to send a message with their vote, vote on principle, or influence a major party to be more responsive is much more attractive to a California Republican than it is to a committed swing state voter who harbors hopes of affecting the national outcome.
  4. An effective challenge in a safe state will draw the attention of not only the controlling major party, but the party that has ignored it. The controlling party will regard the Libertarians as a meaningful challenge, and likely fund against them. The party out of power will regard the controlling party’s hold on the state as weak, and likely join the fight in the next cycle. Depending on the particular dynamics, this may result in the creation of a new swing state, which, in my opinion, is a good in itself. Issues relevant to the voters of safe states will be restored to relevance in the campaigns, thus incrementally reshaping the two dominant parties, and straining their coalitions and compromises. What would a Republican candidate have to say about immigration and the drug war, if he cared (as he does not now) about trying to reclaim California? And this would be building off of a controversy opened by the Libertarian candidate who originally launched the challenge. The Libertarian core issues will have been forced into the political arena; it will be up to the candidates to see which can address them successfully and consistently with the party platform.
  5. If the Libertarian challenge is successful (first or second in the general election) and a swing state between the Republicans and Democrats does not result (ie if the major parties do not choose to shift resources into this new arena) a basis is formed for regarding the state as Democrat/Libertarian split, rather than Democrat/Republican, which should be a powerful boost to Libertarian congressional and state legislature bids, as well as an important historical victory.
  6. If, each time this strategy is enacted successfully in a state, a Democrat/Republican swing state emerges, we have plenty of additional states left in which to conduct it, and each one successively divides the resources which the Democrats and Republicans now concentrate into their specific battleground states. In doing so, it complicates the strategies of both parties, as they have to choose between a greater and greater number of possible uses for their funds. In effect, the Socialist Calculation problem will afflict these two giant entities, as a greater variety of potentially-productive uses for their resources is set before them. Our smaller party will have little to fear from this process, as it disrupts and confounds the operations of the next Romney and the next Obama.

Most important in all of this is the fact that both the Democratic and Republican parties are inconsistent in principle; both are coalitions of sympathy and convenience. They are riddled with internal conflicts and potential pragmatic ruptures. The virtual irrelevance of all but a few states helps their precarious balance, by preventing the emergence of conflicts between the selfish interests of voters in the remainders of the states. They are empowered to ignore a majority of voters, and anything that disrupts this power can only erode the major parties’ power to do harm.

I must confess I am far more concerned with spoiling the plans of the next Obama and the next Romney than with pursuing the election of the next Johnson. But in a means-ends framework, I think I see something of future value here. I am in no way advocating politics in this piece, I only hope to disrupt the operation of the machine. In proposing a political strategy, I always fear that in some unforeseen way it produces a outcome where Bernie Sanders finally has enough officers of the law to at last stop me from making a living. I don’t think I could be induced to even speak on the subject, if I did not know that a million others fervently hope, by means of politics, to bring about that exact result.