Thinking Beyond the Next Election:
A Strategy for Victory

by Roderick T. Long

Author’s note: This article originally appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of the
North Carolina Constitution Defense Association News, a gun-rights organisation.
The points made herein are obviously intended to be generalisable
to elections other than 1996 and to issues other than gun rights.

As gun-rights activists, we all know that the political party with the strongest, most consistent, most uncompromising stand on gun rights is the Libertarian Party.

We all know that Bob Dole (along with a great many other Republican politicians) has betrayed us on gun issues again and again, and will continue to do so if he wins the coming election.

Yet most of us plan to vote Republican this November.

There’s a plausible-sounding justification for this. After all, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole are arguably the only two candidates with a realistic chance of winning. So one of them, it’s reasonably safe to assume, will be President for the next four years. And while Dole is bad on gun rights, Clinton is worse. Therefore, the argument goes, it’s vital to get Dole elected. A vote for Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate, simply helps to split the pro-gun vote between the Republicans and the Libertarians, and so makes a Clinton victory more likely. To prevent this catastrophe, we’re told, gun-rights defenders must hold their noses and vote for Bob Dole, the lesser of two evils.

I agree that this argument might be a good one IF we think ahead only as far as the next election. But that’s the assumption I want to call into question.

In playing chess, a sure way to lose is to spend your first few moves capturing as many of the opponent’s pieces as possible. It’s much more important to let those juicy-looking pieces go than to allow them to distract you from your main mission of building a strong presence at the center of the board.

I think the same lesson applies in politics. In crafting our strategy we need to plan several elections ahead, not just one. Our enemies have long-term strategies; so should we.

If we plan ahead only as far as the next election, then it’s absolutely true that a vote for a candidate who loses is an ineffective vote.

But if we think ahead four years, or eight years, or twelve years, then a vote can do more than just elect a candidate. A vote can help to build a vote total which, even if it is a losing vote total, can, if it’s big enough, draw more attention and support to the losing candidate and his party or cause.

This has two beneficial effects: First, it increases the good guys’ chance of winning in the future. Second, it forces the major candidates to move in our direction in order to avoid precisely that.

As things stand, Dole and Clinton are taking us down the same path; the only difference is that Clinton wants to move a little faster. A vote for Bob Dole is still a vote to continue moving down that “road to serfdom.”

For me, the choice comes down to this:

1. I can throw my vote away for the short-term gain of electing a pro-gun-control Republican to replace the only slightly worse pro-gun-control Democrat now occupying the Oval Office;


2. I can leverage my vote for the purpose of giving the Libertarians as big a vote as possible this year, in order to help raise the Party’s publicity profile and build its strength for the long term, so that we'll be in a position to elect Libertarians in droves in 2000 and 2004 and 2008.
As I see it, the second strategy is the only one that has a credible chance of turning back the tide of gun control in this country. Every time the Libertarian vote totals increase, publicity for the LP (Libertarian Party) increases, and resistance to the idea of a third party declines; and every time publicity for the LP increases and resistance to a third party declines, Libertarian vote totals increase. Hence the LP’s slow but steady growth of late, including unprecedentedly high vote totals in recent local elections nationwide, and unprecedentedly high levels of national and local media coverage these past few weeks. (The real breakthrough will be when the level of votes-plus-publicity gets high enough to get a Libertarian candidate in the national debates; one encouraging sign is that nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist David Broder, no Libertarian, is calling for the inclusion of Harry Browne in the debates this year.) To me, working to accelerate that trend seems a better investment than trusting the GOP once again.

But voting Libertarian now in order to make more likely a Libertarian victory several years from now is only half my motivation. The other half is to move the other parties in the right direction. In principle, the LP could get most of its platform through even if it never won a major office.

For example: right now the Republican party faces an anti-gun party as its sole credible opponent. So it’s in the interest of the GOP politicians to be as soft and mushy on gun rights as possible, in order to pick up the moderates. After all, where are the strong pro-gun voters going to go? As long as the GOP is marginally more pro-gun than the Democrats, it has a lock on the pro-gun vote. Once the LP becomes a credible threat, however (and by a credible threat I mean not necessarily strong enough to win, but just strong enough to split the pro-gun vote and so elect the Democrats), the GOP has to pay attention to its pro-gun voters for once. It has to move back in the pro-gun direction in order to keep its pro-gun voters from defecting to the LP. The political dynamics of the situation are transformed: the GOP’s incentive to compromise with the Democrats is balanced, finally, by a countervailing incentive to compromise with the Libertarians. The Republican Party would have to stop taking us for granted!!!

This strategy has worked for the other side. To quote libertarian economist David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman):

“I believe the answer is that we should learn from our enemies; we should imitate the strategy of the Socialist party of 60 years ago. Its presidential vote never reached a million, but it may have been the most successful political party in American history. It never gained control of anything larger than the city of Milwaukee but it succeeded in enacting into law virtually every economic proposal in its 1928 platform – a list of radical proposals ranging from minimum wages to social security.”
     – The Machinery of Freedom (2nd ed.), Open Court 1987, p.228.
One of my aims in voting for Harry Browne instead of Bob Dole is to help the LP do to the Republicans what the Socialist Party did to the Democrats.

Like a lot of Libertarians, I used to be a Republican; I used to believe in “being practical” and working within the GOP.

I still believe in being practical – but now I think being practical means voting for major victories in the long term rather than minor victories in the short term. Sooner or later we have to stand up and vote for what we really want, or we’re never going to get it.

Back to main page