The Threshold Effect

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On January 20, the first news day after the Massachusetts election, the headline in my local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, was this: “Patient Access Rules in Place.” I swear to God, I’m not making that up.

The headline introduced a story about a state agency that was prepared to announce new regulations on HMOs. The regulators had been working on the scheme for seven years, although they conceded that they had not yet estimated its costs.

The article reported all this, but it wasn’t sarcastic. It was generally favorable to the regulators and their notions. And that wasn’t surprising, given the degree of curiosity about the effects of regulation that is ordinarily apparent in American journalism. The surprising thing was that this was the head- line, and this was the leading article, on the first news day after the Massachusetts senatorial election, one of the most important elections in American history – and an election fought largely on the issue of healthcare legislation.

For me, the front page of the Union, with its single- minded focus on microscopic local issues, was a reductio ad absurdum of that bit of wisdom that pundits are always dish- ing out: “All politics is local.” That’s not true. It’s never been true. And in the age of nearly instantaneous news and comment, it should be obvious that every election is potentially an arena of national politics. The Massachusetts election was fully “nationalized” in this way, turned into a test of national opinion by Republican activists who knew how to contact the non-print media.

Furthermore, the Senate seat in question had been nationalized for a long, long time. It was held for 46 years by Edward Moore Kennedy, a man who repeatedly attempted to become president of the United States in order to effect broad national “reforms.” The election in January hinged on the national healthcare initiative for which Kennedy wanted to be remembered. It became a contest between the Obama administration, which fanatically supported that initiative, and the American people, who firmly rejected it – even, it turned out, in Democratic Massachusetts.

By winning Kennedy’s former seat, Republican candidate Scott Brown precipitated the greatest crisis of confidence that an American ruling party has suffered since President Clinton’s repudiation in the election of 1994. Brown also did something that libertarians have always wished to do: win an important local election on national and ideological grounds.

I have something to say about the message that Brown’s victory should send to libertarians. But first, it’s interesting to look at the ways in which the Democratic disaster has been explained by others.

The Democrats started by blaming their own candidate, Martha Coakley, for her gross ineptitude. It’s true, Coakley ran a hilariously stupid campaign. She even insulted the mil- lions of Bay Staters who worship the local baseball team. Curt Schilling is a hero of the Boston Red Sox, but Coakley appeared to have no idea who he was, except that he was somebody supporting her opponent. She tried to get at him by insisting that he was a Yankee fan. This was an amazing performance.

No less amazing was her sarcastic announcement that she had no intention of shaking hands with voters outside Fenway Park, and her claim that President Obama made a last- minute trip to Massachusetts to speak on her behalf “because he knows we’re gonna win.” When she said that, she was smiling, as if certain that her audience was stupid enough to believe such a thing. She was always smiling like that.

Well, far from being certain that Coakley would win, the White House was already providing an excuse for her loss. The excuse was Coakley herself. But her mental disabilities weren’t enough to explain what happened. Horrible candidates had run in Massachusetts before. Teddy Kennedy was a horrible candidate. Fat, drunken, debauched, guilty of every sin from college cheating to manslaughter, he was elected nine times and was reputedly the idol of the people.

That was the fantasy of the political parasites who fed for five decades on the corpse of Teddy’s brother John. The fantasy was finally dispelled when Brown, challenged to say why he aspired to “the Kennedy seat” in the Senate, replied that it wasn’t a Kennedy seat; it was “the people’s seat.” That was the remark that ignited his campaign. A new generation now inhabited Massachusetts, a generation for whom the Irish Catholic nationalism that assured the Kennedys’ local success was no longer important.

After the election, Teddy Kennedy’s niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, attacked Coakley for not inviting Teddy’s widow to assist her campaign. But the idea of not inviting her

Coakley’s mental disabilities weren’t enough to explain what happened. Horrible candidates had run in Massachusetts before.


seems to have occurred in one of Coakley’s few lucid intervals. When, prompted by the White House, the widow finally held a press conference and dropped the Kennedy mantle on Coakley’s shrinking shoulders, surveys indicated that she lost Coakley twice as much support as she gained. Yet (again, after the election) Townsend rattled off a list of Kennedys who, she thought, could easily have won the race – this, from a per- son who is noted only for her failure to be elected governor of Maryland, a Democratic state that, before she came along, hadn’t elected a Republican governor in four decades.

It ought to be remembered that when Edward Moore Kennedy died in August, legislators and anchorpersons pro- claimed that the great healthcare reform act of 2009 would be called the Ted Kennedy Act. That lasted a few days. Then it died. Even in 2009, it wasn’t a ploy that worked.

But it has to be said that in a normal year, a Kennedy – or a Coakley – would have won a state that had 12 Democratic representatives in Congress, and zero Republicans. Coakley was the attorney general of Massachusetts. She had won that office with 73% of the vote. She had won the senatorial primary by crushing three opponents. At the start of her race for Senate she was 30 points ahead of her Republican rival, an obscure state legislator who had to battle some really violent attacks by the Coakley forces. Among other things, they sent out mailers screaming: “1,736 Women Were Raped In Massachusetts in 2008; Scott Brown Wants Hospitals To Tum Them All Away.” The Democratic establishment, both state and national, desperately wanted Coakley’s grotesque campaign to succeed, and it did a lot more for her than it had ever supposed it needed to do in the deep blue state of Massachusetts.

Yet while the White House blamed Coakley, her friends blamed the White House. Their leading complaint had to do with the president’s late intervention on her behalf: Obama showed up in Boston on the weekend before the vote. The real problem, however, was that when he did show up, he proved a feckless campaigner. Feckless, and worse than feckless: he delivered one of the most disastrous remarks in recent electoral history. Alluding to Brown’s trademark use of an old truck as a campaign vehicle, the president sneered, “Everybody can buy a truck.” Brown immediately pointed out that, in this economy, not everybody can buy a truck.

Still, Obama’s sorry performance didn’t lose the election. The poll numbers didn’t change much after he went to Massachusetts to support his candidate, and he may have inspired a lot of Democrats to get out of the house and vote on a cold, snowy day. Coakley got a decent turnout from the core Democratic constituency. It just wasn’t enough. The Republicans and especially the independents turned out too, and they voted overwhelmingly against her policies, and his – which is what they had been intending to do.

Rather than admit this, Obama and his advisers tried other explanations for the defeat, none of them having to do with the unpopularity of his healthcare program. And, early on the morning after the election, members of the president’s inner circle – such people as David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel- suggested that the important thing wasn’t the vote in Massachusetts, or what had gone wrong with it. The important thing was to get healthcare passed right away, no matter what the people thought or what the vote had been, because once it was passed, it too could be “explained,” and the people would adjust themselves to it and begin to like it.

Then, after a few scary hours of waiting to see whether that kind of bullying would work, they heard reports from Democratic members of Congress, and the reports weren’t pleasant, not pleasant at all. Noway was Congress going to bull through on healthcare – not after the vote in Massachusetts. A day later, Nancy Pelosi announced that the current healthcare bill wasn’t going anyplace. Democrats in the House, many of them facing elections this year in districts that are much, much less Democratic than Massachusetts, were strangely unwilling to walk the plank for healthcare legislation.

How comical it is that only 14 months before, these Democrats were running for office, demanding that such legislation be passed. Only days before, they were publicly certain that it was ready to be passed. Sure, each of them wanted

Teddy Kennedy was a horrible candidate. Fat, drunken, debauched, he was elected nine times and was reputedly the idol of the people.


his own little reward – putting abortion in or taking abortion out, giving this deal or that deal to friendly constituents. But the healthcare bill was about to become law, and they were advertising their connection with it. Then, suddenly, they were running away.

The healthcare bill was the most significant thing in the Massachusetts election. Brown said he would do his best to kill it; Coakley was committed to saving it. So it was health- care that killed her, right?

Well, not entirely. Brown won by five points, 52 to 47. That’s a pretty good margin in an American election. It’s close to the margin (53 to 46) by which Obama won the presidency in 2008. Most polls, both of people in Massachusetts and of people nationwide, indicate that they dislike health- care reform by a much greater margin than this. So it wasn’t a straight-up referendum. But then, few things in American politics ever are.

So let’s try another explanation. The day after the election, both President Obama and Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, insisted that Brown was swept into office by the same tide that had swept Obama in, a tsunami whipped up by disappointment with the Bush regime.

That was almost incredibly stupid, and it was received as such by everyone except a few Eastern media types. But it went the rounds. Howard Dean, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe (pronounced, somehow, “Pluff”) – there was hardly a Democratic honcho who didn’t bring it up. Here’s Gibbs on the Sunday after the election, maintaining that voters hadn’t really endorsed Brown’s loud opposition to healthcare “reform”: “That may be what he campaigned on, but that’s not why the voters of Massachusetts sent him to Washington.”

This stuff was almost as funny as Coakley’s campaign. Even Chris Matthews made fun of it when he interviewed Dean. He couldn’t get over the fact that Dean was saying these things, and with a straight face, too.

To be fair, Kaine had a second explanation – but it was almost as dumb. He admitted that the Democratic Party had failed in the election. But lest anyone think he was lunging toward true self-criticism, he refused to assign specific blame or propose specific remedies – with one exception. He called for “crisper sound bites.” For lack of crisp sound bites, the election had been lost. No, I’m not making that up, either.

But here’s the truth. Neither Kaine nor Plouffe, neither Dean nor Axelrod, neither Obama nor Coakley identified the real cause of the Democrats’ defeat. That mysterious entity can be found in the place where all serious explanations converge, whether these emphasize the candidate, the campaign, the White House, or the raw and bleeding issues. The voters weren’t objecting just to Coakley or just to Obama or just to Obama’s healthcare program. They were objecting to being managed – to being handled like objects, to being loaded with “benefits” that they do not want, to being herded into the Shrine of Ted, to being treated like patients stuck in a waiting room with a surly nurse. They objected to conceding, with a grateful bow, that there are big people in this world, and small people, and that they are the small people, while Coakley, Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and the numberless persons descended from Old Joe Kennedy are the big people who deserve to be obeyed.

In “The Great Gatsby,” we hear that a brewer built a man- sion on Long Island – “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy” – and “agreed to pay five years’ taxes on all the neighboring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw.” The neighbors refused. “Americans,” Fitzgerald explains, “while occasionally will- ing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.”

The observation has some relevance to the nation’s cur- rent mood. In January 2010, Americans weren’t told that they had to grab their pikes and go fight the lord of some other demesne, as they were in 1917 or 1965. Then, they consented

Alluding to Brown’s use of an old truck as a campaign vehicle, President Obama sneered “Everybody can buy a truck.” Brown pointed out that in this economy, that’s not true.


to behave like serfs. But in 2009 they were told something else. They were told that the government was going to build a pretty new healthcare system, just like in Europe, and it wouldn’t cost anything to anyone, except the insurance companies and other false and evil barons; and all the peasants had to do was let their life-or-death decisions be made by the courtiers in Washington.

That’s the attitude that lost the Democrats the election – and, very probably, the guts of their healthcare program, and what is more important, their legitimacy as the tribunes of the people.

What enraged people about Coakley was that she thought she could say anything she wanted, vote for anything she wanted, whether the people of Massachusetts wanted it or vehemently rejected it – so long as she rewarded them with the superior smile of the lady of the manor.

What enraged people about the Democratic establishment was its constant assumption that ignorance and stupidity are deserving of reward – so long as they’re the establishment’s ignorance and stupidity. To put this in biblical terms: Who is Coakley, that she should be judge over us? And who, indeed, was Teddy Kennedy?

One sample of the modern liberals’ aggressive arrogance was the series of pro-Coakley statements bestowed upon the media by Congressman Patrick Kennedy, Teddy’s son. This particular creature of a surname has been called “America’s Dumbest Congressman,” and that’s saying something. But-

Revolutions don’t start simply because the government makes some really bad decisions. If they did, we’d have a revolution every week.


Patrick Kennedy was not abashed. He had no qualms about vouchsafing his opinion that the republic would crumble without the aid of “Marcia” Coakley. That was wrong, but he just kept saying it. As a result, one of the most popular signs at Brown rallies was “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” Obviously, Patrick didn’t think it important to discover the real name of The People’s Choice, and neither did his handlers. The people would just have to support whomever he anointed.

Similarly, what enraged people about the Democrats’ healthcare program wasn’t that it promised to give them something for nothing – certainly not. It was the fact that the goofier it became, the more the Democratic congressional leadership blandly insisted that it made perfect sense – as if the peasants lacked the capacity to notice so blatant an act of political corruption as the payoff-in-perpetuity obtained by Sen. Nelson for his home state, which was not Massachusetts.

But what was it that made the people of Massachusetts so angry about Obama, the president for whom they had voted, 62 to 36% barely 14 months before? One thing is certain: it wasn’t that he’d failed to get his message out. That was the sin he confessed to George Stephanopoulos in an interview immediately following the election. But no: the maddening thing wasn’t that he kept his own counsel; it was that he kept talking, talking, talking about his bizarre proposals, expect- ing the people to keep listening respectfully, no matter what he said.

Americans don’t like naked arrogance. If they did, there would be no hope for liberty, or libertarianism, in this country. The rebellion of Massachusetts, of all places, shows that libertarians are right when we claim that American culture is inherently opposed to government management of our lives, that Americans resent the power gradient that separates them from people like Coakley and Obama, and that sometimes, often unpredictably, Americans decide that they have had enough.

“Had enough?” was the Republican slogan during their come-back from the Roosevelt era. The idea it expresses has always been important for libertarians. And it was a crucial actor in the great election of January 2010. But libertarians tend to think that people have always had enough, and that’s not true. “Enough” isn’t what you say every day. It’s some- thing you say when you notice that you’ve crossed a line. It’s a threshold effect.

And it’s nothing mysterious. You know how it works. You’ve seen it with an arrogant boss. The people who work for him spend a lot of time wondering whether it’s just them – whether they’ve got him wrong when they label him a vain, self-regarding, sanctimonious, mouthy little man-on-stilts. Maybe he’s Dot responsible for how he’s perceived. Maybe he means well. Maybe his ideas will work out after all. That’s what people want to think. But the more he talks, the more they’re convinced that they were right in the first place. And besides his arrogance, he’s incompetent. He doesn’t seem to know how to run the business.
So now they’re seething with anger – but they won’t complain unless they believe that something they say has a good chance of changing things. If they see there’s such a chance, they’ll take it. Then, suddenly, they all start saying what they think. That generally means the boss is on his way out.

In politics, this is called a revolution.

Revolutions don’t start simply because the government makes some really bad decisions. If they did, we’d have revolution once a week. And they don’t start simply because the government takes a wrong course and arrogantly refuses to admit it – although arrogance is pretty much required, to get people to rebel. Revolutions start because people perceive that rebellion can actually succeed – not eventually, but now. That’s the threshold. And people don’t see that thresh- old every day.

It wasn’t till two weeks before the Massachusetts election that the voters realized Scott Brown had a good chance of winning. Why did they think that? It wasn’t because Coakley was so horrible, although she was. It was because Brown had significant support; he was getting money; he was acting as if he was going to win; and he was attracting attention outside the state (see “getting money,” above).

Anyone who tuned into Fox News – and most voters in Massachusetts, like most voters elsewhere, did so – awakened to the fact that other people wanted to know what the voters would do on January 19. Few people go to the polls for special elections, even fewer than those who go for regular elections. That’s what Coakley was banking on. But now the voters had a reason to vote. They knew that the rest of America cared, and that things might change in a big way if they themselves cast a ballot.

As I write these words, I realize how contrary they are to normal libertarian ways of viewing political action. I regard myself as a normal libertarian, and I think you’ll recognize the type. I can’t imagine staying home from an election. If I were a citizen of Massachusetts, and I knew with Platonic certainty that “Marcia” Coakley was going to win, and I knew that I was the only person who wanted to vote against her, and I knew that the worst snowstorm of the century was likely to bury me if I left my house, I wouldn’t think twice. I’d go to the polls and vote my principles.

Further, like most libertarians, I like to think that other people do the same thing. I know better, but that’s the way I like to think. I picture them reading the voter’s booklet an meditating carefully on every item discussed therein. As for candidates: I like to think that if somebody makes a good, thoughtful argument, he or she can win the votes of millions. Why not? Rational argument is all that matters, isn’t it?

This means that I never think about the threshold effect. I never consider that people need some reason to believe their vote can make a difference, before they start researching how to vote.

Yet that’s what they need. The threshold principle helps to explain when they follow normal electoral behavior – stay at home, or vote their hereditary political allegiance – and when a crucial segment of the populace abandons all custom. And it helps to explain why the American political system possesses both stability and volatility.

Stability? Yes, enormous stability. The great majority of America’s electoral districts are dependably, thoughtlessly, and (as it seems, before the magic threshold is crossed) imperturbably either Republican or Democratic. This is partly because the districts are gerrymandered (a process to which very few voters press any objections); it’s partly because the local communities that are the subjects of gerrymander- ing tend to retain their political identities until some great realization shakes them lose. These are powerful sources of stability.

But there’s one other element in the mix. Each of the two great parties is able to maintain its hold on approximately 50% of the electorate because neither of them has any inherent or essential ideology. Each is free to vacuum up any votes that aren’t glued down. There’s no doubt in my mind that, given five or six years, the Republican Party can figure out a way to increase its percentage of the gay vote from the cur- rent, oh, maybe 30% to something like a majority, or that the Democratic Party can find a way to restore its former hold on the evangelical vote, if it concludes that evangelical Christians are necessary to its survival.

Ideas come and go; American political parties survive. It’s like Coke versus Pepsi or Protestants versus Catholics: a stable conflict. For this reason, as I’ve argued before in these pages (“Politics vs. Ideology: How Elections are Won,” February

2005), a huge showing in a presidential or senatorial election isn’t getting 75% of the vote; it’s getting 55%.

That’s a pretty narrow margin. And Brown got less. If his enormous victory hadn’t been achieved in a one-party Democratic state, it wouldn’t have been historically significant. It was remarkable only because party allegiances, in Massachusetts as in most other places in the country, are remarkably stable. Even “independents” have stable party allegiances – and the best evidence is Massachusetts, which has huge numbers of “independent” voters who always vote Democratic.

Like every other state, of course, it also has huge numbers of people who don’t turn out to vote. Why? One reason is that they don’t think voting makes any difference. These “disaffected” and “independent” voters are the great inflaters of libertarian hopes. Libertarians (again, like me) want to believe that if they could just get these people to vote, a revolution would be produced. And it’s true that impressive numbers

When you refuse to support the lesser of the two evils, you support the greater of the two evils.

of Americans hold libertarian opinions about most things. Those opinions don’t go away, just because Clinton or Bush or Obama chances to be president. American political ideas, as well as American party identifications, have great stability.

It’s an odd fact, however, that very few disaffected voters, or even self-identified libertarian voters, show any interest in the Libertarian Party. It does no good to tell them that if they all got together and voted LP, the country would be trans- formed. They see no sign that other people are about to vote for the LP, so they don’t, either. They vote for the lesser of the two evils among the major parties, or they stay at home. Social scientists and applied logicians have technical names for this behavior. 111 keep calling it the threshold effect.

Nevertheless, every coin has another side. Political pat- terns can and do change. They change because new candidates and causes challenge the status quo and, despite the opposition, appear to have a chance of winning. “I don’t intend to vote,” people say. “Why should I bother?” But if a candidate emerges who appears to be thinking their way, and who appears to have a chance of winning … well then, they think they may just walk down to the polls. That’s the way Scott Brown got elected. He passed the threshold of possibility.

Is Brown a libertarian? No, he’s some kind of moderately center-right conservative. He started his campaign that way, and he never changed. What changed was the odds that he might win. Looking at those odds, I would have voted for Brown, not the libertarian candidate in the election (who was running as an independent). Both wanted to thwart Obama’s policies; Brown had a chance to do so.

But let’s talk for a moment about the libertarian. His name is Joseph Kennedy – no relation to those other Kennedys. He started with a small but significant showing in the polls – a sign of protest against the House of Kennedy and also, probably, against the House of Bush. But as people discovered that Brown might actually win, Kennedy’s numbers slid, almost to the vanishing point. He ended with 1% of the vote.

At this juncture, I could say, “Q.E.D. I’ve proved my case. If people don’t think you can win, they1l see no reason to vote for you, and you won’t win.” But I don’t want to do that. It smacks too much of the arrogance I’ve been denouncing. After all, there’s a human drama here. Joe Kennedy took leave from his job as an IT executive, organized some dedicated volunteers, and went to work opposing an arrogant political system. His assertion of libertarian ideas was a source of pride.

I feel that pride. The problem is: I don’t want to live in a peasant society. I don’t want to live in a world in which self- appointed lords and ladies control important parts of my life

– in which they control even the decisions about whether my life will continue. (And make no mistake – that’s what government healthcare is ultimately about.) It was Brown, not Kennedy, who posed a serious threat to Washington’s campaign to make me a peasant. I was therefore a strong sup- porter of Brown.

Because Brown had a chance to win, he received millions of dollars of campaign donations, much of them from out of state. He succeeded in nationalizing the election. When you went to Kennedy’s website, you saw that the libertarian was bravely attempting to raise $100,000. No independent libertarian or LP candidate for an important job has ever been able to create the impression that he or she might win. When libertarians have created that impression, it was because they were running as Democrats or Republicans (witness Ron Paul), and the wins were in local elections. It’s simple but tremendously important: if you want to cross the threshold, you must run in one of the two major parties. Period.

But let’s go beyond that. How do you distinguish your- self as the kind of candidate who might have a chance to win, regardless of your party affiliation or lack thereof?

Right from the start, you need money. Ordinarily, that means you need some contacts with rich people. But contributions result from interest and commitment, as well as mere contacts. So what did Kennedy do to elicit these things?

To find out, I went back to his website. I saw that Kennedy, like a typical libertarian intellectual (take me, for example), had carefully laid out his positions on 16 major issues. I didn’t agree with everything he said; I didn’t expect to. (And I didn’t much care. I’m amazed that many libertarians refuse to vote for anyone who disagrees substantially with their own ideas, believing that voting is an act of moral commitment to every- thing somebody else happens to say. It’s a startling idea, when you think about it.) Nevertheless, I could see that Kennedy’s positions were carefully thought out. They were much more rational and coherent than Brown’s package of opinions. What struck me, however, was that Kennedy’s website listed healthcare as Number 16 in its list of 16 issues.

Undoubtedly there was a rational reason for that. Kennedy thought the voters deserved to see a comprehensive program, developed in some kind of logical order. But come on. St. George confronts the dragon and describes his program as: (1) feed the horse, (2) check the weather, (3) pay that pesky Visa bill, . . . and finally (16), defeat the dragon. The comprehensive approach makes sense; it’s just a senseless approach to politics. Libertarians have never learned that.

Well, perhaps they shouldn’t. In most jurisdictions, at most times, there’s no reason why libertarians shouldn’t run a merely educational campaign, so long as it doesn’t cost very much, and the people who participate wouldn’t be doing anything else instead, such as using their talents to promote a candidate who actually had a chance to win.

The irony is that libertarian ideas are the historic principles of this country, and they agree with the best traditions of modern economics and political philosophy – but when they’re presented as a package, in the electoral arena, they are immediately marginalized, ignored, and forgotten. Meanwhile, sometimes for lack of intelligent libertarian sup- port for the better of the two major party candidates, the worst candidate wins. When you refuse to support the lesser of the two evils, you support the greater of the two evils.

It’s essential that purely libertarian groups continue to exist. It’s essential that the seeds of change be preserved in their purest form. Perhaps the most damaging thing that ever happened to the Libertarian Party was the adoption of many of its specific ideas by the two major parties. The Republicans and Democrats have assimilated very different parts of the LP platform, ignoring the intellectual integrity and coherence of the platform as a whole. Given this tendency to assimilation, it’s important that we continue to assert libertarian ideas in their true shape and connection. Yet in the political field, I would rather have privatization, sex rights, lower taxes, freedom of speech, and decriminalization of drugs, even at the sacrifice of intellectual coherence, than not to have them at all.

Joe Kennedy claimed that his presence in the Senate race helped Scott Brown, by giving another choice to disaffected Democrats who wouldn’t vote for Brown because of party antipathy. In an interview with a local paper, he also com- plained about Brown partisans yelling at him to withdraw, and about Brown’s never asking him in person. Of course, if Brown had done that, Coakley would have accused him of

As we’ve seen in Massachusetts, the basic libertarian idea that there’s something wrong with being managed by government can make a tremendous difference now.

intimidating one of his opponents, or trying to reach a corrupt bargain with him; and Brown might have lost much more than Kennedy’s 1°,10 of the vote. So Brown didn’t do it, and Kennedy stayed in the race.

But now suppose, as was originally speculated, Kennedy had a good chance of throwing the election to Coakley. In that case, his candidacy would have cost his country approximately one trillion dollars of enacted Obama policies, and God knows how many deaths. Regarded in this way, libertarian moral courage begins to look like self-expression at a decisive cost of moral responsibility. In 2008, we saw something similar in Minnesota, where the candidate of the Independence Party received 15%of the vote, probably throwing the election to the ineffable Al Franken, who proceeded to become the 60th vote for Obamacare and every other threat to American liberties that could imaginably issue from the current Congress.

So here’s another irony: sometimes, the more you refuse to compromise your political principles for mere electoral considerations, the more likely you may be to produce a world in which your principles lose, and stay lost. Plenty of libertarians contributed to Scott Brown’s campaign, and these people served libertarian ideas a good deal better than Joe Kennedy did. It’s not that Kennedy wasn’t trying. It’s just that he exemplified the stability of American politics – its reluctance to abandon its ordinary assumptions – rather than its volatility, its willingness to change when it perceives a threshold.

In American history, there is only one instance of a minor party becoming a major party. That happened 150 years ago, when the Republican Party arose and gathered together dis- affected “free soil” Democrats and the remains of the Whig Party, which was in the process of dissolution. Yet changes in the two-party system occur all the time, as a result of both parties’ attempts to mobilize marginal voters, a process that requires them to assimilate all sorts of ideas they didn’t have before.

It’s been going on forever. In the late 19th century, progressivism asserted itself in the Republican Party. In the 1930s, social democrats took over the national Democratic Party. In the ’60s and ’70s, New Age leftism swept the Democratic Party and institutionalized itself there. In the ’80s, libertarian conservatism colonized the Republican Party.

In every case, party mechanisms survived. That is an aspect of stability. But in every case a party was changed by the influence of some preexisting movement that wouldn’t go away, some cause that kept emitting articles and books and activists. The movement may have been “progressive” or modern liberal or conservative or libertarian. Whatever it was, it acknowledged stability, but it took advantage of volatility. That happened before; it will happen again.

The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are not going to die: that’s the principle of stability. But they are going to change, as they have always changed: that’s the principle of volatility. In the past two years, volatility has greatly

Even the Libertarian Party has a role to play. I don’t expect it to win any important elections, but I do expect that the ideas it radiates can have dramatic influence.

increased. Both major parties have been discredited at the polls – the Republicans in 2008 and the Democrats in 2010. Both will certainly be influenced by new ideas or, more likely, old ideas that have hung on, institutionalized themselves, acquired a stable following. They are most likely to be influenced by ideas that have a chance of winning at the polls. As we’ve seen in Massachusetts, the basic libertarian idea that there’s something wrong with being managed by government can make a tremendous difference now, together with all the ideas that extend it and back it up.

That’s why it’s important that libertarian intellectuals, libertarian activists, libertarian think tanks, and plain old libertarians with money to spend keep right on doing what they’re

Volatility happens under two conditions. First, current political ideas aren’t working. Second, the conviction grows that alternative ideas may actually be successful at the polls. doing now. Even the Libertarian Party has a role to play. I don’t expect it to win any important elections, but I do expect that the ideas it radiates can have dramatic influence in times of nationwide political volatility.

Volatility happens under two conditions. First, current political ideas aren’t working, and people know they aren’t. Second, the conviction grows that alternative ideas may actually be successful at the polls. Once this happens, politics can change very rapidly, even within the framework of the two- party system.

That occurred when Ronald Reagan came to power. His victories, first in the Republican primaries and then in the general election of 1980, were viewed by his opponents as just as unlikely, just as preposterous, as the victory of Scott Brown this January. Yet the policies of Reagan’s opponents were obviously not working, and at some point it became evident that he had a chance to win. After that, it was a landslide.

That’s volatility. Yet Reagan’s ideas weren’t things he suddenly dreamed up. He’d been preaching them for a quarter century. He got them from conservatives and libertarians who had been preaching them for much longer than that. That’s stability. The ideas, and the activists, were ready when the time of volatility arrived. To quote Scott Fitzgerald again – this time from “Tender Is the Night” – Reagan had waited “like [General] Grant, lolling in his general store in Galena … ready to be called to an intricate destiny.” Finally, that destiny came. And Reagan would never have won without his libertarian, as well as his conservative, ideas.

This Grant-in-Galena image is a good one for the libertarian movement. It’s an image of stability, waiting for volatility – and waiting with confidence, because libertarians know that the ideas of our opponents can’t possibly work. We need to maintain our own institutions, propagate our own ideas, maintain and extend the intellectual influence we already have – which is very considerable, despite our occasional “lolling.” And we should never neglect our vital connections with the political movements, RepUblican or Democratic, that in times of change can bring our ideas to the fore. Andrew Jackson said it all, in his undespairing last words: “Strive to be ready when the change comes.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *