Lessons for the Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party has always been divided, but its infighting has intensified since the Mises Caucus, a faction opposed to “wokeism,” took control of the organization. Many of the party’s more socially liberal members have left since the takeover—and in some cases are trying to take the party’s state affiliates with them. In New Mexico, two rival groups, one affiliated with the national organization, claim to be the true Libertarian Party. A similar conflict is playing out in Massachusetts. And in Virginia, dissidents announced that they were completely disbanding the party. At press time, the national Libertarian Party was working to assemble a new branch in Virginia.

We do not know who will ultimately control these institutions. But we know what it looks like when branches of a political party go their separate ways.


Take the Reform Party, whose roots go back to Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign. The Texas businessman ran as an independent candidate that year, but several of his supporters formed parties at the state level. By the time Perot launched the national Reform Party in 1995, some of these mini-parties were already competing in regional races. The Minnesota Independence Party got its first municipal official elected in 1993, for example, and by 1999 had produced a governor.

Perot made another run for the White House in 1996, and the party began to disintegrate almost immediately thereafter. In 1997, a dissident faction formed the American Reform Party, which promptly disappeared. When I was reporting from the Reform Party national convention in 2000, I was actually covering two convention: While the main event was the nomination of paleoconservative pundit Pat Buchanan, just down the street a Transcendental Meditation enthusiast named John Hagelin was crowned. The lawyers of the two papers then fought each other for the right to the Reformist Party elections (and the millions in the corresponding funds). Meanwhile, Perot endorsed the Republican.

The shell of the national Reform Party survived, but the real action was in the states, where many affiliates (including the Minnesota outfit) broke away from the national organization. Some of these groups have taken on their own distinctive identities. In New York, the Independence Party fell into the hands of Fred Newman, a Marxist psychotherapist whose followers were often called a cult. The party gave Michael Bloomberg its election line in 2001, a boost that undoubtedly propelled him to the mayor’s office. Bloomberg repaid the city with a $230,000 grant to one of Newman’s groups.

After the New York Independence Party broke with the Reform Party, Loyalists responded by forming the Reform Party of New York. After a while, a group led by Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliw took over and it broke away from the national party as well. There was no longer any coherent movement here, but there were voting lines. And access to the vote is a valuable property—valuable enough that fragments of the old Perot coalition persist as zombies long after the original crusade has died.


When George Wallace built the American Independent Party (AIP) as a vehicle for his 1968 presidential campaign, the Alabama segregationist had no interest in establishing a permanent third party. Wallace did not even allow the AIP to be established in his home state. (Instead, he emerged as the Democratic candidate, and the Democratic national candidate had to run on a third-party ticket.) Still, some AIP affiliates fielded candidates for other positions, and those affiliates persisted beyond Election Day. In 1972, they endorsed a new presidential ticket, which received a respectable total of 1,100,896 votes — far fewer than Wallace, but still much more than the average third-party bid.

The coalition soon split in two: the American Party was in the orbit of the John Birch Society, while the American Independent Party was more likely to nominate notorious segregationists. It was rare for both groups to be present in the same country; most affiliates have just switched to one camp or the other. Some branches have gone on strike on their own, as when the Kansas wing of the American Party ignored the national candidate in 1980 and left its ballot to a local fly.

As new national right-wing parties were formed, state parties alternately joined and separated from them. In the early ’90s, for example, a bunch of state groups — some of them remnants of the Wallace diaspora — came together to form an offshoot now known as the Constitution Party. The California AIP, having recently ended its conflict with the Populist Party, joined the new national coalition for several cycles. But a fight in 2008 over whether to support the Iraq war led to him instead aligning with a group called the American Independence Party. In 2016, the Californian party endorsed Donald Trump. And in 2020, its standard-bearer was also a candidate…of the Reform Party.


The American Independent Party and the Reform Party were founded to serve the ambitions of celebrity candidates, which likely guaranteed instability once that candidate left. The Libertarian Party does not have that problem. We end up with a group that was built around ideology, not personality – and found its own way to fall apart.

After participating in nearly every presidential election from 1904 to 1956 (and winning many local races), the Socialist Party began supporting Democratic candidates instead. After aligning their stardom with organized labor at a time when some of the largest unions were led by Cold Warriors, many party leaders ended up supporting the Vietnam War. The more militant faction—called the Debs Caucus, after early party leader Eugene Debs—didn’t like it. But it was not competent.

The conflict came to a head in 1972, when the organization adopted a new name: Social Democrats of the USA (SDUSA). The disgusted Debs Caucus came out and formed the Socialist Party USA, which soon again nominated presidential candidates; it claimed that it was the legitimate successor of the old Socialist Party. Another breakaway group, the Organizing Committee of Democratic Socialists, aimed to continue working within the Democratic Party without moving as far to the right as the SDUSA.

SDUSA eventually became so hawkish that some members got jobs in the Reagan administration. The organization finally dried up in the early 21st century, to the point where only one tiny local chapter in Pennsylvania appeared to remain—and it was not entirely clear whether it was a true surviving chapter or just a purported one. In any case, it eventually split into two factions, each declaring itself the legitimate heir to Debs’ throne.

The Socialist Party USA is bigger than that, but still pretty small: its 2016 presidential candidate only got 2,705 votes. But the Democratic Socialists’ Organizing Committee has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and is flourishing. After Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly popular socialist campaign for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, DSA membership jumped from less than 10,000 to nearly 100,000. The group also became more radical. Three decades ago, the most prominent DSA member to hold elected office was New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who rarely touted his socialist connections. Today, in contrast, DSA candidates often speak openly about public ownership.

Years after the Socialist Party first sold out to the Democrats and then fell to pieces, it appears that the organization’s old ideals still have juice in them. If you’re a libertarian worried about the future of your party, this might dissuade you.

This article originally appeared in print under the title “Third Party Lifecycle”.

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