Both major parties seem to view the loss of any election as an illegitimate outcome. As such, they govern as though one‐party rule was in the cards–and end up handing expanded state powers to their political enemies.
In the past five years, America has gone from unified Republican control of the White House and Congress to unified Democratic control of the White House and Congress. To many libertarians, this is a chance to drive home a well‐worn point: Ideologues on the right and left routinely make demands to empower a government that seem to assume their party remaining in charge forever. Instead of assuming that only the “good guys” will ever win elections, we should be more cognizant that one day the opposition will be in power. And we shouldn’t attach to the state any powers we wouldn’t wish them to have.
Libertarians’ Cassandra‐like warnings notwithstanding, policy agendas are increasingly driven by an underlying premise of perpetual one‐party rule. This isn’t because political junkies on either side of the aisle are unaware that their party doesn’t always win. They needn’t be reminded of that. Rather, illiberal ideologues increasingly deny the legitimacy of electoral losses. In that light, their seeming hypocrisy isn’t contradictory at all. In the death spiral of two‐party hyperpartisanship, it’s not just about winning the next election: it’s about entrenching one team in power perpetually as the only legitimate victor.
If you sincerely believe that the GOP can only ever win at the ballot box through chicanery and voter suppression and corrupt corporate money, then Republican governance isn’t a reality to consider when designing the rest of your agenda. It’s an outcome that shouldn’t be permitted at all as part of that agenda. Likewise, if your view of the Democrats is they can only win through fraud and nefarious elites overturning the true will of the true people…well, we saw on January 6 where that leads.
From the left and the right, demands for a return of the Fairness Doctrine in some form have become popular and provide a telling example. For Democrats, the Fairness Doctrine represents a cudgel to use against right‐wing media (as it once was), even for outlets like cable news that were never subject to the FCC’s content regulations. From Republicans, who long bristled at the Fairness Doctrine and successfully pushed to repeal it, there are now demands to resurrect a version of it for social media companies perceived as leaning too far left.
Likewise, politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Mitch McConnell have raised the prospect of adverse state action in response to unwelcome political opinions from the private sector. It happens with Republicans threatening legislative action to punish “woke” corporations for supporting liberal causes or disassociating from far‐right extremists, as well as Democrats wielding the threat of arbitrary antitrust and regulatory enforcement to punish critics of their policy agenda. It’s a dangerous idea in either direction.
It can be immensely frustrating and even rage‐inducing to accept that, absent substantial electoral reform, American politics is divided into two near‐even camps, and that whatever issues you care about, the other camp is probably opposed. Neither is going to be banished from electoral viability any time soon. For libertarians—who are quite used to losing elections, even when they work within major parties—restricting the franchise to only the “right” voters can be its own dark temptation. It is a greater temptation still for those who can reasonably expect to be in a position to succumb to it.
Perhaps this blind spot is innate to politics. Politics makes us worse, after all. But to understand this impulse and resist it, we must recognize its authoritarian logic. It isn’t mere forgetfulness about recent events when partisans refuse to accept that they can legitimately lose elections.
Few will admit to explicitly opposing democracy. Part of the narrative is being convinced their side is the true majority that would always win in a true democracy. But the unwillingness to concede the legitimacy of defeat abounds. And on the more extreme fringes of the nationalist right as well as some parts of the hard left, there has been a resurgence of explicitly anti‐democratic ideology. That trend is not comforting, even for libertarian critics of unrestrained majority rule.
Classical liberals and libertarians have a role to play here in buttressing the norms of non‐domination and compromise which are essential to the framework of constitutional government. As Ludwig von Mises observed, we have strong reasons to oppose autocratic rule by any faction or ideology, even our own. The vision of a benign autocracy imposing libertarian policies is as chimerical as its more popular counterparts.
Spain’s civil war between communists and fascists in the 1930s, followed by decades of tyranny, is a compelling example of what can happen in the worst‐case scenario. To keep the peace, a constitutional system must command a deeper and more broadly shared loyalty than any particular policy agenda, even those avidly supported by good people for good reasons. As George Washington observed, “the alternate domination of one faction over another” can become its own “frightful despotism.” And eventually, somebody gets their wish and can establish “a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Limits on government power, restraining its size and scope, are one critical bulwark against escalating fears of domination. Lowering the stakes of election outcomes lets everyone live their lives without constantly fearing imminent doom and gloom imposed by a bare majority their countrymen. This is a central part of the libertarian project, with its hope for a world where we can all safely ignore politicians, or at least get closer to that ideal. But it is also crucial for all of us to accept that sometimes our side loses, fair and square. That is a feature, not a bug.