If the two-party system is ever going to be seriously challenged, this is the moment. The GOP, the stall-tactic party, is reeling. The Democratic administration is struggling to turn around the economy. And across the country, creative, engaged folks are increasingly feeling politically homeless. More Americans consider themselves independents (39%) than Democrats (33%) or Republicans (22%) — and the gap is widening.
Who will fill that void? Sarah Palin is rumored to be mulling the idea of starting a third party, pulling together social and fiscal conservatives alienated from the GOP. The Blue Dog Democrats, turned off by President Barack Obama's spending, could reach across the aisle to moderate Republicans and try to attract independents. But the best third-party contender already exists. The Libertarians, like so many independents and disaffected Democrats and Republicans, are fiscal conservatives and social liberals — and no one has yet built a lasting coalition out of this growing force.
The two-party system isn't as rigid as it seems. The GOP itself was a third party that replaced the Whigs amid the turmoil of the pre-Civil War era. Progressives and Socialists drove many of the key changes to American economic policy and political rules in the early 20th century. In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot took one out of every five votes despite being, well, just straight-up weird (remember his flip charts?).
Perot never would have made it that far without his business success. If Libertarians want to have a real impact in 2010 or 2012, they need to recruit from the business world, where their values will resonate most. Places like Silicon Valley, Austin, and Seattle. You don't have to look far to find high-profile CEO types who are likely Libertarians hiding out in the major parties. Starbucks's Howard Schultz has broken with Democratic tradition (and his political donation record) and fought unionization. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican candidate for governor of California, strays from her party on social issues. Same goes for Cisco CEO and Republican fund-raiser John Chambers. These leaders could help build a financial base for the party, a complement to its significant grassroots online fund-raising operation that Ron Paul created in 2008 (only Obama and Hillary raised more).
In addition to bankrollers, Libertarians need to think about more than just the presidency. GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who ran Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign, says that if 20 to 30 compelling Libertarian candidates ran serious races in the midterm Congressional elections and won just five or six, that would kick-start the larger Libertarian movement. Those candidates would need to be a visible and sharp departure from the party's current wing-nut-and-professor rep — young folks with pedigrees in clean tech and biotech, not politics, and solid ideas of how to get us out of the economic crisis. The party would then cast a larger shadow than justified by its numbers — kind of like 30 Rock three years ago, a show that slowly evolved from critical darling to broader phenomenon.
For our democracy to flourish, we need the creative tension of competing ideas, not just stall tactics. Seize the moment, Libertarians. You're not going to get a better one.
Carlos Watson is a career entrepreneur in tech and media and a regular contributor on MSNBC.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.