How the Libertarian Party Will Come to Power

by Terry Hulsey
Schizophrenia has afflicted the Libertarian Party since its inception in 1971: Is its primary goal to educate or is it to win elected offices?

A glance at the party’s history makes it difficult to maintain that one can achieve both goals simultaneously, or to maintain that the goals are compatible. If the goal is to educate, then the effectiveness of running presidential candidates is immediately in question, since the press routinely ignores or distorts party views during political campaigns. Would its ideas not be better promoted by spending its money on its own think-tank, or by funding academic research that clearly describes its positions, or by supporting collegiate study groups? On the other hand, if the goal is to win elected offices, then the stark failure to win positions that affect policy – in its history, none at the national level, and 12 at the state level – speaks for itself. Furthermore, in those campaigns where the presidential nominee was chosen specifically for his electability, as in the 2008 campaign, the result has been a blurring of message to those outside the party and an increase in bickering over message among those within it, with no increase in voter support.

The party’s national candidates and its leadership have oscillated between these two poles over the past 38 years, not just between campaigns, but between the interviews of each campaigner himself. Illustrations could be quoted from any of the 10 national campaigns. Indeed the source of the quote is almost irrelevant: The goals and the institutional framework dictate not only what will be said but also what will be heard. In 1988, Ron Paul was the party’s presidential candidate. In the July 1987 issue of The Illinois Libertarian he said: "The purpose of the campaign is to spread our ideas and build our party – not to win, except in an ideological sense." Then in a New York Times interview less than a month before the election he said: "I run to win and not as an academic exercise."

In June 2004, Michael Badnarik said: "[My fundamental issue is] to educate the general public about the Constitution and let them draw their own conclusions." Yet less than a month earlier he had said: "If I can win the nomination, there’s no reason I can’t win this [2004] election."

In an April, 2007 Salon interview Bob Barr said: "So the real goal for the Libertarian Party in my view [...] needs to be to take [its] core philosophy and do a top-notch job of explaining it to the American people...." But in the very next breath he added: "...and to impress on the American people the value of having a third party that is a true, workable alternative."

From the party leadership, symptomatic of the schizophrenia are these statements from the very reputable and well-informed Libertarian Thomas Knapp, who has offered himself for the 2012 presidential nomination: "[Electoral victory] is probably not an achievable goal in the near term[...]. That does not mean, however, that the Libertarian Party can or should nominate an ‘unelectable’ candidate." And two paragraphs later in the same article: "[T]he Libertarian Party should nominate a presidential candidate who, even if he or she will not be elected, represents a plausible potential president[...]."

In other words, during the lull in our fishing, we’re also going to cut bait. To say of the polar choices of educator or president, "Let’s have an educator who is also a potential president," is an obvious dodge. Furthermore, party history shows that the "electable" candidate was always the less ideologically consistent candidate. A separate argument could be made that the more ideologically consistent candidate would be in fact the more electable, and would be in fact the better educator, but in terms of the stated goals and the party’s history, it’s still fish or cut bait.

Why current goals must fail

I cite Mr. Knapp not to embarrass him (I could have cited others), but rather to point out the inescapable predicament of anyone, like the Libertarian Party presidential nominees before him, who follows the Libertarian Party’s current goals. It is one element of the sad, impersonal dynamic that plays itself out over and over: A new leadership arrives promising to rack up better numbers (more candidates running, more offices held, etc.) than the previous leadership; at the end of the election cycle the victories do not appear; almost unconsciously the anxious, worrying voices begin, always with the implicit theme "our arguments are right, therefore the failure lies in their administration"; the backbiting begins, hot and ferreting, questing for the scapegoat; a candidate defeated in the nomination hounds the superior nominee, accusing him of "unethical" violations of FEC laws; a high party member, magnifying some slight at a public function, assails the offender as ideologically impure; a minor functionary, when a friend is fired for failure to maintain a prerequisite of office, unleashes a red-cheeked stream of emailed vitriol against the duly elected officer who followed the rules in firing him. Once again, the names are irrelevant; the dynamic is impersonal and inescapable.

There is another impersonal dynamic at work: The institutional constraint of the American two-party system. Other countries that have not institutionalized this system, especially in Eastern Europe for example, have no trouble weighing Libertarian (often called "Liberal") parties on their merits and voting for them in large numbers; sharp intellectual divisions along the lines of ideology (or ethnicity in ideological guise) are the rule. The American impulse is to find the center, to suppress differences and become "American." And in the first century of America’s history, when the state’s spoils consisted mainly of excises on imports amounting to less than 5% of GDP, success or failure at the polls did not spell ruin for the losing party or those voting for them. The parasitical class merely took turns at their host, without too much fuss over ideas, and certainly without the desire to kill the host outright. But now, with all levels of government approaching a take of 50%, the losing party and their friends will suffer greatly: School chums in wind and solar businesses in one loss; golf buddies in electronic surveillance and traffic camera businesses in the other. Our politics becomes more acrimonious but, in spite of what the radio talk shows are screaming, less ideological, since the real fight for these people is not about ideas but about power. The real threat to American life thus becomes the "crossover candidate," a party-straddler like John McCain, who, once in power, will drop the charade of a two-party system in favor of a "national unity party." There will be a "patriotic response" to some "imminent threat," and all challengers will be denied ballot access completely. And the third party that never challenged the two-party framework at the outset will be finished.

The two arms to power

To succeed, the Libertarian Party first must present itself to the public as an insurance policy. Like an insurance policy, it comes into effect only to restore a loss – in the prospective case, the loss of liberty. At the moment of the open assault on our freedoms, for example, during the formation of the "national unity party" described above, or during some other crisis of governance, it must stand ready as a democratic option in all 50 states. The national organizational investment the party has made over the last 38 years will not be destroyed but will pass from bankrupt goals to these new, profitable ones.

Like a good insurance policy, it must be truly able to restore the loss it guarantees. This means that its presidential candidate will not be one of "compromise" – any more than a pure drink is a "compromise" of water and poison. It means that it should have ready an alternate government of classical liberal candidates for every post in government at every level. All its candidates must be earnest, capable, of good character, and must present themselves as such to the public, and the party should validate these qualities. A good candidate may be one who thinks like Penn Jillette, but dressing and swearing like him will not contribute to being taken seriously. A thoughtful but rudely intolerant candidate will not serve. Howard Stern will not serve. Libertarians possess one of the most effective speakers alive today in Michael Cloud. Its top candidates should be required to learn the art of public speaking from this master.

The second element of its success should be its explosive readiness. That is, when the statist assault finally comes, as much as possible must be in place to prevent it from being hidden; when the fatal blunder presents an opportunity, it must be quickly leveraged.

There are current examples of both these events. Last fall’s bank bailout was a brazen assault on our future by both parties standing as one power against the citizens who were clearly opposed to it. The response of the Libertarian Party was to send "you’re enraged, so send money" fund-raising letters to its own mailing list. Where was the pre-selected but unpurchased mailing list of those outside the choir? Where was the short list of lawyers to flamboyantly challenge the legality of the bailout? Where was the network with other groups to unite with us in opposition, and synergistically leverage the party’s slender resources? As for the second example, it has been several weeks since Texas governor Rick Perry committed a gross blunder in making the national case for secession, and absolutely nothing has gone out from the Libertarian Party to exploit it. Where was the spotlight on this political hack, who is in a governor’s race, to hold his feet to the fire and force him to create a government panel for the serious study of his obviously cynical suggestion? Where was the party’s pre-assembled, in-depth talent bank, ready to mobilize to press this advantage? Does the leadership know that secession is an idea alive in nearly a dozen states, with sovereignty measures adopted in over two dozen – embers ready to be fanned into a flame? Has it occurred to them that the most direct threat to unitary government is secession (or for that matter, that the direct avenue to free market anarchy is secession, when considered under the reductio of every individual as a state)?

Under these two strategic arms of reformation of the party, its leadership will not simply be as alert as Minutemen to these enormities and blunders of the unitary government; it will be actively and aggressively engaged in ways to recognize these events as chinks in the armor, where we must pour resources that are poised and ready. In terms of power, the party is a naked spear chucker standing before a panzer. But every tyrant and every unjust government is weaker than it seems: the paranoid Chairman Mao was immobilized on news of Lin Biao’s coup; Stalin also suffered constant paranoia; the Berlin Wall fell to unarmed students in a few hours in November, 1989, and the Soviet Union a few months thereafter; and a single unarmed Chinese man stopped a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square in that same momentous year.

Immediate advantages

The changes proposed here are not a change in style or rhetoric: They are a strategic reformation of goals. Adoption of these new goals confers the following immediate benefits:

Tactics of the new strategy

Tactical reformation will proceed naturally from the strategic shift. The primary group of tactics should challenge the two-party institutional charade and its underlying misconception of democracy. These tactics are to:

Longer-term tactics should establish mutual support between the party and homeschoolers, and should seek to acquire or subsidize university chairs. If pursuing these tactics somehow conflicts with laws regarding political parties, then create a non-profit to do so. Finally, in no case should the Libertarian Party cooperate with the statist hulk that is the Conservative Party. If that entity chooses to co-opt our program, so be it. We will set the agenda.

The Libertarian Party will not and cannot come to national power pursuing either part of the current schizophrenic strategy of education and presidential campaigning in the current institutional framework. It must make the strategic adjustments suggested here in order to come to power when the Republic most needs it, in that final crisis which may be nearer at hand than any of us suspect.

May 27, 2009

Terry Hulsey [send him mail] is a writer living in Fort Worth, Texas.