Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Libertarian Party will invade enemy territory-- Washington, D.C.--and hold its national convention. By all accounts, the likely presidential nominee of the L.P. will be Harry Browne, a respected investment guru and best-selling author of the seminal Me Generation handbook How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Browne's official campaign headquarters are located in Fairfax, Virginia, but most days you can find him struggling somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis--a rock and a hard place.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Browne is quite possibly the strongest candidate the L.P. has yet to consider. He is a thoughtful fellow and a persuasive polemicist for libertarian ideas. His campaign book, Why Government Doesn't Work, hit the bookstores in January and has sold about 40,000 copies--a strong if not spectacular showing. Having appeared on any number of radio and TV programs over the years, Browne is a seasoned, articulate pundit. He looks and sounds, in demeanor if not content, like a senior senator.
And these are fairly heady times for libertarianism--broadly defined here as a political philosophy advocating individual liberty and minimal government. Indeed, the rhetorical war has been won: Who would have ever thought Bill Clinton would read the eulogy for Big Government in this year's State of the Union address? It is no small victory that proponents of expansive government, whether left-wing or right, must now cloak their plans in sheep's clothing. And it is heartening to read that, in surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, only 25 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government (down from better than 75 percent in 1964). Such an attitudinal shift is surely a prerequisite for smaller government. Traditional conservative and liberal--and Republican and Democratic--world views are collapsing into a black hole of moribund sameness.
Because libertarian ideas represent perhaps the only viable alternative to the political status quo, they are taking on greater and greater importance. As Insight notes, "Signs of creeping libertarianism are everywhere." The terms in which the evanescent Forbes campaign was widely discussed, and dismissed, suggest that libertarian ideas are going mainstream. "Libertarians have become the intellectual avant-garde of the Republican revolution," declares New York, to the point where many of what writer Jacob Weisberg calls "pseudo-libertarian" Republicans are faking it--using small-government rhetoric to mask conventional policies.
But neither his personal skills nor the political climate has made it any easier for Browne to ignite a serious, legitimate bid for the Oval Office from an obscure third-party launching pad. This is no simple task and the results are not easy to watch, especially for those of us sympathetic to Browne's basic message that "government doesn't work." What seemed promising in posse has simply withered in the real world, and the quadrennial train wreck that is the L.P. bid for the Oval Office is right on schedule for yet another dispiriting performance. Since the 1980 election, when Ed Clark pulled in a stunning 921,000 votes-- attributable in part to the deep pockets of Clark's billionaire running mate David Koch--the L.P. candidate has averaged a mere third of that total, about as many votes nationwide as George Bush got last time around in the state of Arkansas. There is no reason to believe Browne will boost the average. His campaign says he has raised about $750,000 so far, hugely short of the $50 million Browne claims is necessary to run a "first-class campaign." Far from influencing the national political debate, Browne has received next to no media attention, aside from de rigueur stories about sad-sack third-party presidential hopefuls. Last fall, for instance, TheNew York Times Magazine ran a piece about fringe candidates. Titled "What Makes Billy Joe Run?," it featured squibs on presidential hopefuls good for a laugh or two. And there Browne was, cheek to jowl with such yuk-getters as the Rev. Billy Joe Clegg, whose campaign slogans include "What the world needs today is Jesus" and "Clegg won't pull your leg"; Millie Howard, an Ohio switchboard operator and mother of four who proposes a $10,000 "yearly birthright stipend" for all Americans and who readily admits that she is "an embarrassment" to her husband; and reputed comedian Pat Paulsen, who is making his fourth side-splitting bid for the Oval Office, complete with "frozen TV-dinner fund raisers."
Unlike the others, Browne neither cracked jokes nor cracked up in the paper of record. "Browne," reported the Times with a straight face, "wants to 'cut Federal Government out of all the areas the Constitution doesn't provide for: education, welfare, health care, crime fighting.'" Browne's serious demeanor and the Times's ostensibly respectful treatment, however, didn't help much. Just appearing in such a piece is the equivalent of putting on a clown suit, hanging out on a street corner, and waving wildly as your embarrassed family drives by.
The Browne campaign's fortunes raise larger issues about the intersection of libertarian ideas and practical politics. By analyzing the campaign, we may get a better handle on the best ways to translate libertarian theory into political practice. The passage from idea to reality is, of course, tricky enough for any ideology. But for libertarianism it is perhaps even more complicated than for most.
That's because many libertarians prize systematic consistency and contempt of compromise as the highest virtues (some even reject participation in elections on such grounds). Such a belief is shot through libertarian thought. A is A, after all, and that's not open to discussion. The central premise of F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is that some central planning leads to more and more planning--a position that, however accurate, makes it difficult to embrace the brokered deals that characterize political reality. If politics is the art of compromise--the art of the possible--many libertarians want no part of it to begin with: It's, Live free or die, not, Let's make a deal.
While that stance may fuel a powerful philosophical assault on Big Government and its attendant ills, supreme ideological consensus also undercuts effective participation in electoral politics. Rather than capitalizing on the broad, if often inchoate, anti-government and pro-individualist sentiments that seem to be growing among voters, insisting on systematic libertarianism in the political arena reduces the libertarian impulse to a series of litmus tests on issues that many voters may not see as particularly important or connected: gun rights and abortion rights, property rights and drug legalization, free speech and lower taxes. To these mainstream issues the Libertarian Party platform adds such problematic esoterica as jury nullification, a reliance solely on tort law and "strict liability" to govern pollution, and the right of individual political secession. When libertarianism is presented as an all-or-nothing bargain, interested voters are more likely to leave the whole package on the table.
Some of the Browne campaign's other problems are essentially unavoidable. The major media treat third parties and their candidates as comic relief for the "serious" political drama of Democrat versus Republican (two parties which are themselves overstaffed with clowns). There are exceptions, of course: Billionaire Ross Perot, who grew rich off government contracts, can continue to get respectful press coverage even after claiming Republican operatives armed with doctored photos conspired to disrupt his daughter's wedding by smearing her as a lesbian. Though his actual policy prescriptions are barely more credible than his charges of GOP subterfuge, Perot remains a "serious" presence in American politics. But the general rule is that unless alternative candidates have some major-party credentials and don't really represent a third party (e.g., George Wallace or John Anderson), they get no respect.
Created in 1971, the L.P. has never shaken off its fringe image, which is only reinforced by the breathless claim that the L.P. is "the third largest" political party in the country. While that is statistically correct, actual membership in the L.P. numbers a mere 14,000 (about 123,000 voters are registered as Libertarian). Calling the L.P. a runner-up is like pointing out that George Harrison was the third-most prolific Beatle: Yeah, but so what?
The L.P.'s marginal status is partly the result of cold, hard political realities. All parties start off small; even the currently ascendant GOP had such humble origins in the mid-19th century. Absurd ballot-access requirements specifically designed to lock out alternative groups take a toll, too. And the L.P. wavers between being a "serious" party-- one dedicated to electing candidates to office--and a party that serves primarily as an information source about libertarian visions of the good society. Those goals are hardly incompatible, but they often seem to work at cross-purposes. People interested in effecting political change in the foreseeable future tend to gravitate to major parties or groups affiliated with major parties, emptying the L.P. of the sorts of candidates likely to meaningfully engage the political status quo.
More recently, the L.P. has become a victim of "creeping libertarianism" in American politics. As ideas associated with libertarianism such as privatization, deregulation, and school vouchers gain widespread acceptance, the L.P. inevitably will become less relevant. Why go to the specialty shop on the other side of town when the neighborhood supermarket stocks the same brand?
Even Candidate Browne seems ill at ease with the party. In an interview with REASON last fall, he said that, prior to his campaign, he was "not at all involved [with the LP] other than being sympathetic to what they were trying to do. I don't think the Libertarian Party is the best vehicle. I think it is the only vehicle." While I long for the day when a major-party candidate mutters a similar line--imagine Bill Clinton dissing the Dems in the same manner--it hardly packs the same ironic wallop coming from a Libertarian candidate.
However uncomfortable he may be with the L.P., Browne nevertheless embodies the party's ambivalent electoral stance: Is he a "serious" candidate or an information source? Unlike previous L.P. candidates who explicitly ran informational campaigns, Browne stresses that he's in it to win. He told REASON he has found a warm reception on the campaign trail, that folks take him as a serious contender. People, he says, "ask me questions like, 'What will you do when you are president and x happens?' Not, 'What would a Libertarian president do in this situation?'"