The Libertarian Party Stays the Course

Reports from a political convention full of both surprises and the status quo

"We fight for freedom, which everyone wants, so why are we nowhere?" asked Libertarian Party (LP) presidential nomination hopeful Aaron Russo to a room of 30 or so supporters and potential supporters at the 2004 Libertarian Party National Convention in Atlanta on Saturday. On Sunday, he won the first and second ballot for the nomination, only to lose the third.

Russo, a former Bette Midler manager and Republican gubernatorial candidate in Nevada, fought an explicitly anti-status quo campaign within the LP, and lost. This might help answer his question. His loss represents, I would posit, a general sense on the part of the dedicated LP delegates that they are reasonably happy with the LP the way it is and has been. All they want is to see someone out on the campaign trail saying the things that they believe in, in a style they are comfortable with. The results can take care of themselves—and they usually do.

What the 808 delegates who met in convention assembled over Memorial Day weekend voted for fit in with my previously presented theory of third parties like the LP as consumption expenditures—something people support just because they enjoy it, not necessarily to win elections or change the world. A certain narcissism seemed at work in the delegates' selection of hard-traveling Austin-based former computer programmer and freelance lecturer on the Constitution Michael Badnarik as their man, after he arrived as a distant third in a field of three major contenders: The delegates voted for the man who was the most like them, who presented in the most professional way the modal opinions and views and style of a Libertarian Party activist—quiet, intense, no deviation from the catechism, more concerned with eternal ideological and philosophical verities than the political events of the day. As to whether that is the best strategy to win lots of money, attention, and votes in a national presidential campaign, well, we'll know come November.

The convention was held in the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta, a hotel sporting a cool wide-open atrium with pill-capsule elevators climbing and descending the outside of the central shaft. The convention meeting hall, breakout session rooms, vendors and info booths, and candidate headquarters were all within about 40 yards of each other, if that far, and decent food selections were just up an escalator, making for a smooth experience for delegates and press alike. It was the loveliest and most user-friendly convention facility I've seen the LP nab (with 2000 and 1998 my previous experience), and the agenda ran tightly and on-time.

For libertarians obsessed with putting their best foot forward for the C-SPAN cameras, there were, as always, small moments that doubtless struck normal Americans as curious (if any normal Americans watch C-SPAN). For example, very dark horse candidate Jeff Diket (a blind man) excoriating the delegates assembled for wasting their potential by endorsing abortion (certainly, no party has gotten anywhere in this country with such a radical stance as abortion rights) and shooting themselves in the foot by "shouting for alcoholic beverages" (though it was unclear whether he is looking to steal the glory of the Prohibition Party for the LP).

Then there was indefatigable San Francisco libertarian activist Starchild visually letting his freak flag fly, alternately appearing in druid's robes with staff, a tight silver half-vest and short shorts with pink platform boots and fairy wings, and some straightforward leopard-skin drag. This sort of acting out doesn't win the hearts of many libertarians fearful about what the folks back home will think—having not yet concluded that their political ideas are usually quite enough to turn off most voters, San Francisco outrageousness notwithstanding.

One of the bigger controversies going into the convention was over the invitation of an Iraq War booster, Atlanta-based radio talk show host Neil Boortz, as a breakfast speaker. While "boot Boortz" buttons were spotted here and there, no organized protest interrupted his speech. Boortz chose to talk about eminent domain violations, an issue that he believes will somehow succeed for the LP and resonate with more voters than, say, medical marijuana (an issue that tends to be quite successful and often victorious when real voters get a chance to consider it).

Boortz has his own answer to Russo's question about why the LP has gone nowhere. He told the rapt breakfast crowd on Saturday that by reimagining themselves as the party of property rights and a national sales tax, rather than the party of drug legalization and eliminating occupational licensing, they'd reach heretofore-unknown heights of success and acclaim. (Showing perhaps not as much retail political acumen as he pretended, he also openly posited that most people in this country are just too stupid to handle freedom.)

The exhibitor booths were a fair representation of what makes libertarian hearts sing: books on politics, economics, and philosophy, the Free State Project, public policy activist and education groups, and the Liberty Dollar. A one-sheet handed out by a seemingly bitter Liberty Dollar salesman complained that libertarians are less likely to embrace his privately minted silver and gold coins than an average American. (I suspect this is because many libertarians, already very sensitive about how they are perceived, are more likely to find alternative hard currency schemes too kooky to touch. An average citizen, though, with no superego involved, might just think it's a pretty cool thing to have real hard metal money in hand.)

Speakers and exhibitors took a back seat to the main business: the contested presidential nomination. Unlike most political conventions, this one featured genuine political drama—and a shock ending. Coming in, the nomination was considered a tossup between former radio talk show host Gary Nolan and former Hollywood producer (and Nevada gubernatorial candidate, where he won 26 percent of the vote in a four-way Republican primary, a very impressive political resume in the world of the LP) Aaron Russo.

Badnarik, who had been driving around the country visiting libertarians locally in a '99 Kia Sophia with the help of dedicated sidekick Jon Airheart, a former University of Texas student impressed with Badnarik's ability to sell the libertarian message retail, was thought of as a distant third at best. At times, as both Badnarik and Airheart told me, they'd find themselves with less than 10 bucks cash in the campaign kitty as they sold Badnarik's lectures and book and kept sending out e-newsletters asking fans in cyberspace for funds just so they could gas up and drive to the next town, the next state convention, the next campus lecture.

As of the beginning of April, his campaign—which he began on President's Day 2003—had collected around $33 thousand, compared to Nolan's $99 thousand as of the beginning of May. (Nolan had been filing with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) monthly to Badnarik's quarterly; Russo, who only started running in December, had no public FEC filings on their Web site.)

From my canvassing of delegates, I found a fair amount of "absolutely not Russo" feeling, and almost no such negativity toward either Nolan or Badnarik. (Other floor workers assured me there was a fair amount of "No way Nolan" attitude, but these are the perils of unscientific polling—I encountered none until after he had lost.) That, combined with the general feeling that he was the front-runner, with a late-entering Russo as the up-and-coming challenger, led me to predict a second-ballot victory for Nolan, with a near victory on the first ballot. (A straight majority of the delegates was required for victory.)

Instead, after what everyone called a clear victory for Badnarik in the Saturday night debate, Badnarik came in a very close second on Sunday's first ballot at 256 votes, with Russo in the lead with 258 votes, and Nolan a surprising third place at 246. After the second ballot, with the minor candidates dropped and Nolan losing again, it was down to Russo and Badnarik, with Russo 36 votes ahead on that second ballot. (The other announced candidates, including the fiercely anti-abortion Diket, were not invited to the candidate debates. When someone tried to take the mic and complain about this discrimination to the whole delegate floor, he was ignored. It would have provided a moment of delicious irony if an LP rep had to explain publicly that, well, you see, it really would just be a waste of time to include in a public debate these weird fringe candidates who had no proven interest or support from most of the people watching the debate and, well....)

Russo was winning, but he was not to win. He had a style that some delegates from the South and Midwest fretted would not sell back home—brash New York ethnic, throwing around the word "baby," cracking jokes, grabbing floating balloons and nuzzling them, then mock-complaining that one of his vocal opponents would probably call that sexual harassment, openly announcing he had no intention of being polite in what he called our war against our own government, segueing from a mention of orgasms to introducing his wife. He swore he'd disrupt any presidential debate he wasn't invited to with civil disobedience; he called the U.S. "imperialistic" freely; he was very concerned with eliminating the Federal Reserve and talked about it anytime he had an opportunity; and he proudly and loudly admitted to having smoked pot.

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