The Portland Plank Massacre of 2006

What really happened at the Libertarian Party convention?

The view from the convention floor at the 2006 Libertarian Party National Convention this past weekend was calm, like the quiet downtown Portland, Oregon neighborhood where the convention was held. With only 303 voting delegates, it was also notably uncrowded; by most people's memories this was the smallest LP convention since the mid-1970s. Yet this off-year (i.e., non-presidential nominating) convention packed a dramatic surprise—a change characterized by some as an evisceration, by others as a murder, and by still others as a needed cleaning up and airing out of a cluttered, dusty attic, a preface to a cleaner, brighter future.

What happened was: The Libertarian Party's platform, which a week ago had 61 planks, now has only 15.

The LP members in convention assembled have always had the power, via paper vote, to choose to retain or delete any platform plank, outside the normal floor debate. Prior to this convention, that power had never been used once. This time it was used to get rid of almost everything. (Some of the planks still present are the result of fresh floor debates this year that combined elements of previously existing planks into new ones.)

Most party-watchers agree that the Great Portland Plank Massacre of 2006 was the result of a concerted effort by the Libertarian Reform Caucus (LRC), led by former anarcho-Rothbardian turned "holistic politician" Carl Milsted. While its caucus meetings only drew about 50 of the delegates, that was more than enough, with concerted floor work, for the LRC to achieve much of its ostensible goal.

The LRC saw a lot in the old platform as a barrier to their hopes for the LP. Says the group's website: "The platform and message of the Libertarian Party is extreme, sacrificing practicality and political appeal in favor of philosophical consistency with a single axiom. As such, the party currently appeals only to a tiny fraction of the voting public." The LRC couches its plan not in terms of watering down the party, but of opening it up to anyone in the libertarian quadrant of the famous Nolan Chart.

Still, LRC founder Milsted, when I talked to him Sunday afternoon, was still disillusioned enough by the convention floor's unwillingness to get rid of the LP's controversial pledge (whose language about refusing to initiate force, in Milsted's mind, locks the LP into practically anarchistic irrelevance by making it opposed to all forms of taxation) that he was still set on walking away from the party. By Monday, he had changed his mind and was willing to stay the course with the LP. But when you examine what is still in that 15-plank platform, Milsted's disquiet still seems reasonable, as we'll see below.

In a similar half-schism from the LP, loud and consistent voice for incremental purism Thomas Knapp of Rational Review launched a new internet-based party, the Boston Tea Party. Though Knapp is angry about the platform move, he too is retaining his LP membership.

What this all means for the future of the party is unclear. If enough potential delegates are riled, the next convention in 2008 will be a battleground. The platform has certainly generated a fair amount of impassioned Internet commentary: The not-all-that-grand ol' LP still has the ability to inflame, which is always nice to see.

A handful of delegates I spoke to who voted for full platform deletion did so not out of any strong LRC-style pragmatic reasons, but merely because they thought after decades of planks accreting on planks like rotten barnacles, it was high time to start over. Maybe the party didn't need official stances on secession, space exploration, or a child's right to make sexual decisions. Still, an old college chum of mine, who was one of my radical LP running buddies in those halcyon days of 1988, and who has since pursued incremental libertarian causes in a calmer, more GOP-centered fashion, told me something moderates and reformers should contemplate.

He's quite sure that the extensive, consistent radicalism of the old platform was a major element that excited him about the LP and made him willing to expend as much energy on libertarian causes over the years as he has. That is one potential cost of the platform change that its supporters may not have considered: that its more limited vision could cut off a vital source of energetic, committed activists.

But this new, short platform is certainly not a mealy-mouthed, weak-tea document in hardcore libertarian terms. The current platform still commits the LP to ending all victimless crime and drug laws; any laws against porn or commercial speech; an end to the Federal Communications Commission; an end to all property taxes and all government property ownership not explicitly allowed by the Constitution; an end to all immigration quotas and laws punishing employees for hiring illegal immigrants, and an insistence that the government require only "appropriate documentation, screening for criminal background and threats to public health and national security" standards for allowing people in; that "marriage and other personal relationships are treated as private contracts, solely defined by the individuals involved, and government discrimination is not allowed." Finally the new platform demands an end to antitrust and all corporate welfare.

While technically no planks related to foreign policy remain, the preamble to the section that would have contained them still says, "The principle of non-intervention should guide relationships between governments. The United States government should return to the historic libertarian tradition of avoiding entangling alliances, abstaining totally from foreign quarrels and imperialist adventures, and recognizing the right to unrestricted trade, travel, and immigration."

All in all, this seems like a banner to which honest libertarians of all sorts should feel perfectly comfortable repairing, if the platform is really what's at issue.

Of course, personality conflicts and general senses of resentment about style and "whose party it is" (the keep-the-platform types seem to fear a soft-on-war, Republican-lite invasion of sorts) are really driving most of the anger. And for those libertarians who find the whole issue of the LP's platform barely worth laughing at, and not at all worth shouting about, that's not really because of what is, or isn't, in the party platform. It's because they know the LP hasn't got a chance in hell of winning.

It may be in the end that the LP's greatest contribution to the cause of liberty is to provide impassioned libertarians with a consumption expense that excites them, or to energize young activists. (On that question, I don't think I saw more than 20 people under 30 at this convention, a very bad sign for the LP's future.)

Given the structural and ideological barriers against third parties in the U.S., it is doubtful that even a more pragmatic, ameliorative, and less ideologically threatening version of the LP can break the 50 percent barrier. The impassioned battle over the LP platform ultimately seems ironic both because the stakes are simultaneously so high—a vision for the free future of the American nation—and so low—fought in an environment whose traction in the larger world of American electoral politics has been, and shows all signs of remaining, consistently and sadly minor.

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