In 1972, an elector from Virginia, Roger MacBride, gained fame in the libertarian movement by casting his Electoral College vote for Libertarian Party candidates John Hospers and Tonie Nathan. Since then, Mr. MacBride has become increasingly active in libertarian politics and is the person most frequently mentioned as the 1976 Libertarian Party Presidential nominee. The following is his analysis of the opportunities and problems facing American politics in general and the Libertarian Party in particular in the years to come in light of the November elections. (For detailed election coverage, see "Frontlines" this issue.)
The bands used to strike up that song whenever Al Smith's name was put into nomination. He's gone, with his opposition to Prohibition and the Big Boys, but the Libertarian Party is here with analogous, but much more sophisticated goals. Can it succeed?
It seems extraordinary that barely two and a half years after the founding of a new political party, anyone could seriously put forth the proposition that as a political movement it could, and increasingly likely will, transform political relationships and attitudes in the nation during the decade to come. The speed with which the LP has gathered force is perhaps exceeded only by the period encompassing the birth of the Republican Party in the 1850's. While in both cases the rate of growth was based upon the validity and vitality of party purposes, and the fact that the time was and is suddenly present to implement moral and praxeological goals by political means, both were enormously aided by purely fortuitous events. Let's examine the future of political libertarianism.
THE EARLY YEARS
In June of 1972 a group of less than 100 libertarians met in Colorado at a meeting called by David and Susan Nolan. During the short time the group was together they organized as a political convention, adopted a party platform, and chose Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates. That year the Party actually achieved a ballot status in two Western States; the candidates were able to travel to a number of engagements throughout the United States, and achieved perhaps 10,000 votes on election day.
I, who had been a libertarian since high school days (via the Rose Wilder Lane- Albert J. Nock tradition, rather than the Ayn Rand route) had been in that year a Presidential Elector for the State of Virginia. Years earlier I had written a book on the origins and history of the Electoral College (still in print: The American Electoral College, Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho), and of course was thoroughly aware that such Electors were expected by those who wrote the Federal Constitution to use their best judgment as to who in fact ought to be elected to the national offices. I did, with the result that the Libertarian Party, with one electoral vote, came in third in the Presidential election—barely 16 votes behind the second-place Democrats.
Reporters for the various news organizations were astounded and interested. Some of them, like a columnist for Newsweek who described himself (accurately) as a former "flaming New Dealer" confessed their disillusionment with liberalism as practiced during that period and with its results during the years which followed. They were open to the idealism of our political philosophy, which embodied in considerable part the old-liberal hopes together with a consistent and practical means for achieving them. Such newsmen might then have thought us quixotic, but nonetheless intriguing.
For whatever reasons, the party began rapidly to grow during 1973; state parties popped into being that year and during 1974 like popcorn. At the national Libertarian Party's Executive Committee meeting at the end of November 1974, there were about 40 recognized State parties. Of course, some of these are mewling newborns, with naught but promise, but others are lusty infants and some even robust youngsters.
In May 1973 the Libertarian Party held its second national convention. A Holiday Inn in a Cleveland suburb was the site for an attendance of perhaps 150, and it probably set an all time record for official speeches delivered—long and short, I recall at least 80! Nonetheless work did get done, friendships and relationships were formed, and ideas and techniques flew back and forth. The atmosphere was one of optimism and vitality.
November of 1973 saw Francine Youngstein, the nominee of the Free Libertarian Party (to avoid confusion with the existing New York State Liberal Party, the word Free prefixes Libertarian there) of New York for mayor of New York City, come in fifth in a field of nine candidates. Of course, her vote total was small as compared with the major party candidates, but she did come very close to a total exceeding that of all the Marxist minor party candidates combined!
Perhaps the most impressive result of the FLP campaign was the significant amount of favorable media comment received. The New York press corps became permanently aware of, and sensitized to the concerns of libertarianism, and particularly to the victimless crimes issues upon which the campaign laid emphasis. A book published by the FLP after the campaign contains some of the newspaper coverage: libertarian solutions to some of the festering problems of city life received wide and sympathetic attention, leading indeed to many dialogues based on the subject matter of libertarian ideas rather than the old collectivist notions.
In 1974 the Libertarian Party launched more than 40 candidates for Federal, state, and local offices across the nation. The goals of the candidacies varied. Some even believed they had a serious chance of election (none came close). Hal Jindrich, running in the nonpartisan election for California State Superintendent of Schools, conceived the effort as primarily educational. Hal put out some marvelous material on education, and got just over 200,000 votes, which makes him the Party's top vote-getter to date. In other races the effort was to achieve interim goals—in California, John Hospers, nominated to succeed Mr. Reagan, put on a party-building campaign.
Reporters for tv and newspapers in most of the locales of these races were beginning to buzz with interest about the potential of the Libertarian Party. Though the buzz was more that of bees contemplating a swarm than the sound of the swarm itself, it was impressive. Very few yet saw libertarianism as a wave of the future, but most were sufficiently impressed (and genuinely sympathetic) to provide coverage far disproportionate to the Party's then strength. Newsweek, in a one-pager with photos on the Libertarian Party, asserted November 11th that it "has the virtue of consistency—a quality that is winning it converts from the grays of political moderation."
It's fair to say that the Party is in 1975 entering the third phase of its history. The first was perhaps a lark, a joyous adventure by a small group who likely neither cared greatly about the political mechanism nor took its workings with particular seriousness. Getting the Party on the ballot in a few states, getting Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates on the road, and trying to spread the message—psychologically was a glorious experience for those who during their lifetimes had faced only choices between collectivisms, a choice between the smirks of HHH and the scowls of RMN.
Phase two was the effort to capitalize on the perhaps somewhat unexpected viability of the LP. Enthusiasm in many states, the lengthy processes of organizing Parties, preparing platforms, passing resolutions, setting up committees and newsletters, initiating and participating in campaigns and petition drives—all were activities that naturally occur to enthusiastic and intelligent minds eager to spread libertarian ideas and lay a foundation for something bigger. Substantial and very even-handed nation-wide news coverage resulted.
Now phase three is at hand: the effort to meld together a serious, professional effort to make a national impression on the political process. Passing the question of whether the LP yet has the personnel and funds with which to pursue that course, what are the objective prospects that the Libertarian Party could be a major one in a much nearer future than any of us might a short time ago have dreamed?
We are the beneficiaries—if we know how to take advantage of it—of extraordinary timing.
Not since FDR's smashing victory in 1936 have so many pundits publicly questioned the future of the Republican Party—not only Larry O'Brien, ultra-savvy former chairman of the Democratic Party (who also raised doubts about its survival), not only the President of the United States prior to election day (and that's got to be a first—even Millard Fillmore only whispered in corners his fear for the demise of the Whigs), but hundreds and even thousands of lesser political figures and commentators. The smashing election reverses suffered by the Republicans seem to me to have borne out these hopeful or fearful prognoses (depending on the viewpoint of the prognosticator). The GOP holds only a touch more than a fourth of the seats in the House of Representatives. Its Senate delegation was decimated about as far as it can be in any one election year. Republican gubernatorial hopefuls were plowed under regardless of party "wings"; in New York incumbent liberal Republican Governor Wilson was smashed in the highest percentage victory of the century by unknown liberal Democratic challenger Carey; in staid Vermont incumbent liberal Democratic Salmon crushed challenger conservative Republican Walter Kennedy by a 7-5 margin; nationwide the Democrats won 28 State Houses to the Republicans' 7.
What chance is there of a comeback? The prospect would be inviting if the Grand Old Party stood for something, but it doesn't and hasn't for many a year. That's in great contrast to the situation following 1936, when the Republican Party could and did rally in general opposition to New Deal policies. Not so today: the policies being advocated and carried out in Washington by both parties are virtually identical, and to prevent possible revitalization the Republicans are festooned with an albatross named Ford.
In my opinion there is an overwhelming likelihood that the GOP is in fact a chicken whose head has been cut off. It will run around on its two feet, flap its wings, bang this way and that, run here, run there, seeking something, seeking anything, until finally in spasms it collapses into final permanent oblivion. Whether that last will occur by 1978 or 1982 is immaterial; the end is inevitable.
Of course victory of such an overwhelming nature does not necessarily bode well for the fortunes of the Democratic party. There is a tendency, in a Washington landscape apparently populated entirely by members of one political persuasion, for new factions to form, plugging for divergent goals. After all, the spoils will just stretch so far; who's to get them, thee or me? Particularly this tendency is so since the Democratic Party has been an umbrella sheltering many different points of view, united only by the single purpose of defeating the "other guys."
We have, looking toward 1976, a Democratic Party moving back under the control of what has traditionally been its largest or most powerful faction: the organized labor unions and their allies. In November the unions scored their biggest victory in history: 7 out of every 10 candidates they backed for major office won. Already some of those who were attracted—however foolishly—to the ideals represented by Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 are talking about an exit to set up a new ultra-liberal opposition group.
And contrary-wise, should to everyone's amazement the "eggheads" capture the Democratic convention again in 1976, it seems more than likely that the labor groups would finally go ahead with what's been talked about for so many decades, and establish here some form of counterpart to the British Labor Party.
Therefore one scenario is that the Republican Party, reduced to something like 25 percent of the strength of the Democratic Party, fields a ticket in 1976 against a "compromise" ticket of the Democrats, which is sufficiently successful to hold that party together against all but fragmentary opposition. Of course that scenario calls for tickets of the ilk of Ford-Rockefeller on the one hand, and Jackson-McCarthy on the other (I don't necessarily mean those particular individuals, but the forces which they represent). In my view this represents the optimum situation electorally for the Libertarian Party. Where in either of those groupings is a glimmer of the individualist ideal? To which party can those repair who believe in a free economy, let alone those who believe in personal freedom from state-enforced "social" laws?
To us. That is, if the leadership and the membership of the Party exhibits a consistency of principle and a steadiness of purpose such as to convince the waverers and wonderers. No party, and least of all ours with its doctrines harking back to the first American revolution, can hope to attract a wide base of support without projecting an image of intelligence, professionalism, and wisdom. Provided we do these things, there is no reason why the Libertarian Party in 1976 cannot attract a million, and even more, votes from those who see it then and foresee it for the future as the replacement for the dying Republican Party.
The other scenario is superficially different, but fundamentally embodies the same opportunities—although more problems—for the Libertarian Party. It is that the Republican Party fields a Ford-Rockefeller style ticket, and that Ronald Reagan's vague threats voiced in October 1974 to run on a conservative third party platform materialize. And additionally, that the Democratic ticket does not manage a compromise sufficient to keep, however sullenly, the McCarthy- McGovern people in line, and another "third" party, this one of dewy-eyed liberals, is fielded. The latter would probably not be headed by one of the more leftist senators, most of whom are too pragmatic to throw away a career on such a doomed adventure, but more likely a nothing-to-lose Eugene McCarthy with his somewhat frayed charisma.
That's a tougher situation for the LP, because while the Democrats, would doubtless win handily, there would be better known names than ours in the voting booth for those who broadly regard themselves as conservatives, or as free-life-style-idealists. The Party would have its work cut out to convince Americans in large enough numbers that in social matters the conservatives border on totalitarianism, and in economic matters the liberals do likewise. I predict that the Libertarian Party would receive a better press than either of the latter; the representatives of the news organizations would perceive both the hopelessness of a Reagan-Buckley style conservative movement, and the quixotry of a 1968-style leftist movement in 1976. But whether that sort of attention from the media would translate into a million votes or more in 1976 is open to some question.
But while the Libertarian Party vote total might be somewhat lower in the second scenario, I think there's no question but that it would establish the Party as the surviving opposition movement in 1978 and thereafter. It's not conceivable that a significant Reagan conservative movement as such would survive a 1976 campaign (there can be little doubt that its fate would be akin to that of the Wallace party following the 1968 campaign). And the shimmering material of which the leftist campaign would be composed will, because of its lack of enduring and believable values, have been rent very shortly after the election of 1976. Thus, in a scenario akin to the second, the Party's growth might very well be less spectacular initially, but quite possibly more so in the latter part of the decade.
Certainly as a movement with the potential to fill the vacuum caused by the deteriorating structure of the two major parties, we have no significant competition at the present time. The decline in the fortunes of the American party, now split in two, suggests that it is the last lap of a wave of the past. The People's Party, a one-issue group formed in 1972 to oppose involvement in the Vietnamese war, like the single-issue Free Soil Party of 1848, had but one chance to ring the big gong, and it is forever gone. The various socialist and communist factional groups? The only thing to do with their members is to shake them gently, turn on a loud alarm clock, and wake them up.
So far as I'm aware there's no other presently organized political movement on a wider scale than a single state. The Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and the Conservative Party of New York have long since lost their dynamics; both survive now on compromise, confusion, and cooperation with the major parties.
Indeed I think the current political situation has numerous points of resemblance with that of the 1850's. The Republican Party has been a minority party for the last generation and more, winning only occasionally; the Whig Party (with its program of Federal spending on "internal improvements," protectionism, tendency toward monopoly capitalism, a central bank, etc.) had similarly been a minority party for the previous generation, winning now and then but not very often. The last Whig president, Millard Fillmore, became such in the middle of the Presidential term, in July 1850. The last Republican President, Jerry Ford, became such in the middle of the Presidential term, in August 1974. President Fillmore, knowing the Whig Party was in trouble, sought to bring to his support the Southern political leaders who wanted to be able to extend human chattel slavery to new states in the northwestern part of the United States. In implementation thereof he and they secured the passage of the notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act. With the Republican Party in trouble, President Ford has sought to make common cause with the liberal (so-called) financial establishment which has long dominated the politics of the northeast of the United States. In implementation thereof he has nominated the notorious Nelson Rockefeller for the Vice-Presidency, and has proposed no inflation-fighting measure which would cause the least crack in the foundations of those interests.
In the 1850's, the reaction was very swift. A new party convention was held in Wisconsin in 1854, and by 1856 (a Presidential year) many ex-Whigs, some angry Democrats, and others held a second convention. They called themselves Republicans to recall the Jeffersonian ideals of the beginning of the century, and they nominated explorer John C. Fremont of California as their Presidential candidate. Of course the party didn't win in competition with the Democrats and Millard Fillmore who, the Whigs having crumbled in the 1852 election, ran as the candidate of the Know Nothing Party. But in the ensuing four years in state and local elections the Republican Party gained ground; in 1860 it got 39 percent of the vote which, because the opposition was split three ways, actually enabled their candidate (Lincoln) to walk into the White House.
It's in the nature of the lesser polarization of Americans over a single issue now than then, the expanded size of this country, the diversity of opinions expressed instantly to everyone over the electronic as well as the printed media, and many other factors, that we shall not move from a dream to political victory in six years. But the very real prospect exists that the job might be done in twice the time, which would make 1984 our year, and not Big Brother's.
It seems to me that this is the time for a new political tidal wave in American history. In the past such waves have occurred irregularly, gathering speed at differing rates. Now not only insiders but outsiders are beginning to think that it may be the LP which is destined to break through the dikes this time. In a Washington Post column late in October 1974, Nicholas von Hoffman said, "It's too early to hope out loud that the Libertarians will be able to become the major opponents of the Reprocrats in a reconstituted two-party system, but for the over taxed, over-regulated, over-burdened and underpowered millions of the American middle class, they're the only people worth voting for." We have the opportunity, we have the principles; do we have the will and the skill to make tomorrow ours?