How To Get Converts Left & Right

Political "cross-dressing" is the answer


As Libertarian Party candidate for president of the United States, Roger MacBride campaigned and spoke in many cities. He constantly sought brief and effective ways to present libertarian ideas. During a question-and-answer session in Phoenix, Arizona, a member of the audience rose and said, "I like a lot of what you've said, but I disagree with you on gun control. Surely you realize that Saturday Night Specials have to be banned."

MacBride waited a few seconds before answering. He replied, "Laws that forbid inexpensive handguns deprive blacks and other low-income minorities of a means of self-defense. Poor blacks living in ghettos cannot afford $200 pistols. How can you defend a racist proposal like this?"

The questioner was stunned. He stared at MacBride for a moment, then sat down.

Confronted with the same question, most libertarians would have talked about the right to self-defense, the immorality of government coercion, the Second Amendment, or some other point equally unimportant to the questioner—who would have remained unpersuaded.

Because libertarianism cuts across the left/right political spectrum, it has views in common with the left and right. While liberals agree with us on certain civil liberties issues, conservatives endorse most of our free-market position. But how can we bring both sides into full alignment with freedom?

In 1976, I discussed this problem with John T. Hamilton III, a libertarian strategist and activist living in Tucson, Arizona. He had developed an enormously effective technique for bringing the left and the right to a consistent libertarian position. He acknowledged that some writers and speakers have used it, but none of them seemed aware that it is a specific technique.

It is called "political cross-dressing." "Cross-dressing," of course, refers to the adoption of the dress and behavior of members of the opposite sex. For the libertarian, political cross-dressing means using right-wing words, evidence, and arguments to support civil liberties, and left-wing terms and reasons to support the free market. Because statism is unjust and inefficient, evil and impractical, libertarians can present moral and utilitarian cases against it in all spheres.

Political cross-dressing is based upon a sound principle of salesmanship: it shows the prospect how the "product" will fulfill his wants and needs. This can be done because freedom has something for everyone.

Milton Friedman is a master of this technique. In a February 1973 interview with Playboy magazine, for example, he accomplishes a tour de force with it. Consider one instance. In opposing minimum wage laws, he says:

You very seldom find poor people testifying in favor of the minimum wage. The people who do are those who receive or pay wages much higher than the minimum. Frequently northern textile manufacturers. John F. Kennedy, when he was in Congress, said explicitly that he was testifying in favor of a rise in the minimum wage because he wanted protection for the New England textile industry against competition from the so-called cheap labor of the south.

"The effect of a minimum wage law," he continues, "is to produce unemployment among people with low skills. And who are the people with low skills? In the main, they tend to be teenagers and blacks, and women who have no special skills or have been out of the labor force and are coming back."

How could free-market mail delivery be sold to the left? One might want to say:

The postal monopoly delays, loses, damages, and destroys thousands of letters and packages each day. It is unresponsive to consumers. It overcharges the consumer on first-class mail to subsidize Big Business on second-, third-, and fourth-class mail. It lets the CIA and FBI open and examine private communications.

Suppose a libertarian wanted to persuade conservatives or moderates that drugs should be legalized:

As a defender of law and order, I advocate legalizing all drugs. Individuals under the influence of drugs rarely commit crimes. Drug-related crime occurs when the law stops a person from getting the drug he desires.

Legalizing drugs would sharply reduce their cost. This would eliminate the need to steal to support a drug habit. Police officers who now pursue drug users and sellers could go after murderers, rapists, muggers, thieves, and other dangerous people. Courts would have the time and resources to convict those who threaten the lives and property of decent, law-abiding citizens. Organized crime would be weakened: its huge profits from illegal drugs would vanish. This would save taxpayers money.

The speaker is offering better police protection, more effective courts, weaker organized crime, and lower taxes. He is giving "practical" reasons for expanding freedom—the cost of suppressing civil liberties is simply too high.

Forced busing is an easy issue to cross-dress. Busing students to achieve racial balance is racism of the lowest order. To achieve racial balance, the government must assign students to school on the basis of race; it must forbid them to attend other schools, because that would create racial imbalance. But forbidding a student to attend a school on account of race is clearly racial discrimination.

There are ways of making political cross-dressing even more effective. One is called "left drawer/right drawer." It consists of cross-dressing issues while alternating left- and right-wing conclusions. For example, suppose a libertarian wanted to speak on gun control, forced busing, the postal monopoly, drug legalization, gay rights, and a noninterventionist foreign policy. While speaking, the libertarian would rotate the issues so that each side gets every other issue. Observe the pattern: left-wing reasons for free-market mail delivery, right-wing reasons for gay rights, left-wing grounds for opposing gun control, right-wing arguments for legalizing all drugs, and so on.

"Left drawer/right drawer" produces some interesting results. First, it prevents the average person from classifying libertarianism as "left" or "right." This often leads to a more attentive examination of its tenets. Second, by appealing to the right and left at the same time, the libertarian confuses the left/right spectrum. To broaden their appeal, both left and right must therefore move closer to the center. They must compromise, sell out, water down positions, and evade clear stands to get more support. The libertarian, however, remains true to his beliefs. His base is broadened by his method of selling libertarian ideas.

Effective political cross-dressing requires that one be fluent in the major political languages—of the left, the right, the feminists, the John Birch Society, the socialists, the ecology movement, and so forth. Many individuals are married to a subculture jargon, a special syntax, and communication must take place in their dialect or not at all. To reach these people, one must know their language, the evidence and arguments with which their views are supported, their wants and needs, and their emotional cue words. These are the elements of successful political cross-dressing.

I have barely touched the surface of the possible uses of this technique. It is limited only by the cross-dresser's imagination and knowledge. As a candidate for the U.S. Congress, I have had hundreds of opportunities to test this method on people who had never heard of libertarianism. Time after time, I saw "light bulbs going on" in the eyes and faces of listeners.

Why does the technique work? There are several reasons. It offers something to each side of an issue—evidence, arguments, terms, and cue words to one, the conclusion to the other. Both sides perceive the speaker as an ally. He seems to have a foot in each camp, but neither side minds. The libertarian is either "right for the wrong reasons" or "wrong for the right reasons." In either event, he is not "the enemy."

Cross-dressing breaks up old patterns of thought. It develops new insights and connections for listeners or readers. Because the approach is refreshing and original, people are often motivated to rethink their positions. And because the arguments are new and unusual, they get exposure. The working press appreciates hearing something different. So does the public.

Political cross-dressing does not require an immediate, radical change in the listener's political philosophy. It is a piecemeal approach to liberty, selling one conclusion at a time. As the person accepts one pro-freedom stand after another, he will soon reach a point where the libertarianism comes naturally.

Michael Emerling has contributed to various magazines and is the author of Theistic Objectivism: An Autopsy. He has run for office and lectures on "The Art of Political Persuasion."