Libertarians are skeptical of politicians who praise the free market and limited government. Yet it arouses one's interest to hear of a Republican state chairman who avows support for returning to the gold standard, an isolationist foreign policy, abolishing victimless crime laws, and eliminating public schools.
Despite these views, a flamboyant and articulate Gordon Nelson, at 38, has remained state chairman for four years of what is the last state most people would guess—Massachusetts. Though some would wonder at what cost, the length of his tenure "is something of a record," notes Nelson. "They haven't had anybody in a generation who has lasted this long. They had eight chairmen in nine years before I got here. It is a tough thing, because if you don't win, it is like being the manager of a baseball team. If you don't win, you are the one who gets blamed." And Massachusetts is hardly a bastion of Republicanism.
Nelson sees himself as "an ideologue turned ward healer." He had always considered himself to be nonpolitical until he read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in 1962. "I spent a year trying to refute it, and when I couldn't, that is when I got into politics." Since then Nelson, a graduate of Harvard University, has been actively involved in politics, having been the national chairman for Individuals for a Rational Society and an early member of its predecessor organization, the New Right Coalition. Following a brief stint with the Goldwater campaign in 1964 he soon drifted away from campaign work because he "was not satisfied with the conservative movement." Soon after working in the 1974 Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial primary against an incumbent—"a real left-wing turkey"—he set up an organization (named REGRO) to "reform" the state's Republican Party. But he simply ended up taking it over, and, as he says, "it was surprisingly easy."
Through Nelson's leadership the party has been fairly successful. He has rebuilt the party's "internal fortune" into a more effective force. "In 1978, we made the first gains in the legislature in this state in 12 years, and we also gained at the county level for the first time in anyone's memory, and we've raised and distributed more money, even though the amounts were still small, than anytime since 1968."
Nelson's experience as chairman provides an interesting look at what happens to those advocates of limited government who work for a major political party. He has followed what he terms a "pragmatic" approach in deciding which candidates to assist. In other words, he has been concerned with electing as many Republicans as possible, and not with their views. He has often backed candidates who were "not very appealing at all ideologically," because they stood a better chance of winning. Says Nelson, "I wouldn't be chairman if I didn't give out the money in terms of electability. If I gave out the money just to my friends or my philosophical soul mates, I would no longer have enough support from the group which elects me to stay in office." A recent case involved his endorsement of then US Senator Ed Brooke—whom he agrees with on "no issue"—over Avi Nelson—whom he agrees with "on almost every issue"—in the 1978 senatorial primary. He felt that Avi Nelson had no chance of winning and that it was better to direct resources to where they would accomplish the most good. Now Avi is assisting Gordon's opponent in the next election for state chairman.
After listening to Nelson for a while, one wonders how his position really changes the course of the Republican Party and especially how his performance would have differed from another "pragmatic" leader with another ideology. Since his goal is less government, one questions whether he is, at best, wasting his talent as a political technician by electing those he disagrees with. But what is particularly disturbing is Nelson's opinion that the quality of the candidates has not improved over his stay in office. In fact, he does not seem to have viewed improving it as an important part of his job. When asked these objections, Nelson responds that it is true that he hasn't behaved differently from another "pragmatic" leader with a different ideology in the "day-to-day operations" of the party. But, he adds, he has operated on a different level.
This second level involves his position as the only statewide official, which makes him "the major spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party." Besides a weekly commentary on radio station WCRB in Boston, Nelson is also "on talk shows on radio and on television.…I am able to issue statements in my name and I am able to say things in that capacity on behalf of my philosophy (Objectivism)." One wonders how much that serves to dispel the opposite effect from those who are not pro-free market and whom he helps to elect.
Even though Nelson's views are radical compared to the average Republican, he does try to educate slowly and not to shock people. If you "shock people, they are not going to listen to you," he reasons. "I do media all the time. You are not going to be successful if you say provocative things just to get people thinking."
Nelson has "no hostility toward the Libertarian Party." But he views it primarily as a device "to move the Republican Party in the right direction—the direction that I want it to go. Therefore, I cannot be critical of the Libertarian Party, but at the same time I wouldn't be in the Libertarian Party because I feel I can have more impact to get us to the same point, which is less government and more individual freedom."
Nelson receives no emolument for his services. So as he puts it, he wouldn't be doing it if he didn't think it was helping things. Yet it is far from certain that such a "one-step-at-a-time philosophy" working through the Republican Party will pay off.
John R. Lott is an economics student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Republican Reformer".