The Libertarian Party Marches On


I spent last weekend at the Libertarian Party's National Convention in Portland, Oregon. A full report about what happened there, focused on the changes made to the LP's platform, should be posted as an article on the front page sometime Friday. In the meantime, some bits of news not stressed in that piece. In addition to the platform drama, the party held elections for some of its officers.

Former national chair Geoffrey Neale was elected treasurer of the still cash-strapped party (accounts payable outpacing assets by around $80 thousand right now–such imbalances are pretty common in LP history, and pretty commonly resolved, only to crop up again later); longtime party activist (and financial analyst in his day job) and ballot-access maven William Redpath was elected national chair; and Libertarian Reform Caucus member Chuck Moulton was elected vice chair.

In LP typology, Redpath is seen as the competent, nuts-and-bolts career guy, not running for any particular ideological faction. He wants more national effort spent on ballot access and candidate recruitment; he beat out the more radical red-meat Ernest Hancock, who wrote that "The idea that votes are more important than freeing the minds of the people who would freely support us when we demonstrate that we seek freedom above recognition is counterproductive to all we hope to accomplish"–the kind of statement of purity above electoral success that drives party pragmatists crazy. Still, Hancock did pull 23 percent of the chair vote, better than the 16 percent he pulled running for chair in 2004 (though a smaller number of votes in pure numbers, because of the much lower turnout at this convention vs. 2004).

Full disclosure: among the slate of new at-large Libertarian National Committee members is my wife, Angela Keaton (who pointedly refuses to discuss any LP-related business with me).

In other random convention goings-on: A motion to impeach George Bush failed to pass, further aggravating LP purists who see the Libertarian Reform Caucus types (though LRC members by no means made up enough numbers in and of themselves to have stymied this) as GOP suck ups. Among the convention speakers were former Rep. Bob Barr and former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, whose new cause is electoral reform.

Novoselic's topic choice was quite relevant to the LP, and jibes well with new National Chair Redpath's thinking. Redpath tells me one of his goals is to get the party more active in general election reform issues, fighting hard for ballot access while also fighting for systematic change of the "instant runoff voting" variety (which helps eliminate the "wasted vote" argument, crazy as such an argument is in the first place, by allowing you to vote your conscience while still getting to express a preference between the two "real," major party candidates).

Without such systematic change, which would shift the balance of power that is currently so against third parties in our first-past-the-post, single-member-district system, third party platform brouhahas can seem sadly irrelevant. But Redpath does recognize that even in the face of such insuperable difficulties represented by American politics as constituted, the role of a political protest party running races that it pretty much can't win is not a dishonorable one, and can be pursued with energy, cheer, and head held high, even in the face of consistent electoral defeat. And even if they might scoff at the idea expressed that baldly, so, by demonstrated preference, do most active Libertarian Party members.

Way back in 1996, Nick Gillespie wrote on the Libertarian Party's political dilemma, in the context of the first Harry Browne presidential run.

My account of the 2004 LP convention.


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  1. John,
    Isn’t the LP becoming more moderate a major part of inviting more people to “throw their vote away?” When you base you platform on the most extreme cases, only extremists will be willing to throw their vote away.

    Also, perhaps the LP won’t be viable on the national level, but in state and local elections, the LP can squeeze out some victories. This will give more visibility to libertarian views and increase acceptance of the views.

  2. It really irritates me that people see IRV as an improvement over the current system.

    It is not; In effect you still will have the wasted vote syndrome of the way votes are shifted around because IRV is another “first past the post” system of electing peole, I think it will not significantly alter the landscape any.

    I personally recommend Condorcet which is not a first past the post system, but rather simultaneously pits each candidate in races with each other, and where there is not a clear winner, attempts to find the least hated winner. Actually that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but good enough for my purposes.

  3. The very idea of a Libertarian Party is an oxymoron. One might as well try to organize a team of synchronized swimming cats.

    Besides, most people like government, or at least the part they think they benefit from, and they’re not going to think long and hard enough to change their minds. Libertarian candidates, identified as such and publicly acknowledging belief in enough of the basic tenants of mainstream libertarianism, have about as much chance of winning any federal election as Frosty the Snowman has of conquering Hell on a hot day in August.

    A majority may agree with the libertarian take on this issue or that, but the label itself scares people and, as tends to be the case with any organized political party that actually stands for something, the chances of party activists acting pragmatically enough to overcome their own image problem is nil. Fergit it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.

    For much the same reasons, libertarian minded state and local candidates would probably be better off by avoiding the libertarian label and running as independents or, if their conscience and local circumstances permitted, as Republicans or Democrats. On balance, I’d say the Libertarian Party does more harm than good for the cause.

  4. Oh, I tried to make this comment in yesterday’s thread, but there was a glitch:

    I see that the breakaway faction is headed by Thomas Knapp. He has commented here from time to time, and has apparently been successful in running local elections. That’s far more than many of us (myself included) have done for the libertarian cause. I’m inclined to give his concerns some weight, because it seems clear that he’s not just some crank who wants to take his toys and go home. He must know something about practical politics.

  5. Brian,

    “Baring Boobs for Votes”? Has someone already begin using my new marketing strategy for the LP–i.e., using sexy babes to get people to join the LP and vote for LP candidates? Wow, that didn’t take long 🙂

    Using sex to restore a liberty-focused political system beats waiting for things to get bad enough to take up arms, don’t you agree?

  6. The from-the-ground-up approach is just never going to work. That’s fighting the enemy where they are the strongest.

    It will take a non-linear event. Look at the Perot candidacy. Until he let everyone know he was a cornflake, he was in a good position to win the presidency. Libertarians would do much better trying to convince an outsider with a big name (preferably from the entertainment business) to give it a go. And that Big Name could not run as part of the formal LP (the baggage is heavy with wingnuts), but as a small-L libertarian.

  7. SY, if only Penn Jillette hadn’t said there was no way, no how that he’d run for president when asked on his radio show. It’s not like he’d have to go far to find a running mate 🙂 A Jillette/Teller candidacy would so rule. And I guarantee plenty of votes–their sheer coolness will win over many people. And their libertarian credentials are excellent.

    I can just see a debate, where Penn takes the Teller route and doesn’t say anything. He just repeats that magic trick he did on Letterman where thousands of cockroaches were released. The press would be forced to admit that Penn won that exchange, I daresay 🙂

  8. Thoreau,

    “Success in winning local elections” is relative. I’ve run a couple of successful ballot issue campaigns, and in tandem with one of those managed to get a local official elected; I advised another local winner (“managed” would be going a bit far). Naturally, I tout that stuff when its “credentials smackdown time,” but I’m not exactly James Carville. Thanks, though, because it does lead into a point I want to make:

    There are a number of divides in the Libertarian Party and in the libertarian movement generally. What happened in Portland was not solely the result of one factional dispute. One misunderstanding is that “purists” all eschew “practical politics” and that “reformers” or “pragmatists” are all Tenth Incarnations of Lee Atwater, who would have already elected an LP congressional majority and president if they hadn’t been held back by the LP’s platform or pledge or whatever.

    “Purists” like Greg Dirasian (and Fred Collins and Barb Goushaw — they’re often referred to as “the Troika”) have been elected, or managed the elections of, a number of local officials in Michigan, including city council members of fairly large cities (FYI, none of the three, so far as I know, are in any way affiliated with my new project, the Boston Tea Party).

    On the other hand — and I say this without any rancor or intent to disrespect, as I consider them reasonably friendly acquaintances — I don’t recall that the Libertarian Reform Caucus’s most vocal “troika,” consisting of Carl Milsted, Tim West and Kris Overstreet, have ever meaningfully participated in electing anyone to anything.

    Setting aside the question of why the LP’s platform and pledge stopped Milsted et al and did not stop Dirasian et al, it seems clear to me that there’s more involved here than a “desire or ability to win elections” versus lack of such a desire or ability.

    Tom Knapp

  9. And a side comment. Brian writes:

    “Full disclosure: among the slate of new at-large Libertarian National Committee members is my wife, Angela Keaton …”

    Do you know how many hearts you just broke, Brian?

    I knew that Angela had relocated in the not-too-distant past, but had no idea why, and had not hear that the two of you were, or had got, married. Congratulations to both of you, however belatedly!

    Tom Knapp

  10. I tried to post this yesterday on We’re Libertarian, We’re Pragmatic – Get Used To It!, but it sounds like Mr Knapp might know better.

    Isn’t pragmatism the philosophy (or lack thereof) that currently
    reigns supreme? And you want more of it?

    I think we are very far from pragmatism. I am not sure if we are stuck
    with cynics or idealists in office. Probably some extra deadly
    combination of the two. I don’t believe that pragmatic would get us
    mired in Iraq. I don’t believe that pragmatic thought would lead to
    foreign policy decisions that alienate the rest of the world. And then
    there’s the crass combo of idealism & cynicism at play in the domestic
    Pragmatism, in the long run, would probably lead to a more libertarian
    Drug laws don’t work? Then we should legalize drugs and stop putting so
    many victimless criminals in jail.
    Some people don’t want stem cell research, and some people don’t wan’t
    to pay for Mapplethorpes? Well, we won’t force you to pay for either.
    The schools are failing and throwing more money at it doesn’t work
    because the bureaucracy keeps expanding to fit the budget? Let’s get rid
    of the bureaucracy and let an efficient system take it over.
    Go Pragmatics!

  11. “Success in winning local elections” is relative. I’ve run a couple of successful ballot issue campaigns, and in tandem with one of those managed to get a local official elected; I advised another local winner (“managed” would be going a bit far). Naturally, I tout that stuff when its “credentials smackdown time,” but I’m not exactly James Carville.

    By LP standards you are most certainly James Carville.

    I recall a column by one of the LRC people that you mentioned in LP News a few years ago. Some of the stuff seemed kind of nutty, and it’s not at all clear to me that he is the best person to talk about pragmatism. I shall refrain from naming names, since (1) I hope I’m wrong and (2) a guy like me, who’s done squat, doesn’t have the right to go around lobbying verbal grenades.

  12. LP is a bad idea that had to be tried to prove it. It has been, sufficiently.

    Meanwhile, how does one establish one’s credentials as one of a great many persons who were influential in a major candidate’s campaign? It’s not glamorous, being one of many helping to get out the vote for someone who was a major contender anyway, and the results of that worker’s effort are difficult to impossible to measure. Basically one is judged by the input rather than the output.

    Were LP not around encouraging libertarians to be big fish in a small pond where they can be ignored by the rest of the world, more of those libertarians would have swung more elections in a more libertarian direction, and more of them would have risen to positions of greter influence & responsibility in the major parties and in other politics-involved organiz’ns. The attractions of stardom are pernicious in politics as in other fields.

  13. I also tried to post in yesterday’s thread, but was stopped by a glitch:

    The thing that I found most persuasive and hopeful was the direction of most of the apparent disconnect between the demopublican politicians and the American people. In most cases, the people are inclined in a more libertarian direction than the ruling politicians are.

    The sole exception I can see is in immigration, and even there, there’s a strong nativist movement (with which I violently disagree, personally) within the LP.

    If we can capitalize on this disconnect, without being purist pricks and alienating folks, it seems that we have an almost unprecedented opportunity to actually win elections, by sticking to moderate positions, and emphasising areas of agreement, instead of always striving to find bones to pick, with the electorate.

  14. I like the American electoral system.

    Coalitions must be made before elections and it forces politicians to the center i.e. the representatives are representative.

    Which is one of the reasons for incumbent power.

    We get the government we deserve.

    If the LP saw itself as an educational party rather than an electoral party it might do better in getting its views adopted by one of the majors.

    What you want more than electoral success is marketing success.

  15. The LP has posted the new platform on the web site. I just noticed that there is NOTHING regarding schools on the web site. It doesn’t say anywhere that it favors privitizing the schools.

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