70 Million Votes or 1 Million Changed Minds?

Factional politics heat up in the Libertarian Party.


"We're not primarily advocating a slightly different public policy from other people," declared Ludwig von Mises Institute senior fellow and popular podcaster Tom Woods. "We're encouraging people to look at the world in a refreshing new way." Woods was speaking at a raucous gathering hosted by the growing Mises Caucus of the Libertarian Party (L.P.) down the street from the party's biennial national convention in New Orleans this summer. "So yeah, we won't get the 70 million votes, but maybe we get 1 million people who say, 'I never looked at the world the same way again after I listened to those people.'"

That basic mission conflict—quixotic electoral vehicle or galvanizing educational project?—has gnawed at the Libertarian Party ever since its humble beginnings in 1971. But now that the L.P. has firmly established itself as the country's third-largest political bloc, the age-old paradox looks to many like a fork in the road.

"Right now the Libertarian Party absolutely is at a crossroads," then–Vice Chair Arvin Vohra said at a July 1 debate. "Road No. 1 leads somewhere like this: We've taken the presidency, we've taken the House of Representatives, we've taken the Senate.…We got there by using manipulative, dishonest messaging; we got there by pandering. And if we start abolishing government schools, if we start legalizing cocaine, if we start shutting the military-welfare complex, we're going to lose. It's better that someone like us is there, rather than someone like them is there."

Path No. 2, Vohra maintained, is that the L.P. comes to power after campaigning unapologetically on legalizing all drugs, abolishing all government schools, and ending all foreign wars—this way Americans won't be surprised when the party accomplishes what it's always promised.

But some Libertarians reject the idea that voters will be swayed by the most shocking edges of libertarian philosophy. "For 40 years we've been saying, 'It's all or nothing!' And we've got exactly what we've demanded: Nothing," said four-decade L.P. activist Joe Hauptmann at the same debate. "Government is too damn big. But the other problem is, we're too damn small.…The only way we get power is with the vote, and there aren't enough of us."

To the extent that this year's Libertarian Convention was a referendum on making libertarianism a big squishy tent vs. a smaller ideological cadre, the big-tenters won in a rout. Vohra, who has been the party's most internally polarizing figure since he consciously began dropping rhetorical bombs in 2017, was drummed out of office. And two-term incumbent Chairman Nicholas Sarwark, disliked by some for being too accepting of Gary Johnson and his ilk, trounced Joshua Smith, a favorite of the Mises Caucus, in a race so contentious that vendors were hawking "I survived the Libertarian National Chair campaign 2018" T-shirts.

The decisive moment in that campaign came when Smith asked Sarwark what he thought of former Gov. Bill Weld, the 2016 vice presidential nominee who is loudly considering a run at the party's 2020 presidential nomination. "What I think about Bill Weld," Sarwark started carefully, "is that he is still in the Libertarian Party, while many of his opponents are not. [He's been] raising money for and endorsing Libertarian candidates. And the exposure of Bill Weld to the Libertarian Party has not made the Libertarian Party more like an establishment Republican, but has made Bill Weld a lot more like a Libertarian.…He knows something about winning public office, and [we need to] learn how to do that from anybody who will join us. We should not push people out who are willing to help."

But don't count out the Mises crowd just yet. Smith lost the chair race but won an at-large berth on the Libertarian National Committee. Woods and many of his ideological fellow travelers reacted to Sarwark's victory not by washing their hands of the L.P. but by redoubling their activity within it. Vohra lost his vote resoundingly but immediately announced a bid for the presidency.

At the same time, major figures from the business and mainstream political worlds are also sniffing around, recognizing a potentially historic opportunity to be the 2020 L.P. nominee at a moment when the two major parties are suffering mental breakdowns. It's early yet, but among a growing number of Libertarians, the answer to Tom Woods' 70 million/1 million question appears to be, "Why not both?"