The Libertarian Party (L.P.) is under new management, tweeted Angela McArdle, shortly after she became the National Committee's new chair at its 2022 annual convention in Reno, Nevada, which was attended by more than 1,000 delegates from around the country.
"We're obviously at a crossroads right now," McArdle said during a debate for the chair position. "I hate to sound like a scumbag politician…but we are going to move heaven and earth to make this [party] functional and not embarrassing for you. We are going to change the country."
McArdle, who won her election with about 70 percent of the vote, is part of the Mises Caucus, which swept all the national leadership roles and is now in complete control of the nation's third-largest political party.
Mises Caucus supporters say they want to "make the Libertarian Party libertarian again," that it should no longer be concerned about offending progressives or Beltway types and shouldn't be afraid to reach out to the coalition that elected former President Donald Trump. McArdle says that the party faceplanted during the pandemic by failing to take a strong stance against lockdowns and vaccine mandates and that its messaging is far too tame and conventional to counter the power of the authoritarian state.
"If something like a lockdown or a vaccine mandate happens [again], we won't whiff the ball and humiliate ourselves and alienate everyone out there," she said in her acceptance speech.
Critics say they're shitposting edgelords who make controversial statements just to attract attention and that they have no interest in running viable candidates for office.
"If Angela McArdle becomes chair of the Libertarian National Committee and makes the party welcoming to bigots, the committee she is in charge of will shrivel and die," says Nicholas Sarwark, the chair of the Libertarian Party from 2014 to 2020 and a frequent critic of the caucus.
The Mises Caucus' namesake is the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, but its members are especially influenced by his student Murray Rothbard. Like Mises, Rothbard was a radical capitalist, who, unlike his mentor, favored the complete abolition of the state. Rothbard also advocated forming strategic political alliances with the New Left in the 1960s and then with paleoconservative figures like Pat Buchanan in the early '90s.
Rothbard was an enthusiastic supporter of Ron Paul's run on the Libertarian presidential ticket in 1988. He wrote that the party had become "increasingly flaky…libertine and culturally leftist" and saw Paul's campaign as a "last desperate attempt" to save the party. But it ultimately failed, in his view, leaving the L.P. "spiraling downward into oblivion." The Mises Caucus likewise looks to Ron Paul as a political role model, pointing to his 2008 and 2012 Republican presidential campaigns (which generated huge crowds and interest in libertarianism). Paul attended a Mises Caucus event in Reno to signal his support.
"These are the kids who came up in 2008 and 2012 inspired by Ron Paul," says Scott Horton, a popular anti-war radio host, author, and founder of the Libertarian Institute. It was Horton who officially nominated McArdle for the chair position. "Now they've been to college, grown up. They got their own lives and families and things, and they're ready to move in and take the next step."
As examples of the kinds of bold messages the party should be sending, McArdle points to Paul's famous 2007 confrontation with Rudy Giuliani during a nationally televised Republican presidential debate over the root causes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and when Paul told a Republican audience in South Carolina that heroin shouldn't be illegal.
"The priorities of the Mises Caucus have always been basically the priorities of the Ron Paul Revolution," says Dave Smith, comedian and host of the libertarian podcast Part of the Problem, who is also a likely contender for the party's 2024 presidential nomination. "Being anti-war…[and] with inflation raging, I think is a really good time to be sound on [Austrian economics]," he told Reason. "And then, of course, throughout the last two years, just completely opposing the rise of the COVID regime."
But when does "bold messaging" become counterproductive trolling? It's a line that several high-profile Mises Caucus members and official Libertarian Party social media accounts have struggled to identify.
"I think bolder messaging is important, but we don't need edgelording," former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash told Reason.
Amash rode to office on the 2010 Tea Party wave, representing Michigan, and Politico once described him as the "new Ron Paul" in Congress because of his willingness to buck party-line votes on principle. He switched his party affiliation from Republican to Libertarian in his final term, making him the L.P.'s highest officeholder since its founding in 1971. He's not a member of the Mises Caucus but says they've brought new energy to the party and that the important task now is "channeling that energy in the right direction."
"I don't think [Mises Caucus members] are coming here because they're nationalists or bigoted or any of that stuff," says Amash. "That's not to say that there aren't people within the Libertarian Party, just as there are within the Democratic Party and Republican Party and throughout the whole world who are bigoted and racist…And I think we should call out people like that and we should denounce those kinds of statements. But, do I think that the caucus as a whole is like that? I don't think so."
The convention was buzzing over an article that had just been published by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) titled, "Mises Caucus: Could It Sway the Libertarian Party to the Hard Right?," and McArdle gave out a mock "Failed Grifter of the Year" award to the SPLC at a Mises Caucus event.
"The Southern Poverty Law Center, or the Soviet Poverty Lie Center as [historian] Tom DiLorenzo calls it… is the ideological enforcement arm of the regime," Tom Woods told the audience at a Mises-sponsored event at the convention. "And I would want to repel anybody who was clueless enough to treat it as a source worthy of a moment's attention."
Sarwark booked whistleblower Edward Snowden to speak in a different room at the same time as Woods, he says, in order to give the attendees "an option."
"I came to the conclusion that there is no magic combination of words I can ever utter that will make somebody who…would put Snowden against me [to] suddenly make him say, 'Oh, I've been wrong about you my whole life,'" Woods told Reason when asked about the double booking.
Woods is a best-selling author, historian, and host of the immensely popular libertarian podcast, The Tom Woods Show. When asked by Reason what the biggest misconception about him was, Woods replied that it was his association with the League of the South. It's not an organization that "these days…I, nor anybody I know, would join."
In 1994, Woods attended the group's founding meeting. He maintains that it only later became a neo-Confederate white separatist organization, one which was involved in the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally. In 1994, the League of the South was a group of "nerdy academics" like him, Woods says, and he had no idea what it would later become.
"I've never apologized for it," says Woods. "The easiest thing in the world for me would be to say, 'I'm so sorry. I joined an organization, or I was at the founding meeting of an organization, that is outside the allowable range of opinion…I'm not sorry because I didn't do anything wrong. Yeah, it was edgy to be in that group, but we never meant any harm to anybody."
Critics of the Mises Caucus worry that the group won't do enough to keep bigots—the sort of person that might join the present-day version of the League of the South—out of the party.
"There is a tendency for outsider groups to attract other outsiders," says Sarwark. "That's the nature of entryism into political movements…The only way to stop entryism is to put up clear signs that say 'no bigots allowed.'"
Dave Smith told a Mises Caucus audience in May 2021, "I speak for everyone in the Mises Caucus when I say it: We reject racism. It's collectivist, toxic garbage." But some delegates at the convention were alarmed that the caucus wanted to strike a sentence from the L.P.'s party platform condemning bigotry as "irrational and repugnant."
"What is a bigot? No one can agree," says McArdle. "All it leads to is everybody in the party pointing fingers and calling each other a bigot. I believe in freedom of speech. I prefer when people don't say horribly racist offensive things. I think that it's not well-met. It's pointless."
Mises Caucus founder Michael Heise defended the deletion of the language because "libertarianism isn't about wrongthink. It's about non-aggression, self-ownership, and property rights," and said he believes that the anti-bigotry condemnation fed what he calls a "woke," or "cultural Marxist" agenda.
"What is happening nowadays with the 'wokeism' is people are using language as dialectics along cultural lines to push for collectivist ends," says Heise. "So back in the day…the Marxist revolutions, they had the dialectics of the rich versus the poor and the owner versus the worker. And they were pushing towards collectivist ends. It's the same ideology that's happening now, but they're pitting cis versus straight and male versus female and trans versus whatever."
The delegates ultimately voted to remove the anti-bigotry statement. But on the initiative of Spike Cohen, L.P.'s former vice-presidential candidate, they added a new line stating that the party would "uphold and defend the rights of every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or any other aspect of their identity."
The Mises Caucus also succeeded in removing the party's pro-choice plank, which McArdle said was called for because abortion represents "an irreconcilable difference" within the libertarian movement.
"We tend to push out people who are a little bit more socially conservative," says McArdle. "And I think that there's room in the party for people who are libertine and socially conservative. And I would like them to feel that way."
Mises Caucus leadership also says it's a mistake for the Libertarian Party to take an unequivocally open-borders stance on immigration. The current platform states that the "crossing of political boundaries" should not be "unreasonably constrained by government," and that language did not change during the convention.
"When you put open borders, plus pro-abortion in there…it kind of forms a cultural hegemony for one side that might not be indicative of the wider libertarian movement," says Heise.
Along with Rothbard, one of the biggest influences on prominent members of the Mises Caucus is the political theorist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who disagreed with the pro-immigration views of Ludwig von Mises. He wrote that politicians have a perverse incentive to let in "unproductive parasites, bums, and criminals" and that "the power to admit or exclude should be stripped from the hands of the central government and reassigned to the states, provinces, cities, towns, villages, residential districts, and ultimately to private property owners and their voluntary associations." Hoppe advocates for "the Swiss model, where local assemblies, not the central government, determine who can and who cannot become a Swiss citizen." Hoppe has also suggested that "democrats and communists" will have to be "physically separated and expelled" from a libertarian society.
"Open borders and private borders are not the same," says Heise. "But they're both libertarian canon. So…by taking a side on this [in the party platform], we're representing one side and basically pushing out another side or making them feel not represented."
Like the Mises Caucus, Amash often talks about the decentralization of political power, but he is also insistent upon the central importance of liberalism, or the protection of individual rights even at the hyper-local level of government. He says this idea is foundational to the United States and should be one of the Libertarian Party's core messages.
"I think that the emphasis should be on getting us back to our roots as a country," says Amash. "What do we believe in as a basic set of principles? And, really, what this country is about is liberalism in the classical sense, the idea that people should be able to free…to make their own decisions about their lives and government, to the extent possible, should just stay out of it."
On the first day of the convention, guest speaker Snowden made a similar point.
"Freedom from permission: That is what liberty is," said Snowden. "Just the ability to act without asking, to speak and to write, to do, and to be yourself without getting the paper stamped, without submitting yourself and the completed form alongside it to some central authority."
While Mises Caucus–endorsed candidates swept all other leadership positions that were up for grabs, there remains a discontented minority within the party, and McArdle says that about 40 members quit after the Mises Caucus took power.
"The party has been an embarrassment to libertarians for a very long time," says Brianna Coyle, an Ohio delegate who quit the party during the convention. She's clashed with Mises Caucus members online in the past. "I think, quite frankly, it's going to be even worse than it used to be….This is the paleo strategy happening yet again."
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I think it's going to be interesting," says Avens O'Brien, a California delegate who opposed the Mises Caucus' removal of the pro-choice platform language. "I welcome new membership. I welcome change…I think right now there are a lot of complicated feelings from a lot of delegates, and I'm hoping that the people who get elected are willing to work with everyone. And if they are, I think that there could be good things."
Amash, who is both sticking around and a rumored 2024 presidential candidate, says that he hopes the energy from the Mises Caucus can be channeled in a positive direction that grows the party. He says it should prioritize supporting candidates committed to protecting individual rights.
"It's not going to be easy to get this party on track," says Amash. "It's an uphill battle. I want to give [the new leadership] the opportunity."
He says that if the Republican Party sticks with Trump, and the Democrats continue to bring forth disappointing national candidates, it presents "an opening" for the Libertarian Party to draw from both the right and the left.
"This is maybe the chance of a lifetime over the next couple of years to bring people into the party," says Amash.
Heise said that delegates disappointed by or anxious about the Mises Caucus takeover should give them a chance to show results, which should be measured not only by electoral success but by party membership growth and donations.
"By our fruits, you'll know us," he says.
Produced by Nick Gillespie and Zach Weissmueller; edited by Danielle Thompson; additional graphics by Regan Taylor; camera by James Marsh; sound editing by John Osterhoudt.
Photos: Keiko Hiromi/AFLO/Newscom; Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Paul Hennessy/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Jeremy Hogan/Polaris/Newscom; Albin Lohr-Jones; John Lamparski/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Brian Cahn/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Tim Evanson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; tedeytan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Ludwig von Mises Institute, via Wikimedia Commons; LvMI, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Stefani Reynolds/CNP / Polaris/Newscom.
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