Libertarian Party

A Power Struggle Consumes the Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party's controversial plan is to "stop Biden" and extract promises from Trump along the way.

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How did the Libertarian Party Convention become a campaign stop for candidates with wildly anti-libertarian views? This year's speakers included Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who once called for jailing so-called climate deniers, and former president Donald Trump, a rabid opponent of free trade who added $8 trillion to the U.S. debt.

It's part of a strategy to transform the Libertarian Party (L.P.) into a major force in American politics that's largely the brainchild of political strategist Michael Heise, who viewed the 2016 presidential candidacy of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld as a colossal failure.

"Gary Johnson, 4.3 million votes, highest vote total ever, no lasting movement, no return on investment on those votes," Heise told Reason in 2022 during the party's convention in Reno. "[Gary Johnson voters] didn't stay because they weren't what you might call 'true believers.' They didn't feel it in their bones. It didn't have that same animation to it [as did] the Ron Paul [movement]." 

The primary goal of the new Libertarian Party isn't winning national elections, which Heise considers delusional, but to leverage its ability to draw enough votes to swing the election. Through its "spoiler status," the hope is that the L.P. can extract concessions and gain influence.

This year's convention, held in Washington, D.C., in July, was the first major test of the new strategy.

The change in strategy began when a group called the Mises Caucus took over the leadership of the L.P. at the 2022 convention in Reno, Nevada.

It modeled itself after Ron Paul's presidential campaigns by emphasizing a non-interventionist foreign policy that sets it apart from both major parties, as the podcast host Dave Smith told Reason.

"The priorities of the Mises Caucus have always been, basically, the priorities of the Ron Paul Revolution: being anti-war, being sound on Austrian economics."

The new L.P. invited in social conservatives by removing abortion rights from the party platform and attempting to do the same with open immigration.

"When you put open borders, plus pro-abortion in [the platform]…it kind of forms a cultural hegemony for one side that might not be indicative of the wider libertarian movement," says Heise.

These changes alienated libertarians who view social freedoms as core to the political philosophy, as did the L.P.'s brazen new approach to social media, such as when the New Hampshire L.P. gloried in a photo of Megan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain (R–Ariz.), crying over her father's casket.

The Mises Caucus leadership vowed to clean up its messaging and grow the party's membership and fundraising to unprecedented levels. But internal documents show that candidates, fundraising, and membership have plummeted since the takeover. And state affiliates have continued the online provocation.

But supporters predicted that in 2024, we'd see a turnaround.

"I think there's been there's been progress in a lot of ways," says Smith. "This convention represents something that never would have happened under the old guard, where we're making attempts to be involved in the broader political conversation."

A prime example of the kind of outreach Smith is referencing was the presence of former GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who made the case for libertarians to ally with Republicans to support Trump.

Kentucky Republican House member Thomas Massie—a favorite of libertarians for his opposition to COVID-19 lockdowns, regulation, the Federal Reserve, and debt-financed federal spending—also attended the convention for a day.

"I think the Libertarian Party is really smart to invite other people to their convention. It's going to be probably one of the closest watched Libertarian conventions in years," says Massie. "Politics is about messaging, and you've got to get your message out. If you don't have an audience, you can you can preach to an empty room. But this will be a chance for libertarians to give feedback to President Trump and to RFK Jr."

The Mises Caucus' favored presidential candidate was Michael Rectenwald, a former self-described Marxist college professor and author of The Great Reset and the Struggle for Global Liberty: Unraveling the Global Agenda.

He views politics through a populist lens whereby elites seek total control over the population by leveraging or even creating crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic to achieve such ends.

"I'm the only candidate in the race that's actually talked about the new threats to liberty that we face," says Rectenwald. "Agenda 2030, the climate change tyranny, and what's been called the Great Reset, which is really just the project of the World Economic Forum and the U.N. to institute this new stakeholder capitalism model and to control and regulate the population through all kinds of climate change regulations and restrictions."

It's a similar message to that of RFK Jr., who threw himself into the ring for the  Libertarian Party nomination at the last minute before being knocked out in the first of seven rounds of presidential nomination voting.

Although Trump was ineligible to seek the party nomination because of a GOP ban on running with multiple parties, that didn't stop him from opening his headline speech by proclaiming himself a libertarian and asking for the party nomination to a chorus of boos.

Trump did garner some applause later in the speech when he began to address some of the L.P.'s demands. He promised to commute the life sentence of Ross Ulbricht, founder of the black market website the Silk Road. He also offered to appoint a libertarian to his cabinet in exchange for the party's endorsement and to protect bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from federal regulation.

Post-speech, three Libertarian presidential nominees delivered a response but most of the crowd and media had cleared out by then. Rectenwald walked out in the middle of the post-speech press conference and later admitted he was high on a gummy edible.

The Mises Caucus has adopted a strategy of using the Libertarian Party's spoiler status as a bargaining chip. With Smith's encouragement, their Arizona senatorial candidate dropped out and endorsed Republican venture capitalist Blake Masters—who once said "libertarianism doesn't work"—in a special election on the grounds that he was the lesser of two evils. Masters lost the race anyway.

But on the third day of the convention, a central pillar of the Mises Caucus' professed strategy would crumble beneath them.

In a surprising twist for a party controlled by the Mises Caucus, which had just reelected McArdle as chair the previous day, Michael Rectenwald was knocked out after six rounds of voting, leaving Chase Oliver as the last remaining candidate.

Oliver, who rose to prominence within the party after forcing a crucial Georgia Senate race to a run-off in 2022 by drawing 2 percent of the vote, had clashed with candidates from the Mises Caucus faction when he defended free and open immigration during the presidential debate.

In the final round of voting, Mises Caucus members attempted to whip votes for "none of the above" to ensure the party ran no candidate this year, but Oliver won with 60 percent of the vote.

Since then, Smith and several other Mises Caucus members have made clear that they will not vote for Oliver, whom they believe didn't do enough to resist COVID-19 restrictions. Oliver concedes that the pre-Reno Reset Libertarian Party should have opposed lockdowns and government vaccine mandates—both of which he publicly opposed—more vociferously.

"I could say that there had been instances during COVID when [the party] maybe erred on the personal responsibility side as opposed to fighting mandated lockdowns. We should have been maybe a bit more forceful there," says Oliver. "My message is pretty simple to those voters out there who have not heard from Libertarian: It's that if you're not committing force, fraud, coercion, theft or violence, if you're just living in peace, your life is your life. Your body is your body. Your property is your property, and your business is your business."

Oliver's victory complicates the Mises Caucus' strategy. They control the leadership positions but not the face of the party.

Following his nomination, Oliver was attacked online by Mises Caucus members and Trump supporters for his alleged weakness on COVID policy, his view that parents and not the state should decide whether puberty blockers can be prescribed to minors, and because Oliver, who is openly gay, has appeared at pride events holding a rainbow flag.

McArdle responded a week after the convention by hosting a livestream with rainbow imagery and donning a red clown nose. She gave Oliver the party's official endorsement and pledged to help him mostly in blue states where he'd be more likely to take votes from Biden.

The Libertarian Party grabbed attention and obtained promises from Trump—but if elected, will he follow through?

Can a Libertarian Party so deeply divided on questions of strategy and ideology make a difference?

"I think the most important thing that we need to do as a party to build our foundation," says Oliver. "I want to double our party's membership and hold it for the next four years."