Libertarian Party Optimism

 | 

I believe that within the next 50 years the Libertarian Party will become a major force in American politics, taking 20 to 30% of the vote nationally and electing a wide swath of candidates.

One reason is that the Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts. Another may be that if Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becomes president and socialism destroys the economy, Generation Z will flock to the LP.

But today, unlike the tomorrow of the future, the Libertarian Party is held together by duct tape, some sticky half-chewed gum, and some old frayed shoe laces. This was evident at the 2019 convention of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. A lot of people were there, old and young, party stalwarts and people new to the LP, but the event was cozy and unpretentious, lacking the grand pomp and pageantry of a Democrat or Republican rally. It was held in a giant room in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant in Manhattan, in what seems to be a Ukrainian state building. I would not have been surprised if Russian spies were listening to every word said in that room. The centerpiece of the event, other than the election of the 2019 Manhattan LP officers, was speeches given by Matt Welch of Reason magazine and Larry Sharpe, LP gubernatorial candidate. Sharpe got enough votes for the New York Libertarian Party to become an officially recognized party in the state, with full ballot access, after waging a courageous yet doomed campaign against Democratic juggernaut Andrew Cuomo and his corrupt New York political machine.

The Millennial generation and the so-called Generation Z will live to see the day when Social Security runs out of money, and they will seek an alternative to the establishment out of sheer survival instincts.

Hearing Mr. Sharpe speak, I found that he was a real libertarian, a smart man, a good public speaker, and a fighter, and he seemed to have a firm grasp of important issues. That having been said, it is clear why he did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton. He also lacks the raw charisma and the hypnotizing, mesmerizing rhetorical skill of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and other populists. If you are not a member of the elite and can't be a populist, it is tough to win. Just being a nice guy is not enough, as Sharpe, Gary Johnson, and other Libertarians have learned every time they’ve run for office.

There is an important question, as the Libertarian Party matures, of whether it will evolve into a populist party or try to be seen as a respectable mainstream party fielding "real, legitimate" politicians. That tension was present at the convention, perhaps never more palpably than while Matt Welch of Reason spoke. I am not going to rehash what he said, but instead reflect on the role of Reason in the current moment of libertarianism. Reason projects an image of a libertarian version of the mainstream media, full of polished experts with extensive knowledge who come across as highly professional and whom it is easy to take seriously. Indeed, Reason is a libertarian medium that wants to be taken seriously by the establishment and the political elites, to move the needle on policy and to be read by the intellectual and educated classes. So, too, within the Libertarian Party, many of us want candidates who will be taken seriously by the voters and fit in with the political elites and the real politicians and not be a mere joke or token candidate who can't win.

But there is a catch. Core libertarian policies, such as abolishing the income tax, ending the Federal Reserve, putting currency back on a gold standard, terminating Social Security, legalizing the wide range of drugs, are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment. There are simply too many ways the government helps the rich, too many Wall Street bailouts, too many efforts of educated elites to use government to control the great unwashed masses of the public, for the educated class or the political elites to turn libertarian. So if the LP runs real candidates who want to be “taken seriously,” it loses something of its credibility and its integrity with its original ideals. Each Libertarian must grapple with what to sacrifice — principles, or being accepted by the establishment.

It is clear why the LP gubernatorial candidate did not, and could not, win: he simply lacked the network and political machine and fundraising dollars of, for example, an Andrew Cuomo or a Hillary Clinton.

You see the problem. Matt Welch even had to cut his speech short at the end because he was scheduled to appear on Kennedy’s show later that night. She and John Stossel do a lot to fold libertarianism into the Fox News vision. There is a certain type of person I think of as a Reason reader — affluent, young, male, highly educated, and very angry that he has to pay taxes and isn't allowed to smoke weed. He reads Reason with a sense of rebellion, yet as a member of the middle class or upper class he is himself a part of the establishment. Such people will one day face a choice — stay true to being real libertarians, or be taken seriously by the educated class and take their rightful place among the elite.

Still, by putting up a fight to be taken seriously as libertarians, Reason and people like Matt Welch slowly but surely shift the public's conception of what is to be taken seriously, and I am optimistic that in about 50 years it will shift enough for libertarians with integrity to our core principles to be taken seriously and be viewed as legitimate and get elected. If and when that happens, the tension and contradiction between being a real libertarian and being a member of the political class or the mainstream media establishment may end, and being libertarian may become mainstream.

This is a long way of explaining why I viewed Matt with caution and a sense of tension, despite the fact that he gave a fun, enjoyable talk about himself and Reason, and shared an interesting anecdote about Ayn Rand threatening to sue Reason in its early days after it acquired Nathaniel Branden's mailing list.

Core libertarian policies are not taken seriously, and will not be taken seriously, by the American public, and certainly never by the elites and the establishment.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all answer for a group as diverse as libertarians. During Q and A with Mr. Welch and Mr. Sharpe, there was some talk of whether libertarians should be radical or be moderate and seek the space between Left and Right. The consensus seemed to be that the moderate center is an illusion and radicals are more likely to get elected. Moderate or radical, freak or conformist sell-out, is another way to frame this question.

For decades, my other tribe, the LGBT community, has been grappling with whether to go mainstream or persist as proud to be freaks, and we still have not decided as a movement. There is still a cold war between the advocates of gay marriage and those among us who oppose marriage as an institution. So, too, may it be with the libertarian movement: an unending war between radicals and pragmatists.

The future of the Libertarian Party looks bright. Although the party today is small and splintered, check back in 50 years. I believe my prediction will prove correct.




Share This

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.