In advance of Election Day, Liberty managing editor Andrew Ferguson spoke with new Libertarian Party chair Nicholas Sarwark about the state of the party, the prospects for 2014, and what can be done to fight for a future more free.
Liberty: How did you come to the Libertarian Party?
Nicholas Sarwark: I came to the LP, my father was actually an active libertarian in Phoenix when I was growing up, so I've been around libertarians and LP meetings since I was 10 or 12 in Maricopa County, and then I got active in the organized party in ’99 or 2000 in Maryland, was state chair there for a while. Started going to national conventions in 2000, moved out to Colorado in ’08, and fairly quickly ended up vice chair of the Colorado Party.
Liberty: And you all were pretty active there in the pot legalization campaign.
Sarwark: We were right in the thick of it. The proponents of the amendment came and talked to our executive board, we formally endorsed Amendment 64 — no other state political party did that — and then it won overwhelmingly. It got more votes than Obama did in Colorado.
That’s sort of the model for where I’d like to position the party going forward into 2016, where there are these issues that the voters have moved to a certain position, and the LP is at the position or has been at that position since the founding, and the older parties just won’t go there. They’re ignoring their base. Neither the Republicans or Democrats would come out in favor of marijuana legalization; up until Joe Biden’s conversion, even the Democrats wouldn’t come out in favor of marriage equality, even though the LP has been there since 1971. So we need to more aggressively position ourselves on these issues where you have us and the voters on one side, and the old party politicians who are stuck with failed policy positions on the other side.
The Drug War is a perfect issue where, while the old parties may have different tones, they both have a lot of sunk cost with the prison-industrial complex and the police unions and the whole infrastructure built around punishing people for what they put in their own bodies. And it’s just nuts. For too long the LP has played defense on issues like the Drug War, had internal movements that said, “Hey, let’s back off of this, it’s too extreme.” We need to tell people we hate extremism — we hate the extreme position that it’s OK to kick down somebody’s door and shoot their dog and burn their baby in the crib to try and stop them from putting something in their own body. That’s extreme.
I want to take a bit more pugnacious position for the party and make sure that going into the next election cycle, with Rand Paul gaining some traction, that it’s the LP who’s defining what libertarian means, not the Washington Post and Sen. Paul.
Liberty: Looking back at your acceptance statement after the party chair election, you said, If you were a member of the party and left in frustration at something we did or didn’t do, this is your home — sort of a homecoming announcement. What sort of that frustration have you seen or heard about in talking with people?
Sarwark: The biggest frustration that I received and ended up having was I was calling around to state chairs and delegates and people I knew and saying, “I’m going to run for chair, will you support me,” and a disconcertingly large number of them would say, “I think it’s great you’re running, but national hasn’t really done anything to speak of, and I don’t see any reason for me to engage with the national party.” That’s something I’ve heard, that a lot of state parties don’t feel that national provides any kind of added value. National exists to have a biannual convention, nominate presidential candidates, and help those states where the laws are draconian to get ballot access for president; they publish a newsletter, send membership cards, have a website, that’s all they do.
We need to tell people we hate extremism — we hate the extreme position that it’s OK to kick down somebody’s door and shoot their dog and burn their baby in the crib to stop them from putting something in their own body.
A lot of people have been very frustrated that the national party has been, not quite shrinking, but stagnant. And when you contrast that with states like Ohio or Indiana or Georgia or Texas or Colorado, states where there’s a lot of dynamism, and more and more candidates running, and a higher caliber of candidates running, earning more votes each time out, they look at that kind of activity and it’s been kind of a no-brainer to ignore national — it’s there, but who cares?
Liberty: How are you looking at the role of the chair — what are you hoping to do with it, and how might that be different from what your predecessors have done with the role?
Sarwark: The chair, in years past, has not really set a direction or had much vision. If you go back over the last 10 years, there haven’t been that many big initiatives, with the exception of establishing a permanent headquarters — five or six years ago Mark Hinkle started scouting out buildings and raising a building fund, and Geoff Neale picked up that torch, and we had our grand opening back in September, so now we’re one of only three parties who own their own headquarters. And if you go back to the founding, to David Nolan in the living room in Colorado Springs, he would talk about, we’ll never really elect anybody but what we can do is send a message, and maybe push public policy in our direction. We’re past that. We’re not going anywhere, we’re here to stay, we’ve got a mortgage, we’ve got an office, and generally speaking, within the state affiliates, the enthusiasm is in our favor.
But while the states are growing and active, the national party has had flat revenues, and flat membership numbers for about ten years. And it’s during a time when the next generation of voters is, according to polling, pretty much explicitly libertarian, and the state parties are moving forward. So for national to stay flat in that environment is actually a decline.
Liberty: I get the sense of a more libertarian sensibility in the generation that’s coming up now, but that to a lot of them the actual word “libertarian” carries some sort of a taint, or it’s been caricatured so successfully that many wouldn’t identify themselves as libertarian even if it matches their own conscience.
Sarwark: Right. And that’s one of the reasons why we have to rebuild. The idea that we’re either fringe or just some sort of weird branch of the Republican Party who votes along with them, we have to break that. And the only way to do it is to have strong messaging that differentiates us, that relentlessly focuses on what we will do and what we care bout and how it is different.
I draw a lot of my inspiration from the abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, and the idea that human freedom is the overarching principle that is above all others. Our cause is not only just, but of sufficient import that we need to be passionate, we need to be aggressive, we need to be respectful, but also make it clear that we’re not comfortable with leftovers, or only being an option if there’s no one else on the ballot. We’re definitely not comfortable allowing Republicans or non-libertarians to define what “libertarian” means, which happens on the right and the left: you have Rand Paul being referred to as a libertarian while he’s still supporting foreign intervention and a number of other things, but you also have the New York Times or Washington Post writing about this liberal-libertarian cooperation in Congress, but all the supposed cooperation are on completely anti-libertarian policies.
For the national party to stay flat when the next generation of voters is pretty explicitly libertarian is actually a decline.
So it’s a word that we don’t own anymore and we need to show people that we’re serious about showing up for elections and presenting options and a message that is both distinctive and, frankly, sensible. We’ve bought into the bullshit that the major parites have hit us with for so long that we’re somehow the extremists. Anyone who wants to control your life is the extremist. We’re the ones who want you to control your own life. And we need to hit them with that.
Liberty: So in terms of actually reaching out to generations of college students or other young voters who have affinities with libertarian ideals, what sort of outreach will reach them?
Sarwark: We have to lead by example. We are a party for a newer generation — I’m not quite 35 yet, and I’m the national chair. If you look at our candidates, we skew younger. So we show them that if you want a party that is not mean or bigoted, but also isn’t going to try and take your money and give it to old people, then the LP is for you.
That’s what the Pew study and the Reason study have shown about millennials: they’re definitely liberal with regard to social issues like marriage equality or marijuana legalization or racial issues, but when they are polled and asked about government and welfare programs, they turn into super fiscal conservatives. They’re behind the Democrats on being nice to people, but not on redistributing wealth or any of the Great Society programs. And they’re behind the Republicans on a relatively free market and lower taxation, but they just think they’re mean, and so they won’t associate with them. We’re going into a generation where, no matter how good your policy prescriptions are, if you don’t come across as caring and sensitive, you will not win. We can seize on that and — not to take anything away from 2014 and 2016 as elections we will contest, and contest more strongly than we have before — but we can look at ten years out, where we become the second party in a number of states where things are lopsided and one of the old parties has become moribund, and we’re on the ballot in all 50 states and people want our presidential nomination, instead of us having to hunt for people.
Liberty: It’s been fun watching Hillary Clinton try to reposition herself as a real human being who actually cares and is sensitive to anything whatsoever.
Liberty: So you’re recruiting candidates then, not only for the executive role but also for the downticket elections, who can come off as contribute some media savvy to their candidacy?
Sarwark: We can set the tone from the top, what our priorities are and what kind of message we send, about what libertarians are and what they do. I’m not trying to do any kind of purity purge, or kick candidates out because they’re heterodox on certain issues, but it will be clear over the next couple of years what the libertarian position is on issues. And if there are candidates who deviate, then they will explain how they are different from the rest of the party. The party will not compromise our positions in order to make the candidates more comfortable.
It’s going to be easier and better for candidates who are able to present that kind, caring, compassionate yet completely devoted to freedom message than in the past, we had libertarians who had taken extreme positions for philosophy’s stake, without being able to communicate the human element to those policies. And that’s not what we’re going to do.
The fiscal issues are not winners for us as a party. The Republicans will lie about cutting taxes all day long, and the people who are going to believe those lies are going to pull the lever for Republicans.
We’ve been coming up into this term focused on the idea that human progress comes from cooperation and the free exchange of ideas, and it’s government that holds us back. So our candidates are focused on making concrete proposals where they can say, “If elected, I will cut these programs and thereby increase your freedom.” Whether it’s reducing military spending by 60% or sponsoring legislation to eliminate the Department of Education, we’ll be making testable campaign promises. This flips on its head the approach of old-party candidates who are always afraid there’ll be a hot mic at a fundraiser, and they’ll get caught out saying they’ll do something and then not do it. We’re very purposefully going out and publicly saying, “If elected I will do this thing,” and then going to the old-party candidates and saying, what’s he promising you? Nothing, just empty platitudes. And that’s where we show the voters that if they want something done to actually make their life better, then they need to vote Libertarian.
Liberty: I’ve seen this sort of playbook for dismissing libertarians, there comes a point where — we had the election in Virginia last year, where Robert Sarvis actually made some inroads against the most loathsome pair of candidates you’re likely to run across . . .
Sarwark: Are you’re saying there’s negatives to Cuccinelli and McAuliffe? To an election between a party hack and a bigot?
Liberty: There was this weird moment where all of a sudden, there was this campaign to somehow debunk Sarvis by showing him up as inadequately schooled in Austrian economic theory or other relative obscurities, and all these people came out of the woodwork to say, actually Cuccinelli is the better candidate for libertarians. They respected libertarianism for the amount of time it took to steal it back again.
Sarwark: There’s nothing new under the sun. This is straight out of Rothbard — the whole idea that you can get in bed with the social conservatives because if you have enough money, it doesn’t matter what kind of laws they try to have about what you can do in your social life. And the idea that somehow libertarians are going to turn into such savvy political players that we’ll be able to cut deals right and left in order to hold the Republicans hostage and get something from them.
If you think that yelling at children to make a political point is effective, there’s a really cool picture I have for you from the civil rights era. You’re just an asshole.
That’s been tried and it hasn’t worked. It wouldn’t have worked in Virginia, even with a very bright, photogenic traditional nuclear family candidate who is able to talk to people as people, be smart on policy, and be articulate about those areas in which he deviated from orthodox libertarianism. At the end of the day, he did very well, and he put the lie to this idea that we only steal from Republicans. It was 2-to-1 McAuliffe voters who were voting for Sarvis versus ones for Cuccinelli. No one wants to believe that data because it goes against the notions that they’ve had for decades, but the truth is that where we are positioned in this political climate, we will probably end up taking more voters who would have leaned Democrat because of our support for social issues.
And frankly, the fiscal issues are not winners for us as a party. The Republicans will lie about cutting taxes all day long, and the people who are going to believe those lies are going to pull the lever for Republicans. While we are in fact more committed to fiscal conservatism than any Republican I’ve seen in my lifetime, we don’t need to lead with that. We need to lead with stuff that distinguishes us and creates that unique selling proposition for who libertarians are, and how we are different. We really support freedom, all the time; all your freedoms, all the time, and we don’t make you pick what is important to you. One of the things that has worked well for activists in Massachusetts is marching in the Pride Parade with a big banner that says “Freedom to Marry and Freedom to Carry Since 1971” — we don’t make you pick between your guns and who you love, or between keeping more of your paycheck and whether or not you want to smoke weed at the end of the day. These are not choices you have to make. And the old parties have been saying you have to pick which ones are more important to you? They’re lying.
Liberty: In terms of reaching out to groups with some affinities to the libertarian platform, and then some obvious very strong opposition as well, is it possible to reach out to them? To build issue-based partnerships with, for instance, the Tea Party people in border states, or socialist-leaning Drug War abolitionists in other states?
Sarwark: Drug war abolitionists, yes. Tea Party people in border states, probably not, because frankly they have been infected with this nativist mentality: shut ’em all down, deport ’em, let’s go yell at little kids on school buses. I’m not trying to recruit people like that. If you think that yelling at children to make a political point is effective, there’s a really cool picture I have for you from the civil rights era. You’re just an asshole.
So those are not my voters. But organizations like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, privacy orgs to stop NSA surveillance — we were the only political party to sign onto the coalition letter calling on President Obama to veto the FISA Amendments Act. No other political party has the stones to say it’s not OK for your government to spy on you, because they’re all tied up into the status quo. That’s who lobbies them, that’s who pays their bills. It’ll be a lot easier to move forward on the personal liberties.
The fiscal side gets real tricky, because probably the biggest piece of corporate welfare to come down the pike, the Export-Import Bank, Republicans are all over that. They don’t care to be the party of capitalism, they care to be the party of doling out favors and sweetheart deals, and having a revolving door whereby the regulators become the lobbyists and you can’t tell your players without a program. The places that we’re going to have difficulty making inroads are Chambers of Commerce, and any sort of lefty-leaning group that depends on wealth transfer programs or high taxation for its continued existence.
What I’m looking at is — not to use the term in its historical sense, but in the root definition — a more populist libertarianism. We’re focused on people, normal people, letting them pursue happiness in whatever way they want to, getting the government out of the way.
Demographically, the Republicans are dead. They’re like a gutshot guy just walking around, thinking they’ll be OK, but they’re going to bleed out, and it won’t be that long.
I think there are opportunities to build up more bridges, produce more cooperation, and over these next two years I’ll seek those out, up to and including repairing that bridge that got burnt down between the LP and Cato in 1984. I was 5 years old at the time, so whatever problem they had at that point, that’s done. I have some optimism for that endeavor, given that Ed Crane’s PAC helped out Sarvis’ campaign. So it’s not like they’re philosophically opposed to supporting Libertarians, it’s just that the national Libertarian Party had a trust deficit with its members and supporters, whereby they don’t believe that we do anything or that we have any use. There are a lot of people who are not going to send me any checks unless or until I can show them results, and that’s what I aim to do.
Liberty: We talked about Sarvis — are there any other up-and-comers to keep an eye on in other states?
Sarwark: There’s a lot of really good people running right now. John Buckley’s running for Senate in West Virginia, formerly elected to state house as a Republican, openly gay, very articulate. Our candidate for governor in Iowa, Dr. Lee Hieb, she’s an orthopedic surgeon running a very professional campaign. There’s some really good candidates coming out of Ohio. Julie Fox is running for comptroller in Illinois against some pretty bad odds.
Liberty: They could use some auditing there, not sure if they’re willing to follow through on it though.
Sarwark: She does have to drum on that in her campaign — you could elect an auditor who’s actually a CPA — but clearly their government runs so well without having actual financial people at the helm.
We’ve got a really strong candidate here at the congressional level in my district in Colorado, Jess Loban: a wounded Air Force vet, four kids, salt-of-the-earth guy, frightened the Republicans sufficiently that they sent former gubernatorial candidates to try to convince him to drop out of the race in exchange for a Republican nomination in 2016 — which has just energized him. We are at that tipping point as a party where we’re past ridicule, and we’re moving into fear and fighting. The Republicans in Ohio are passing laws specifically to prevent us from being on the ballot, Republicans in Colorado are either surreptitiously asking over lunch for our candidates to drop out, or in the case of one state house race, a sitting state house member came to ask us not to run a Libertarian candidate in his district and convince us of how libertarian he was, really. They’re reaching out to us now. And they’re desperate. Because the truth is, demographically, the Republicans are dead. They’re like a gutshot guy just walking around, thinking they’ll be OK, but they’re going to bleed out, and it won’t be that long. And they’re desperately afraid of us showing just how bankrupt their policy positions have been when they’re given the keys of government.
What I’m looking at is — not to use the term in its historical sense, but in the root definition — a more populist libertarianism.
The other candidate I should mention — Florida is running an incredibly strong ticket, the gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie went and dared people to arrest him at debates, driving around without a license to fight REAL ID laws, and taking stuff to court. Then over in Pinellas County, Lucas Overby is running a very strong campaign in a two-way race against a sitting Republican, David Jolly, who became just the eighth sitting Republican congressman to come out in favor of marriage equality, a flip-flop that happened less than 90 days into the race. The frustration is then that the media doesn’t acknowledge that the only reason he came out in favor of marriage equality is because he was running against a strong libertarian, who’s another photogenic, kind, compassionate, blue-collar guy who is just going out and showing people that we care more about them than the old parties do, and we want them to live their lives. That’s a message that’s resonating sufficiently that they’re fighting us now.
So I don’t know where the next up-and-comer will emerge, but we’re getting a much better crop of candidates — and with guys like Dan Feliciano in the governor’s race in Vermont, we’re seeing more diversity as well. The states are where the action is, and that’s what I said when I was seeking the nomination for chair: “I want you to elect me to be the least important member of the Libertarian Party.” Because all the action is the candidates running in the local elections, and the state officials who are building up the grassroots. National should set a tone and direction, but without strong state affiliates then there’s nothing.
Liberty: Looking to 2016, do you think we’ll see Gary Johnson or another candidate like him running again, or would you look more to someone who would be a purer LP flag-carrier?
Sarwark: From what I saw of the delegates in 2012 in Vegas, I don’t think the appetite is there for a pure flag-carrier so long as there’s someone with more traditional candidate qualities in the field. Now, a lot can change between now and Orlando in 2016, so I hate to predict. I see Gary Johnson potentially running for the nomination — [note: Johnson has since confirmed that he will seek the LP nomination in 2016] — but I’m heartened by the fact that we’re beginning to see something we’ve never seen in the Party, ever: candidates capable of rising up from inside the Libertarian farm team to seek that nomination. We had Harry Browne before who came out of publishing, we’ve had local elected officials seek the nomination, we’ve had famous activists seek the nomination, we’ve had former Republicans seek it (and maybe forget they had changed party). But we haven’t had a traditional homegrown candidate, with the advantages of being both a hardcore libertarian and having the experience of running a large-scale national campaign.
Liberty: Orlando is an interesting site for 2016. Is it possible to go into a bulwark red state, at least in recent years, and into a city that is one of the more Republican in America, and dig into that base there?
Sarwark: It’s not as hard as it could be, because they’re terrible. So I think Florida is going to be a great place. The party is energized there, and I think the Republicans have taken it for granted for so long that locally I think we’ll do well. Floridians are just tired of that state control.
Liberty: Where would you like to see things as of that 2016 Convention? What would be a really solid couple years of work heading into that?
Sarwark: Where we’re getting frequent media mentions, where they’re coming to us for comment, when they’re not studiously avoiding mentioning our candidates’ names, where millennials with fiscally conservative and socially liberal ideals identify as libertarian. When it becomes the brand, and we position ourselves as clearly different from Sen. Paul — we show people this is where we’re the same, this is where we’re different; he’s a very good Republican, but he is still a Republican, and that carries baggage. And positioning ourselves to get those voters if and when Sen. Paul is beaten back by the Republican machine, much like his father was. The idea that you can fix the GOP from the inside is akin to suggesting that a few good cashiers and line cooks could, with enough motivation, turn McDonald’s into a vegan restaurant. Not going to happen. So if we have significant more name recognition and strong state affiliates who are running good candidates then we’re kind of actively engaged in politics in a way we haven’t been, and that will set us up for 2016 and a well-attended convention launching into a better campaign than we’ve run in the past.
Liberty: Thanks very much for your time, and good luck in the coming elections!