The Libertarian Party’s Identity Crisis

Two years ago I finally gave up on electoral politics, leaving the Libertarian Party after 14 years as an activist and occasional candidate. Each new crisis in the party’s ranks tends to confirm the wisdom of that decision. While I still have many friends in the party, and keep a close eye on its activities, these days I think of it more as an ongoing cautionary tale than as an organization that might (or even should) get turned around and pointed in “the right direction.”

Electoral politics is a competitive sport, a winner-take-all game in which score is kept not on the basis of accomplishing policy goals, but of winning elections. Sure, policy gets talked about a lot in the course of campaigns, but at the end of the day it’s vote totals and offices won or lost that everyone considers the metric of success.

The perception that “third” parties — the ones who aren’t Republicans or Democrats and therefore have little chance of winning elections — can afford to be more “pure” in terms of holding to their principles precisely because abandoning those principles would gain them nothing anyway, has some basis in reality, but not as much as you might think.

Every third party experiences continuous tension between its “purist” faction and those who urge it to run toward the siren song of popularity, choosing candidates whose positions drift from the party’s “plumb line,” but who are well-known, possess the credentials of prior political success, and so on.

When the so-called “pragmatic” faction prevails, we see something like 2008, when the Libertarians nominated former Republican congressman Bob Barr of Georgia for President of the United States.

In fairness to Barr, he had moved quite a bit in a libertarian direction since his days as author of the “Defense of Marriage Act,” his vote for the USA PATRIOT Act, his admission that he’d rather watch his mother die in pain than see her use medical marijuana, etc.

And in fairness to the Libertarian Party, they took six ballots to settle on Barr at their national convention precisely because many questioned how extensive and real his “conversion” on principles was.

Ultimately, however, they did nominate Barr, and in a matter of days he went from apologizing for his previous authoritarian tendencies to justifying them on television with whoppers like “states’ rights is the essence of libertarianism.” Huge message fail, and a “pragmatism” fail as well — Barr ended up polling fourth best among the ten Libertarian presidential outings since 1972, middle of the pack, knocking down only about 525,000 votes that November. His candidacy produced no real increase in party membership or popularity. The Libertarians sold their birthright, and didn’t even get a pot of (the right) message for it.

So here we are in 2012, and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson looks set to easily take the party’s presidential nomination next month in Las Vegas. While a cursory examination of his record marks him as likely less controversial among Libertarians than Barr, he still bring significant deviations from the party line to his candidacy.

He’s wishy-washy (even, per his recent interview with The Daily Caller, downright incoherent at times) on foreign policy, leaving the door open to “humanitarian” war and continued US meddling in the Middle East.

He supports a tax plan (the so-called “Fair” Tax) that doesn’t cut government revenues, doesn’t ameliorate redistributionist effects, creates a universal federal welfare entitlement, and would likely destroy what’s left of America’s auto manufacturing and homebuilding industries.

He proposes to accept federal government “matching funds” for his campaign, something that all prior Libertarian presidential candidates have eschewed as “welfare for politicians.”

As usual, the “pragmatic” mating call comes down to “he will get more votes and more publicity for us than we’ve ever had before.”

The first claim is highly questionable. Johnson switched tracks to the LP after failing to rise above low single digits in the Republican primaries, and hasn’t exactly set the political world on fire since that change.

The second claim raises the Barr-like question “is all publicity good publicity?” Why run a candidate to gain publicity for positions that contradict your party’s platform? It’s like Coke running commercials for Pepsi.

The “pragmatic” approach sets up the offer as “sacrifice a little principle for a lot of popularity,” but always seems to end up demanding a lot of the former while delivering very little of the latter.

At some point the Libertarian Party is going to have to choose between being libertarian and being a (conventional, electoral) political party. It can’t successfully be both. And it’s pretty obvious that its strength lies in its principles, not its political acumen.

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