David Nolan: An Appreciation

The great project of David Nolan’s public life was bringing libertarians together, and bring them together he did — ultimately, in one way or another, by the millions.

He was not the first person to propose a bi-dimensional system of political taxonomy to replace the traditional “left-right” spectrum, but his 1971 implementation of such a system, the “Nolan chart,” is generally recognized as a breakthrough. As of 2008, Advocates for Self-Government had introduced 11.5 million people to the “Nolan Chart” through the World’s Smallest Political Quiz online (more than 4 million of whom located themselves in the “libertarian” quadrant of the chart), and countless millions more on the ground through “Operation Politically Homeless.”

Also in 1971, he left the Republican Party and publicly called for formation of a Libertarian Party, which he helped organize later that year.

Its first presidential ticket — John Hospers and Tonie Nathan — garnered the support of a “faithless” Nixon elector in 1972, making Nathan the first woman to receive an electoral vote, 12 years before Geraldine Ferraro appeared on the Democratic Party’s ballot line. That faithless elector, Roger MacBride, became the party’s 1976 presidential candidate. The 1980 nominee, Ed Clark, polled more than 900,000 votes running against Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and John Anderson. In the 2010 general election, more than a million voters pulled the lever for one or more LP candidates for Congress.

While anarchists and “left” libertarians tend toward a negative view of electoral politics, and therefore of the Libertarian Party as such, few among us would deny the LP’s value as a gateway leading from politics to anti-politics. Many of us, myself included, passed through that portal and tarried awhile, on our way from the “major” parties to the revolutionary market anarchist movement.

And, lest it be missed or forgotten, let me point out that with Nolan “libertarian politics” was always far more about the “libertarian” than the “politics.” In proposing formation of the LP, he listed six objectives, all concerned with building and growing a libertarian movement with a sense of its own identity. Only in the final sentence of his call, seemingly as an afterthought, did he mention that “finally, there is always the possibility that we might actually get some libertarians elected.”

From the LP’s beginnings to his own end, David Nolan urged his party to maintain a distinctively libertarian identity and to treat elections as opportunities to educate and propagandize, not as ends in themselves.

Last weekend, meeting in New Orleans, the Libertarian National Committee considered a resolution affirming the party’s commitment to “the libertarian principles of self-ownership and non-aggression.”

David Nolan wrote that resolution and requested its placement on the agenda. He missed the meeting, citing illness.

As his fellow LNC members debated and ultimately passed his resolution, they were unaware that he had died mere hours before, two days short of his 67th birthday.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and will be missed by many.

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