Libertarianism's Extreme Makeover


  This kind of talk seems to surface after every big election, when some Libertarians -- usually those who had unrealistic expectations going in -- are discouraged by the results. Not understanding what we've done right and how the party has flourished and grown to its present level where so many alternative parties have failed, they jump to the conclusion that the LP needs to be more pragmatic and more like the establishment parties. It's a somewhat understandable attitude, but a mistaken one. More comments follow...

Dear Everyone;

The article about re-formatting the Libertarian Party speaks to the truth.

It also means nominating a Presidential candidate who can raise and spend millions. As former San Francisco now deceased member of Congress Phil Burton once said publicly; "Money is the mothers milk of politics."

  A political party should not be for sale. Sure, money can help win an election battle in the short term. But if you sacrifice principle to attract money, you've lost the war. Do you think that the LP could just put its principles on the shelf until it had won a few high-profile elections and was competing with the Republicans and Democrats, and then take them down and dust them off and have them be good as new? Hardly. The more power an organization wields, the harder it is to stay principled. If we discard them in order to go after power more efficiently, we won't get them back.

You can nominate a Presidential candidate who articulates the party line but if he doesn't have any money forget about it. The message will never get across. While Michael Badnarik raised and spent a million that's how much either of them other two jokes would spend on just one ad!

Unless you have a party which is prepared to raise and spend tens of millions forget the presidential race and getting on every ballot in every state. 300,000 votes out of 115 million cast is a joke.

  It's not a joke. That's insulting to a whole bunch of hard-working people who don't deserve it. We did better than all but one alternative candidate (Nader) and came close to beating him, despite receiving much less media coverage. Sure, we'd all like Michael Badnarik to have gotten a lot more votes. Does that mean that his running was a joke, or a waste of time? Hardly.

Concentrate on local offices and forget the Big Bust unless you have a candidate who can raise and spend tens of millions and a party apparatus that can do likewise.

  We had a number of local candidates here in San Francisco, Ron. But you're not talking about them. You're talking about presidential politics. Most people are no different. They care a lot more about the race for president than the race for Congress or School Board. Especially non-political people, many of whom don't even have a clue what the School Board does. I know -- I've fielded that question a number of times over the past few months. A presidential campaign, even one that only gets 1/2 a percent of the vote, attracts attention and has a visibility in the media that local campaigns cannot match, even when you have strong local candidates running. Many current Libertarians have found out about the party through our presidential candidates.

As far as reaching out to new group segments by altering the Libertarian message to reflect a groups cultural values - and how the Libertarian message does reflect those values. What do you think the Reps and Dems have been doing all along? Focused focus groups focused around a focal point.

It's time for a sea change in how the Libertarian Party presents itself and its message.

  More libertarians actually getting active at the local level and doing the necessary work would make a lot more of a difference. Too many libertarians are standing on the sidelines complaining, whether out of pique that everyone in the party isn't jumping up to follow *their* grand strategic plan, or simply using the LP's imperfection as an excuse not to get more involved in fighting for liberty.

  See further comments interspersed with the essay below...

Ron Getty
SF Libertarian

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This is a good one ScottÖ.Iím sending to our local list.

Best regards,

Michael Denny

Libertarian Party of San Francisco

(415) 986-7677 x123

From:Scott Brown []
Sent: Friday, November 12, 2004 1:11 PM
To: Scott Brown
Subject: Try this one (Modified by Scott Brown)

Libertarianism's Extreme Makeover
By Max Borders

The Libertarian Party is politically moribund. Most libertarians don't even vote for the Libertarian Party, much less affiliate with it. Why? Because we have a pragmatic streak that we just can't shake.

  I wouldn't call it a pragmatic streak. As the author notes, you'll have a greater impact on politics by calling in to a radio show than by voting. Voting is not particularly pragmatic; it's an act of faith, a statement of allegiance.

And that comes simply from being American. It's in our bones. Some of us vote Republican because we care about defense. Others vote Democrat because we're afraid Crusaders will overrun the barricades between church and state. In either case, we hold our noses and go to the polls just to feel some civic connection with all those folks in our community -- even though we know they are wrong, and are voting for all the wrong reasons.

  Now I suspect that is closer to the heart of the matter. Being a Libertarian can feel lonely. People can't stand feeling lonely, they want more sense of civic connection, so they vote the way that more of their neighbors are voting so that they'll feel more a part of things.

Most libertarians understand the profoundly irrational aspect of voting -- i.e. that you'll have a greater effect on politics if you call in to a radio show and say something clever instead of going to the polls. You have a better chance running into Michael Badnarik at the Piggly Wiggly than having your vote be the deciding factor in an election. In the meantime, the teeming hordes follow their baser instincts all the way to the church basement and vote their "consciences." But aside from the Constitution and the Courts, democracy is the only game in town.

Thus, things can't get any lower for many libertarians. And that's why if we're going to keep trying to enter politics through the front door, we have to prepare to change.

  That's a non-sequitur. Your vote has no greater an impact if you vote for a Democrat or Republican than if you vote Libertarian. Slightly less, actually. If there is a need for the LP to change -- and there certainly *is* a need for change, just not of the kind advocated in this article -- the fears of mainstream voters and the mathematics of voting do not make the case for it.

Playing the Game

Libertarians must get it together. That's going to mean shifting the mindset, overhauling the current LP, and spending lots of money.

  Where is the money going to come from, and who's going to give money who isn't giving it now, and what's going to motivate them to do so? Those obvious questions are left unanswered.

If we're going to have an effect on electoral politics, we're going to have to get some people into office.

  We have some people in office. Over 600, which is more than all the other alternative parties in the U.S. combined.

Now, for the immediate term, that may mean running as a D or an R and acting like Ron Paul -- or even supporting a Schwarzenegger.

  That certainly isn't going to help the LP grow.

But the other option is to begin transforming the LP inside and out. But how do we do that?

  We don't do it by running as Democrats or Republicans, or by voting for Schwarzenegger.

First we need to define ourselves better. Some people think libertarians are the party of Lyndon LaRouche. (I kid you not.) Keep it simple. At the moment, our elevator pitch sounds like the Bill of Rights.

  Of course it's good to be able to deliver our ideas in pithy sound bites when the occasion requires it. No mystery or controversy there. But I see no evidence that people correctly understand what other alternative parties stand for, and are just confused about the LP. If that were true, then this criticism might have greater validity.

There's nothing wrong with the Constitution, but sadly, getting people on board requires lowering ourselves to the level of vacuous talk employed by our bigger, better bipartisan counterparts. That means we need a simple, visceral message that works. Then, and only then, will we start to see some interest from the masses.

  There are better ways and worse ways of teaching liberty, but I'm hardly convinced there is *a* simple way that *works* while all other methods, by implication, do not. The Democrats and Republicans don't have simple, visceral messages. They appeal to many different people for many different reasons. Ask people why they vote for one party or the other and you'll hear tons of different answers.

They're libertarian and they don't even know it. How many times have you heard someone describe him-or-herself as "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative?"

  Many people do fit this description, but I rarely hear them use it to describe themselves. Libertarians are the ones who usually use the description. I often use it myself when I need a quick explanation of where Libertarians are coming from.

Many of these are the people who either hold their noses at the polls, or simply don't bother. They are disenfranchised by the two-party system and the "Party of Principle" just isn't reaching them. The first order of business should be to tap this political market. But how do you get these libertarians-who-don't-know-it interested? Indeed, how do you steal them from the major parties?

A Purple Brand and an Unyielding Media Blitz

From the nominated candidates, to the branding, to the talking points. Everything visible about the current LP (and the Movement) has to change -- maybe even the name.

  Then again, maybe not. The author certainly hasn't laid out any better plan -- or more pragmatically, explained how he's going to get all the Libertarians to follow his concept.

Consider the stereotypes of utopians and pot-smokers who throw around terms like "individual rights," "coercion," and "statism" like it came from the Randian Scriptures. Rectitude isn't worth a dime when it just smells funny to people.

  Instead of attacking your allies in print for daring to dream, for using words that mean things, for being right, subtly reinforcing the very stereotypes you supposedly find troublesome, explain the ideas to the public in a way that doesn't "smell funny" without betraying them in the process. The sentences above are worse than useless, they're destructive.

One approach might be to tap into this popular blue-red dichotomy. Start coloring everything LP purple. Make it obvious that we're the best of both parties. Take the top Libertarian talking points from the Rs and the Ds and merge them to make the LP talking points. Then avoid the rest like the plague.

  Run away from content, run away from ideas. Put them on the shelf, they'll be there later when we need them. No, they won't.

Who are we? The best way to tell the world about us is through good ole advertising -- name your medium. (Midterm elections might be a good time to start experimenting.)

  There's a place for advertising, especially in a national campaign, but it should not be the main focus of the party's outreach.

How about this for a commercial?: split screen, red and blue. On the red side you see the words low taxesÖ securityÖ fiscal responsibilityÖparental choice in educationÖOne the blue side you see civil libertiesÖ freedom to live my life my wayÖa woman's right to chooseÖThe two sides merge into a large, purple screen. The New Libertarian PartyÖ Americais deserves the best of both.Or some such. TV, Radio, Newspaper, Internet. Again, defining ourselves is the first step. And we're going to have to spend money doing it.

  Except for the "New Libertarian Party" part, this red/blue/purple ad is the only good idea I've read in this essay so far.

From Principles to Pragmatics

  From Libertarian to Demopublican.

"The Party of Principle."

Unless you just put down the Fountainhead, reading that line just made your bile duct secrete.

  Wrong. "The Party of Pragmatism" -- now that would make my bile duct secrete. Of course the pragmatists would never dream of using a slogan like "The Party of Pragmatism" -- even they know that the concept stinks to high heaven once you name it as such. That's why they talk instead about the need to manipulate people (see below).

Most people think their party is the party of principle.

  Oh? I don't see any evidence of that.

The LP should get rid of that slogan, and fast. That doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater, it simply means you think strategically about how to reach out to people. It means being realistic. Incremental. Manipulative, even.

  Of course throwing the baby out with the bathwater is exactly what he's proposing. The prescription offered earlier in this essay was to take the best of the Democrats' and Republicans' offerings and "avoid the rest like the plague."

For example: "support the repeal of all taxation." Now, a repeal of taxation implies there should be no taxes at all, which means no state at all (as there would be no revenue stream for a state to exist). What else are we to infer? Unless you're trying to woo the bloggers at, you might consider moderating both the message and the views. Instead, how about "do away with the income tax" or "support a national sales tax?" Then you can talk about how we could retire the IRS and save a lot of money. Everybody hates the IRS. Everybody likes money saved. Nobody likes anarchy, even if it's coupled with a warm and fuzzy term like "capitalism."

  Seeing "capitalism" as a warm and fuzzy term is a sign of being out of touch. The term is necessary perhaps, but hardly warm or fuzzy. It's at least as misunderstood as "anarchy," and even more negatively perceived in many places.

Alternatively, more like this (from the LP site) would be good:

"Recognizing that abortion is a very sensitive issue and that people, including libertarians, can hold good-faith views on both sides, we believe the government should be kept out of the question."

  It's one of the worst examples of language in the platform. It's politician-speak. You can't tell what the party's position on abortion is from reading it. Does "keeping government out of the question" mean that government shouldn't stop people from blockading clinics? Does it mean that abortions should be allowed right up to the moment of birth, for any reason whatsoever? Who knows?

And most importantly, throw most of the Jeffersonian claptrap to the dogs. The language of the layman voter is a far cry from what we libertarians are used to spouting. And with a change in language, a change in tone.

  When did Jefferson's ideas become claptrap?

Escaping the Echo Chamber

Adopt an outreach mission. There is something about our cutting logic, our cynicism, and our moral indignation that creates a ten-foot radial barrier around most of us. (And you thought it was the garlic you had for lunch.) Then when we do find each other, we cluster -- and are subsequently confused for the Dungeons and Dragons Club. To spread the gospel, it's going to take innovative ways of engaging with other groups -- because, like I said, there are hoards of these less reflective libertarians out there just waiting to be marshaled.

  This criticism is somewhat valid, but it's hardly a novel observation -- from what I've seen, people in the movement tend to be well aware that many of us are bookish introverts, and that we need to do better outreach.

And razor-sharp argumentation alone is not going to cut it. Instead we should use our keen intellects to make them wonder -- to pull them into the discourse. Finding common premises of agreement is a good place to start, as this helps to establish trust. But most importantly, we should learn to leave our egos at home. And this may take some practice, because let's face it: most libertarians are used to being combative rather than compelling.

  It may also take some practice for Libertarians to stop putting down other Libertarians.

We might even try talking like THEM. The Left, for example, has done a brilliant job both of co-opting our vocabulary and of making themselves seem innocuous -- caring even. Consider their favorite nomenclature: "freedom," "democracy," "toleration," "diversity," and "peace." If you're in a conversation with a Lefty, instead of saying: "how dare you people think you can expropriate -- by force -- my hard-earned property for your pet causes?" Try something like: "I look forward to the day when we are all free and prosperous enough to get back to the grassroots, so we can each support the causes that are most important to us as individuals." In any case, do away with any language that could come across as the libertarian equivalent of "because it's right here in the Bible!"

  I agree with this, though again it's hardly a new idea.

Adopt a Communication Strategy

This leads me to the need for a communications strategy. Fred Smith -- one of the most beloved and bombastic members of the libertarian movement -- has co-authored a dynamite little book called A Field Guide for Effective Communication. Buy it. Set it by the bedside or in the bathroom. Memorize it. Internalize it. It has much of the basics you'll need for winningintellectual sympathy (to borrow a phrase from Michael Polanyi). Whether you're in the LP or have aspirations for it, a communications strategy is vital.

Part of what you'll get from the Field Guide is an overview of basic cultural values borrowed from the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. The idea is that people respond to messages in different ways based on their fundamental cultural predilections to one of four basic categories: egalitarian, hierarchical, individualist, and fatalist. Thus, when reaching out to different audiences, our priority should be to try and determine their motivations, in order better to tailor our messages...

Messages for egalitarians (fairness):
"Because opportunity for all comes in equal freedom."

Messages for hierarchists (order, security):
"Protecting citizenship, community, and personal responsibility."

  "Yes!" I can hear the "hierarchist" responding. "We need to protect citizenship from all these illegal aliens, and protect our community from drugs and prostitution!"

Messages for individualists (freedom):
"Is there an entrepreneur in you?"

Messages for fatalists ("cant fight city hall"):
"Freedom needs leaders. Are you ready to answer the call?"

Memetics, Mental Models and Mottos

The Blogosphere is doing a great job of disseminating some of the movement's best ideas. If nothing else, we libertarians have mobilized online. Another good way to spread our memes is to find thought leaders. There are groups out there doing just that and we can always use more.

But what is it that we want to spread? Mental models, maybe. The basic libertarian mental model is something like "no one, including the government, should be allowed to initiate the use of force -- except in self defense." Hmm. Society's immune system will swallow up that virus pretty easily. How can we repackage that meme for the people? How about: "True freedom brings out the best in all of us." If not that, then something else. When it starts working, we'll know it.

E PluribusUnum

In the course of writing this, I realized that I have moved back and forth between reference to the LP and reference to the Movement as a whole. Ultimately, I guess I'm hoping for change in both. Real change in the LP will make the party more palatable to both the libertarian cynics and the too-cool-for-school crowd (not to mention those outside the Movement).

  Yes, but it depends what kind of change.

On the other hand, it's going to take some soul-searching by everyone in the broader movement -- to become more community-focused, less insular, and more open to compromise.

  I'll go with two out of three. And tactical compromise here and there is fine, but no compromise on principles.

I'm aware of the difficulties here. Most libertarians cling to their principled worldview like NRA members cling to their assault rifles, i.e. -- "you'll have to pry them from my cold, dead fingers." But that's the very attitude that will keep us on the margins.

  Until society moves in the direction of the margin. The author needs to read L. Neil Smith's "Lever Action" essay.

If we are not prepared -- superficially at least -- to attenuate our message and open our minds, we can expect to remain on the marginsÖ Grumbling in our esoteric journals. Applauding at our incestuous conferences. And blogging ourselves into the comfortable numbness of self-satisfaction. Instead, we must do one of the toughest things for rugged individualists to do. We must unite.

  The most active libertarians are relatively united in a principled approach, which is not the approach favored by the author. If he wants the movement to be more united, he needs to get with the program.

Fight the power!
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