Notes on the Libertarian Party Convention
At the Mises Institute, we don't support particular candidates for office or legislative policy proposals. We're primarily interested in ideas and education. And many of our most ardent supporters don't believe in voting or political activism at all (although no less than Walter Block does). But like Murray Rothbard, we of course maintain a "rooting interest" in seeing the most libertarian (i.e least statist) candidates prevail. And I've recently argued for "issue libertarianism over movement libertarianism, in the face of a very tough political landscape for third parties.
Rothbard, who helped Lew Rockwell create the Institute, was a Libertarian Party stalwart for many years: speaking at conventions, writing planks for the platform, suggesting tactics, and generally urging the Party to move in a more hardcore direction. He loved the unruly nature of the LP and its infighting, just as he loved the intrigue and plot twists behind Republican and Democrat races — races he followed avidly and handicapped accurately. Lew himself was necessarily involved with the LP in 1988, helping Ron Paul secure the nomination after a surprising fight from the great (but not very libertarian) Lakota activist Russell Means. And many associates and fellow-travelers of the Institute, like the anti-war writer Justin Raimondo, have been deeply involved with the LP over the years.
This weekend's Libertarian Party national convention showed many of the same schisms that have marked the LP throughout its roughly 40 years of existence. The question of whether to lead with right-flavored policies (low taxes, fiscal constraint, small government) or left-flavored policies (egalitarianism, drugs & victimless crimes, gay marriage, etc.) once again revealed itself as the central tactical issue. The fundamental question, as always, was characterized as one of purity vs. electability. Yet it remains a puzzle why principled libertarian populism, on issues where the public mood most closely matches the party platform, is so unthinkable. Winning soundbites don't have to be overtly intellectual, provided they are correct: think "End the Fed" or "Get Out of the Middle East." And by the way, the candidates should be taken to task for not making the Fed a more prominent campaign issue given the deep unpopularity of central bankers among all voters.
Former governor Gary Johnson managed to win the nomination handily, despite coming into the convention with no momentum and facing a loud #neverJohnson contingent. His curious choice of another former governor in William Weld, the distinctly illibertarian darling of Beltway Republicans in the 80s and 90s, now makes sense — the establishment want to their man to oversee things and temper the LP's excesses. But to overcome the "two old white men" obstacle, they will both need to work overtime to establish their social justice warrior bona fides. And Johnson himself doesn't seem very libertarian at all, either when speaking or in his stated policy beliefs (e.g. gay cake baking, freedom of association, even Hiroshima!). His Achilles heel will be the perception that he represents libertarian-lite, driving away many libertarian votes as a result. But he is unquestionably the choice of DC think tankdom, and is rumored to be in line for Koch organization money. Whether Weld will be an asset or liability, and whether leading with a milquetoast "Fair Tax" proposal is wise, remain to be seen. But from a purely activist perspective, Johnson/Weld appears to represent the biggest opportunity to get votes. Winning 5 or 10% of the popular vote will not be easy, and we should not forget that Ross Perot received an astonishing 19% of the popular vote in 1992-- and then US voters returned quietly to their two-party cellblock four years later.
Austin Petersen, who appeared to be the beneficiary of the anti-Johnson momentum going into the convention, ended up receiving only about half the votes of the nominee. He was the most right-wing candidate, arguing against abortion and running far to the interventionist right on foreign policy. He also created controversy with his abrasive personality and personal attacks on some libertarian celebrities. Petersen's surprisingly poor showing demonstrates that any right wing of the LP right wing has fully been defeated in favor of left/SJW causes (where many in the party once advocated neutrality). There will be no Tea Party or ex-Cruz voters punching a Petersen-led LP ticket.
John McAfee, the most interesting person in the race, ran what turned out to be a highly ephemeral campaign featuring some beautiful campaign videos created by his running mate Judd Weiss. He refreshingly admitted to "not having read anything since college," and professed not to have heard of Mises and Rothbard. His focus on tech and cyber issues theoretically should have been attractive to millennials, but he failed to convince the old-guard activists at the convention (who argued that the media opportunities in a Trump/Clinton year made it unwise to nominate a loose cannon with personal baggage).
What none of the candidates did, however was offer up a real alternative to government as we know it. This year presents a golden opportunity to make the case for a society that is not organized around politics or Washington DC, but around property, markets, and civil society. When LP candidates talk about equality and gay rights, conservatives simply dismiss them as liberals. When candidates talk about cutting taxes, liberals dismiss them as right wingers. But a truly anti-DC, anti-war, and anti-Fed party, one that promotes decentralization and local control as the antidotes to culture wars, could make great strides in a shifting political world. First the Party of Principle needs to decide if it wants to be SJW-lite and GOP-lite, or a serious choice for the millions of Americans who want to shrug off DC.