Your intrepid correspondent is in Orlando, Florida, for the Libertarian Party National Convention. You might ask why.
First, a little history. I ran for the House of Representatives in my native state of Michigan in 1980. I was 21-years old. The Libertarian Party (LP) was looking for warm bodies to field a full slate of candidates. I qualified.
Since then, I have stood on the sidelines as the LP dissipated itself in a series of fratricidal conflicts. Like our archenemies on the Marxist left, we displayed a remarkable talent for fighting among ourselves over the 10% of policy where we disagreed, instead of actually trying to implement the 90% where our agreement was violent.
We argued over whether local roads, the military and the policing function could really be privatized, while Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve used taxpayer dollars and the printing press to propagate a financial crisis and bailouts, the Export-Import Bank dispensed governmental charity to hardship cases like General Electric and Boeing, the National Security Agency expanded into the domestic spying business, the Department of Agriculture showered ethanol subsidies on the attendees of the Iowa caucuses, the police and judiciary fought a futile $1 trillion war on drugs which produced a whole generation of unemployable minority youths with a deep loathing and fear of Five-O, and the Department of Defence, having vanquished its Soviet enemies, found new reasons to consume half of the world’s military expenditures and place US troops in over 100 countries. And the list could go on.
Many of us argued that our efforts were misplaced. But the zealots were convinced that libertarianism was a jealous god that would withhold electoral success if we deviated from true doctrine. As if our fellow citizens were not flocking to the LP banner because the party was insufficiently committed to dismantling the State.
Eventually, those of us who believe that politics is the art of the possible decamped to the Republican Party to see if it could be redeemed. And then came Donald Trump.
But Hillary Clinton came too and together they form The Gift. As I have pointed out before (see The Silver Lining), by nominating two such hateable candidates, the political duopoly may have cracked open the door to the LP. The only real question at the convention this year is whether the LP will push on the open door or zealously pull it shut.
Like all ideological struggles, this one has human embodiments. On the one side, there is Gary Johnson, the former Republican Governor of New Mexico whose praises I have sung before in The Silver Lining. Johnson governed as a libertarian, becoming an early advocate of gay marriage and ending the war on drugs (both of which are the new mainstream). He blunted and reversed the growth of government and brags about how many pieces of legislation he vetoed. He became the leading advocate of school choice and pushed strongly to devolve power and money to the state and local level, enhancing the competition that is our best hope for good governance. He also acted with absolute rectitude and decency, and, as only a libertarian can, he refused to commit hypocrisy.
During his two terms in office, Johnson did not do the impossible and make New Mexico into a libertarian nirvana. But only those whose refuse to acknowledge any shades except white and black, or who think that the longest journey does not begin with the first step, can deny that he made things much better.
Johnson has teamed up with another Republican closet-libertarian, the former governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld. Leading one of the bluest states in the nation, Weld still managed to roll back the government and did it well enough that he was re-elected with a thumping majority.
Very importantly, the combination of two successful former governors has ignited media coverage of the LP. If there is anything that Trump has proven, it is that without extensive free media exposure or unlimited money to buy it, a candidacy goes nowhere. Hanging around in the campaign office at the convention, it is obvious that the only media problem that Johnson/Weld is having is juggling the incoming requests. This is a rich man’s problem that the LP has never had before. To put it mildly.
This year, the LP is going to ask millions of Americans to do something that they have never done before. Which is to pull the LP lever in the voting booth. For them, this will be a leap in the dark. It is more than a little useful, therefore, to be able to point out that the states of New Mexico and Massachusetts have not fallen into an abyss following years of libertarian governance. And it is also more than a little useful, when asking millions of people to open their wallets for contributions, to be able to point to cases where the investment paid off in victory.
But the zealots have their champion as well. His name is Austin Petersen. He has brought to the convention a flair for social media allied with a glib ability to spout sound bites. In this respect, think of him as the libertarian Donald Trump. He also brings a resume of personal accomplishments and experience so thin as to be transparent. In this respect, think of him as the libertarian Barack Obama.
But he has appeal for the part of the LP that believes that the party platform should be a suicide pact. Ignoring the 90% on which all libertarians agree, and which would keep a completely successful party busy implementing change for at least the next four administrations, he has picked a fight with Johnson over whether religious freedom should prevail over anti-discrimination laws (using the hypothetical case of Jewish bakers and a Nazi wedding). Petersen thinks that the answer is “yes.” Johnson thinks that, with a LP that has been unfairly stigmatized as racist for years, this would be handing our electoral opponents a rod with which to beat us.
Petersen has also taken after Weld for being an insufficiently robust supporter of automatic weapons. Among other things, Petersen tweeted that they are very useful for hunting, thereby announcing that, in the general election campaign, he intends to outflank Donald Trump in the battle to be the stupid party. And he also thinks that his stand against Roe v. Wade is going to allow him to ride a tidal wave of Ted Cruz supporters to victory in November because, well, that strategy worked so well for Ted.
But the real difference between the supporters of Johnson/Weld and Petersen comes down to this: what is the purpose of nominating a ticket? Is it to thrill the roughly one thousand true believers gathered in the Rosen Convention Centre? Or is it to try to find a candidate acceptable to the millions of voters outside the building who currently know nothing about the LP and its doctrinal battles, and who will never even have a chance to learn what a “libertarian” is unless we break through the media blockade (and ideally into the debates)?
For me, there is only one logical choice. Because you can either enter into a political process, which inherently means the art of the possible and settling for less than 100% of your goals, or you can be an ideological purist insisting on all or nothing. But you cannot logically do both.