When I was 20 years old and preparing to vote in my first Presidential election, a man came to speak on the campus of Texas A&M University about his new party and his campaign for the Presidency. That man was Ed Clark, the first Libertarian candidate on the ballots of all 50 states. He spoke of a vision of government which combined fiscal responsibility with social humanism. Ed Clark made such an impact on my personal view of politics that now, 30 years later, I still call myself an Ed Clark Libertarian. Unfortunately, since then I have watched the Libertarian Party move to the far-right with no coherent message to the point where, instead of creating a viable third party in American politics, it has become seen a ‘lunatic fringe’ of the extreme far-right, religious conservative wing of the Republican Party, a neo-Republican Party, if you will. After 30 years, it has still never made a serious impact on American politics at either the national or even the state level. The fault is our own but, I personally believe that could be realistically changed… starting with the 2010 elections.
Right now, politics in America might be more volatile than it has been at any point in its history since 1860. The Republican Party faces the real possibility of splintering into two or more parties; divided by their extreme far-right Christian conservatives who view politics as a religious struggle with them battling for the glory of heaven by exerting “his will’ on Earth. Because this faction is fighting what they see as a battle for the next world, they see those who “oppose” them as inherently evil. They cannot compromise in what they see as a very real battle between “good” and “evil”. As such, they can be counted on to focus their efforts on stopping the “advance” of “ungodly” issues in America. They will even turn on their own, on other Republicans, who they see as weak in the face of their enemy… and make no mistake, they see those who do not agree with them as true enemies.
This internal conflict within the Republican Party, however, offers the Libertarian Party a very real chance to become a viable alternative party for the American voters. To do that, however, requires us to change ourselves into a viable party. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Libertarian party has moved backwards instead of forward. What was once seen as party with an interesting view of what government could be has become a perceived lunatic fringe of right-wing tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists. We, ourselves, have marginalized our Party in American politics. We have no one to blame for our lack of achievement other than ourselves. As such, only we can change the perceptions of us by the American voters. To do that, we need to develop a strategic plan for 2010 and the following decade. We cannot possible devise winning tactics if we do not have an overall strategy for ourselves. We also need to give the American voters confidence that if they do elect any of us that we can participate and function in a real world government.
So, what are some things that the Libertarians need to do or change to become a viable third party in America? One is that we need to move beyond having a general philosophy about what government should be and become a political movement with an actual vision of what government can be AND an actual plan for how that can be accomplished. The question isn’t why SHOULD voters support us, it is what keeps them FROM supporting us. Remember, no voter owes a candidate or a party their vote; it is up to a candidate or party to earn their votes.
Another is that we need to stop running candidates for Executive offices until we can support those candidates by holding enough Legislative seats to help them. Politics, like life, is a gamble. Not only should you never make a bet you are unable or unwilling to lose, you should never make a bet you are unwilling or unable to win. Realistically, if ANY third party or independent candidate were to win the Presidency or a Governorship without having any Legislative support, their administration would be a complete failure. In addition, that failure would become generalized as an argument against ever again voting for candidates who are not party of one of the governing parties. It would actually damage us rather than help us.
Yet another is that we have to stop spreading our very limited resources so thin that we accomplish nothing. Imagine that we are farmers trying to grow a crop, like roses. Roses require a LOT of water in order to grow and become something that can be sold. What we have is a very limited amount of water. It would be better to focus on a few plants instead of trying to raise all of the plants by spreading our water so thinly that NO plants have enough to grow. Now, let’s ask ourselves “What is the quality of the roses that we raise?” In order to increase the resources we can use to raise more roses in future years, we need to be able to sell a few today. We need to develop a “long game” strategy for the future.
On the national level, we need to be focusing on a realistic few races for Legislative office, and we need to start doing so immediately. It would also be better to win seats in state legislatures this year than it would be to win Congressional seats in 2012. Why? In one word, the answer is ‘redistricting’. Most states with more than one member of the US House of Representatives seem to have mostly gerrymandered safe districts, which makes it almost impossible for candidates who are not from the two main parties to win. We need to have legislators at the state level that can fight for non-partisan maps with NO safe districts. This is a very real way to tell the voters that their legislators work for THEM. I advocate a map which starts in each corner of a state and only looks at numbers of voters to create compact, regularly shaped districts without regard to race, creed, color or party. This would create districts that cannot be seen or used to promote ANY specific person or party. The reasons for this should be obvious. Not only will it help us in the future by giving third-party candidates a fair chance to win, it will also allow us to demonstrate that our primary interest is in giving power back to the voters.
We also need to understand that it is not necessary to win a majority, or even a plurality of seats to make a difference. Let’s look at Texas, as an example. Texas is in political turmoil right now. It functions on inertia… there is a government because there has been a government and it operates because it has operated. It is too big of a juggernaut to stop and it is simply rolling over everything in its path. The Texas Republican Party is eating itself right now. Our sitting Governor, Rick Perry, will have to fight against one of our two Senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison, just to win his own party’s nomination. This is not only internally destructive, when you understand how Texas operates; it is absurd because, constitutionally, Texas has a weak Governor system. The two most powerful offices in Texas government are the Lt. Governor, who presides over the Texas Senate, and the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. So, Texas has a strong legislature to really run the state, but that legislature only meets every other year and for a very limited number of days. In addition, the 2009 legislature threw out the sitting Speaker and chose a new one in a tough internal battle. At the state Senate level, our Lt. Governor is likely to try to get Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat in the US Senate. Texas is in political crises and, as the White House Chief of Staff so famously said, never let a crisis go to waste.
Right now, the 150-member House is almost evenly divided between the Republicans and the Democrats. The Texas Democratic Party right now is going to make a serious effort in the 2010 elections. They are actively recruiting candidates and have already held week-end long ‘mini-camps’ to educate potential candidates AND campaign staffs on how to campaign, how to fundraise, what the legal requirements are, fill out the forms, etc. These camps also allow potential candidates and the state party staff to get to know each other. They only need a few seats to wrest back control of the state House and they are determined to accomplish that. In a situation like what is facing Texas in the 2010 elections, if we could elect just 5 members of the state House, neither party would be likely have a majority. If we could elect just 2 members to the state Senate out of the 31 seats (half of which are up for election in 2010), we would have almost 7% in that body. If we could accomplish those two challenges, we would have a say in what happens in Texas AND the chance to work for a politically neutral district map.
The LP needs to be PRO-active about the 2010 election. If we wait until the state conventions in July 2010 we shouldn’t even bother. We need to get out AHEAD of the political season and start the discussions ourselves so that they will take place on our terms. We need to lead the discussions rather than respond to them. We need to have state and national party leader who are actively speaking around the state and promoting what our party offers that is different than what the other parties offer. All of our focus needs to be on the state legislatures this election. To make a difference, we have to be able to say WHAT we will do, and then DO what we say. It isn’t enough to be against what the other parties do, we have to offer a vision of what we CAN do. We need to find 5 – 10 House candidates and 1 – 5 state Senate candidates in 3 – 5 states to put our national efforts behind. It isn’t enough for these people to become known in their own districts… all of them must become known statewide. The people need to have speaking engagements across the state now, and they need to be speaking to full houses, not nearly empty rooms. They need to be where people are. This will not only help recruit new members and other potential candidates, it will get these people in the news where they can be seen by the voters in their districts as BEING recognized throughout the state.
We need to formulate strong, serious and realistic plans and timelines for what will be done between now and the election. We cannot keep operating on the serendipitous hope that voters will choose us because, gosh, we aren’t the other guys. We need to find a few key issues that the state candidates will uniformly speak to. Beyond that, we need to find candidates who cover different interest areas, different experiences and bring different skill sets to the table. We need to offer our disparate candidates as a real slate, working together. Even if we do this, however, we still must operate with the recognition that we can NOT win more than a handful of seats, at best. That is ok, though, because it GIVES us a message and a strategy.
Our candidates must offer very real differences between our party and the status quo. Remember, we are fighting inertia here. Without an extreme effort to shift that inertia, voters will continue to do as they always have. We need to also remember, we that cannot beat the Republicans by being Republicans. Right now, we have more in common with the Democratic Party than we do with the Republicans. We need to find common areas upon which to build cooperation. We have to make the voters see benefits to bringing us to the table. I think that in districts that are represented by good men and women of the Democratic Party, we should consider not running candidates against them and, instead, do what we can to help them. For the bulk of the legislatures, we just want to be allowed in… which will NOT happen with Republican wins and/or majorities. WE need to be seen as a unified and MAINSTREAM team that is working to make a better government than what we currently have. We need to also be seen as the team that can bring the other loose members of the political community (greens, independents, etc.) to the table where, through us, they can be part of the process. If we do that, for example, then we can garner statewide support (particularly financial support), and possibly nation support for simple district elections.
Libertarianism must end its stunted childhood. To become meaningful, we must move it beyond a simply philosophy into a practical vision for realistic government. As we move forward, we must ask AND ANSWER some difficult questions, including:
- There WILL be government, so how can we improve it?
- There WILL be taxes, so how can we make them beneficial rather than draconian?
- A movement can NOT succeed simply by being against things, so what are we FOR?
- What IS the role of government?
- What IS the purpose of laws?
- FOR whom do we speak?
- TO whom do we speak?
- How do we become perceived as BEING inclusive and NOT exclusive?
Ronald Reagan famously stated that “Government is not the solution to our problems; it IS the problem.” When he said that, he identified government as something that CANNOT be seen in any kind of a positive way. The idea that we need to promote is: “Government is not the solution to our problems; it is the problem, WHICH WE MUST LEARN TO SOLVE.” That change turns it from being a negative declarative statement into a positive challenge which we can all be unified behind as we work to build something better for the future. Our challenge, as a party, is to figure out how to make the government change so that we will have one that serves the people rather than one which terrifies them.
Rhys M. Blavier
P.S. – I asked my step-father, a center-right Republican, to look over my first draft of this. He gave me this comment from his perspective:
As an outsider to the Libertarian party, I would be more likely to vote Libertarian if the candidates did not look like mass murderers. The male candidates that I remember had long necks with Adam’s apples that looked like basketballs. The women were over 300 pounds with greasy, stringy hair. They had jobs like gooseberry farmers or manger of a gecko rescue center. What I’m trying to say is that they looked like some kind of fringe people and had no background for the positions for which they were running. Granted, there are some in Congress that makes me wonder what the people who elected them look like.
P.P.S. — Since I originally wrote this, on a recent Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert demonstrated his mastery of satire as a way to point out how ridiculous things in this world or or my seem to be. In one of his stories this week, he was talking about candidates and the third one he named (the spot of shame in comedy) was “… and the Libertarian Party’s last Presidential nominee… Drinky Bird” while behind him flashed a picture of a classic Drinky Bird in a top hat toy and the caption “Drinky Bird ’08”