The United States Libertarian Party is a strange beast. It has a wide following within the movement and is comfortably the country’s third largest party. Yet, it’s had little meaningful electoral success in the decades of its existence. Smaller parties in other countries, with far less widespread support have managed to convert their core base into electoral breakthrough; so, what is causing this failure in the Libertarian Party?
Servant of Many Masters
Part of the problem is the dual mandate the party has given itself – to both compete in elections and be an educator on libertarian principles and policy.
A political party, by its nature, is distinct from any think tank, club, or foundation, because it is designed to engage directly in the political process and fight real campaigns. An additional mandate to educate the public is fine to have, but that mandate should not alter the unique position and role the party has, as a political agent.
The Libertarian Party must take up its unique position in the libertarian movement and do all that is necessary to professionalize its messaging and organizational strategies to be competitive in the political sphere.
If the party truly believes that its platform, if enacted, would make the country and the world better, then it has an obligation to fight for this enactment; If it’s going to happen, we need to rethink how we approach both the electoral and educational mandates.
We need to focus less on making statements or proving points, and more on convincing people in their hearts. This will require a fundamental reevaluation of the way libertarians (in the party or otherwise) spread the message to those not yet convinced.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Libertarian Party, and the libertarian movement more broadly, must think in terms of how to convince people.
Too often we get caught up in internal factionalism and disagreements on philosophy. Worse still, libertarians often become dogmatically attached to notions they determine to be axiomatically true; such as the claim that taxation is theft, or that the non-aggression principle is an a priori moral absolute. While libertarians may be convinced of these principles – and may even consider them intuitively self-evident – that is not the case for society at large. They need to be convinced of these principles.
Messaging for Change
The problem is that libertarians usually fail to engage skeptics in a way that could potentially convert them to our way of thinking.
Because we are convinced of the axiomatic truth of our beliefs, we treat opponents like they are wrong, ignorant, or even morally perverse. This attitude throws up a barrier between the libertarian and the skeptic, that, once raised, is very hard to break down.
We are a long way from a libertarian world because not enough people have adopted the libertarian mindset. We need to change those minds before we can meaningfully change society. Libertarianism can only succeed if it reconciles all its sides and factions – purist, radical, pragmatic, or whatever other sub-label a group chooses. This squaring of the circle can only begin when we start to think about messaging as a unifying, rather than a divisive, exercise. The Libertarian Party and other libertarian organizations should look toward exploring the effects of their messaging strategies, and to refashion them to engage outsiders.
This is not a matter of abandoning our principles or beliefs. It is a matter of understanding how people think and how they respond emotionally and psychologically to new, and often radical, ideas. We need to understand how people think and feel, and talk to them like human beings. Maybe then we’ll at last begin to see the world we want to live in take shape.
This post was written by John Engle.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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