The Right Engle: How to Talk to Non-Libertarians

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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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.
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  • Daniel Reed

    Couldn’t agree more. This:

    “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.”

    is something I’m guilty of, as are many of my Libertarian friends.

    My spouse and I went to at the Maryland Libertarian convention a few years ago. One of the speakers talked about a time they were canvasing in a rural area, and how they “lost” an audience in trying to explain what it meant to be a Libertarian. The speaker said, “and this was before we even got to fractional reserve banking”. It was a really funny line (better delivered than I wrote), but so revealing.

    Unlocking the essence of the Libertarian message in a short, simple way is the holy grail. But as you say, that can’t really happen without changing the way approach the message.

    • jmillsintacoma

      I think we know how to present the Libertarian message in a short, simple, effective way: “Libertarians believe that people should be free to run their own life as long as they aren’t hitting others or stealing things.”

      Then, it’s a matter of advocating the the state’s intervention when someone is going around hitting others or stealing things. Admittedly, that’s complex at the edges. Is bullying, and things like gender discrimination a form of “hitting others”? Was racial discrimination a form of “hitting others” that the government should have outlawed to prevent? Is abortion a form of hitting others or is a fetus not a human being? Is copying a DVD you bought “stealing things”? Is predatory lending “stealing things” or just business? These are the hard questions that generate debate even among libertarians. But, most people will agree with the core principle.

      Often, what traps Ls in hopeless discussions, is a failure to actually advocate for what the government should be doing – putting people in the pit who are going around hitting others or stealing things.

      Ls spend so much time talking about what the government should not be doing, that we rarely are advocating for our vision of what the government should be doing, and libertarians don’t think that the government should be doing nothing.

  • jmillsintacoma

    Well, John, if you want to see people convinced of the axiomatic truth of their beliefs, and who treat opponents like they are wrong, ignorant, or even morally perverse, look no farther than mainstream Ds and Rs. Look at what Hillary supporters said of the Trump crowd, and what the “Lock her up” people say about Democrats. The Ds are reviled by Rs as communists, and the Rs denigrated by Ds as fascists. I don’t think Ls have a lock on ineffective ways to deal with outsiders.

    A reality about LP activists is that we spend too much time engaging skeptics and trying to persuade them to join us. Ls don’t spend enough time engaging libertarians.

    LP activists often fail to understand that people come to their political beliefs over decades of interaction with friends, family and co-workers. They are not going to listen to a 15-minute “pitch” and suddenly convert; they are not going to change their political beliefs even over the course of an election cycle and many won’t change their beliefs over a lifetime. It is as hard to convert a committed D or R to becoming L as it would be for the Ds or Rs to convert a committed L; that is to say, really, really difficult.

    The Ds and Rs have become successful by doing three things: 1) identifying like-minded people in the community, 2) organizing those people, and 3) turning them out at the elections. The Ds and Rs have a 150 year jump on the LP as to that, and Ls don’t do much of that even today.

    Most people who arrive at the LP never were committed Ds or Rs and they were never “skeptics”; they are people who report: “I’ve been a libertarian all my life; I just didn’t know the LP existed.” They rarely say: “I was a committed D or R, but listened to an L and realized the folly of my earlier political beliefs.” (The founders are almost the only exceptions, with people like Ed Clark who threw in the towel on Rs after Nixon enacted wage-price controls.)

    Where Libertarians go wrong is in spending so much time talking to voters. We do that because voters vote, non-voters don’t. But, if you think about it for a bit, voters are mostly committed Ds and Rs. The Libertarian-minded people are mostly among the 50% or so that don’t vote. We know this because Rasmussen (and other) polls report that 17-22% of Americans self-identify as “libertarians,” but Libertarians rarely get even 5% of the votes. And, it’s those people – the non-voters – we need to engage. After all, not being committed Ds or Rs, and being non-voters, they haven’t anything to lose by committing to the LP.

    This is also partly a math problem. Right now, across America, the electorate breaks down about like this: 23% vote D, 23% vote R, 4-6% vote L, Green, Constitution, etc. and 48-50% don’t vote. Now, to win, if the non-voters remain a constant, we need the votes to break: 17% D, 17% R, 18% L and 48% don’t vote. Think about that – it means fully 1/3 of the Ds and Rs have to defect. I submit that’s impossible.

    However, if the electorate breaks: 22% R, 22% D, 24% L, and 32% don’t vote, what we’re talking about is converting 5% of the Ds and Rs, and bringing a quarter of the none-voters back into the game. That is possible, and in fact we know that in local races, if turnout can be driven up close to 70%, Ls often win.

    Rational libertarians know that there’s nothing for them in existing American politics, and whether they vote D, R, or L, the L will likely lose and that the Ds and Rs will continue to run the show, raising taxes a little, increasing regulation slightly, and nation-building abroad, increasing the deficit somewhat. Accordingly, rational libertarians disengage politically and use their time on something likely to improve their life – like mowing the lawn, taking their kid to a ball game, or painting the house.

    It’s not easy to engage the non-voters in America. After all, they are not interested in politics. But, it’s a crucial job if the party is to succeed. Instead of trying to persuade Ds and Rs to convert, we need to 1) identify libertarian thinking people in the community, 2) find ways to engage them and organize them, and then 3) turn them out at the polls.

    Until we do that successfully, the party is likely to have a hard time making the changes we want to see in America.

    • As I’ve said before, classical liberal parties around the world focus on socially liberal districts, especially urban areas, college towns, and among more progressive leaning voters. If you try to take on the conservative party on its home turf (Bible Belt, for example), you will get trounced time and again. Our counterparts in other countries get candidates elected by focusing on those areas where conservative parties don’t even field a candidate, so conservative voters end up supporting the classical liberal candidate, resulting in frequents wins and an economically stable conservative-libertarian coalition.

  • Look at where we’re getting libertarians elected right now: Running in nonpartisan offices or running as Republicans in legislative races, as I did. Everywhere else in the world, there is a successful classical liberal party with strong representation in parliament. The U.S. is the only country where we’re struggling. Why? Because we’re not focusing our resources on 14 safe Democrat states, large cities, college towns, and hundreds of Democrat-leaning legislative and county districts around the country where the DNC has locked up rigged primaries already. There are thousands of fiscally conservative Americans out there who are willing to run for state or local office who cannot because they aren’t the picked candidate. We need to build the political infrastructure there that makes getting elected as a Libertarian possible.

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