Should libertarian activism be steadfastly principled or pragmatic? The question has been at the forefront of debate around the US Libertarian Party since its founding, and we’re no closer to resolving it. This is thanks to a cynical shifting of the goalposts by leaders in the party due to poor performance.
In some sense, the question is moot, because anybody who’s looking to get properly involved in politics necessarily has to be pragmatic, make compromises, and be coy about one’s grand vision.
Those who have become presidents and prime ministers seldom advertise their ideological vision, rather opting to stay topical. They’re willing to play the game – that is, attempting to convince people of every persuasion that they are in fact on their side. If they want to be a hero for something, they’re necessarily going to exclude others that don’t share their view, which will probably be most people.
Only third parties proudly expose their deepest values. In the case of the Libertarian Party, it’s literally in the name. The Democratic and Republican parties aren’t embodiments of tightly-formed worldviews, but woolly aggregations of broad tendencies.
In that sense, the LP is at an inherent disadvantage. It’s not simply a matter of convincing people that your candidates provide a serious alternative to the two main parties, but also about convincing people that libertarianism is the answer.
“Okay, but what is this liberty crap that you’re talking about?”
The LP leadership’s response to this is to put forward candidates for election that might be poor according to libertarian standards, but who they perceive to be good politicians with good standing among the establishment. In a recent discussion with libertarian comedian Dave Smith on his podcast Part of the Problem, LP Chairman Nicholas Sarwark suggested that even Dick Cheney would have been a good candidate purely for his elite cred.
His argument seems straightforward on the surface: The party needs votes, and they need to put forward candidates that have the most purchase among the general populace. If that means putting forward somebody with less than ideal policy preferences, then so be it.
In the long term, there’s arguably a huge downside to this. The Libertarian Party is the most high-profile libertarian institution in the country, which puts it in the running for the most high-profile in the world. With the libertarian name on its banner, it is necessarily going to be perceived as a representation of those values.
The LP’s approach to candidacy stirs dismay among libertarians who are not actively political, because the candidate is the representative of the philosophy. If they look and sound nothing like a libertarian, it dilutes the power of the ideas. As a brand, liberty looks like nothing. If the leader is saying things indistinguishable from the mainstream, then libertarianism itself looks less distinct.
This is not to doubt LP leadership’s underlying principles. Let’s assume that Nick Sarwark is the reincarnation of Murray Rothbard, and him and his like are shrewdly playing the system to advance the movement by infiltrating the political establishment first, and then bring liberty to the people.
This approach has a nub of validity along with obvious problems. The validity is in the fact that quite radical people have gotten into power by it before. Tony Blair got to the top as a radical Fabian socialist under the auspices of “third way” policy-making. The problem is that nearly every elected official is playing the same game for different ends.
Let’s just say this strategy is the best and most feasible way of advancing freedom for everybody. The LP are rubbish at it.
If the party was putting forward “pragmatic” non-libertarians to run for all levels of office and were making significant gains, it might be enough for principled non-political libertarians to take, for now. At the moment, however, it’s difficult to see what gains are being made.
It’s tough if you want to be principled in any party, and it’s tough to be pragmatic in a third party. If you are the Machiavellian type and want to advance the ideas in a real way via clever politicking, why on God’s green Earth would you choose as your vehicle the Libertarian Party? Why not, for example, run as a Republican?
Voters are more comfortable picking a mainstream party. The GOP has a long-established precedent for winning elections. There are, contrary to the LP, strong (enough) libertarians who have been elected under the GOP ticket. They’re in Washington, DC, right now, debating and voting. They’re in among the elite, building connections and are in the position of making a compromise in the first place.
The LP leadership shapes the debate as between putting aside principles, for now, for votes, or be a strong beacon for hardline principles even if it means fewer votes. At the moment, the Libertarian Party is bad at promoting the principles, and also not winning elections. This awkwardness might to a degree explain why leadership seeks to divert attention from it to picking on Ron Paul.
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