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First Look 2008: Concerning Libertarian Presidential Campaigns

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[Note: This is the second in a series of “First Look 2008″ articles on the Libertarian Party’s 2008 presidential prospects]

First, an obviosity: The Libertarian Party will almost certainly nominate a candidate to stand for election to the presidency of the United States in the November 2008 election.

It may seem that this should go without saying, but in the LP’s case it doesn’t. Unlike the delegates of other political parties, Libertarian national convention delegates are not bound in their casting of votes by primaries or caucuses; all delegates are free to vote for “None of the Above,” and a few usually do. A segment of LP members consider a presidential campaign to be a waste of time at this stage in the party’s growth. It’s conceivable that NOTA could win a majority of delegate votes, or that the party’s bylaws could be amended to eliminate the nomination of a presidential slate from the agenda altogether.

Conceivable, yes. Likely, no. Even among those who prefer an LP focus on local rather than national politics for the moment, the presidential campaign has its attractions as a public relations party membership recruitment, or “voter education” tool. The Libertarian Party has nominated a presidential ticket for each of the nine presidential elections since its founding. It is almost certain to do so in the tenth such election cycle.

If we’re going to nominate a presidential candidate, it behooves us to discuss what we want to accomplish by doing so, and what kind of candidate will best serve our purposes. Within the context of an out-of-power, “third party” opposition, three purposes tend to compete for delegate “market share.”

Electoral Victory: The obvious and natural goal of nominating a candidate for office is to bring about the election of that candidate to that office. Most Libertarians understand that this is probably not an achievable goal in the near term, that barring some cataclysmic political sea change which the party hasn’t the wherewithal to bring about through its own efforts, a Libertarian presidency will come at the end of a “long march” up through the ranks of local, county, state, and federal government. That does not mean, however, that the LP can or should nominate an “unelectable” candidate. If we’re going to run a candidate, that candidate should be someone plausibly ready, willing, and able to do the job. After all, if the cataclysmic political sea change comes, it could come between the LP’s nominating convention and the election — and if it doesn’t, we still don’t gain by representing ourselves to voters as a party which waits until victory is nigh to begin running serious candidates.

Building the Party: In the past, “building the party” has often been used as a code phrase for “increasing the number of paid memberships in the party’s national continuing donor program.” Fortunately, the Libertarian National Committee recently severed the donor program from the concept of “party membership.” As the LP moves toward a membership paradigm which defines a “member” as any American who identifies his or her interests as a citizen/voter with the party’s candidates and policy goals, a natural “building of the party” will occur so long as those candidates and policy goals reflect the real aspirations of significant numbers of those American citizen/voters. It is incumbent upon the LP to nominate a presidential candidate who can appeal to those aspirations.

Voter Education: This is where a true disconnect between the Libertarian Party and the American electorate occurs. Many Libertarians believe that the function of a “minor” party candidacy is simply to “get the word out” on what the party believes, so that “the voters know” they have another choice. Unfortunately, this “voter education” tends to take the form of attempting to turn the average voter into a political intellectual/ideologue — and that’s just not the way things work. Most voters do not learn a Great Principle from which they then deduce all of their public policy positions. The reverse is, in fact, the case. Most voters deduce their party affiliation from which of the parties they are looking at best mirrors their personal policy positions — or they choose their party based on the predispositions inculcated by their upbringing and personal networks (family, business, etc.), after which that affiliation tends to reinforce itself as they slowly accomodate themselves to, or adopt, other policy positions touted by their party. The LP should nominate a presidential candidate who “educates the voters” — to the extent that he or she does so — on the fact that the Libertarian Party agrees with them on the issues they care about. “Great Principle” education is a reinforcement activity, not a recruitment activity.

In short, the LP should nominate a presidential candidate who, even if he or she will not be elected, represents a plausible potential president to the voters who are being asked to support him or her; who will position the LP and himself or herself to a growing number of voters as the party and candidate which best reflects their aspirations as citizens/voters; and who emphasizes that agreement of aspiration rather than one of the many philosophical premises from which such an agreement of aspiration might arise.

This does not mean that a “purist” candidate is ineligible. It also doesn’t mean that a candidate shouldn’t be prepared to discuss the underlying logic of the positions he or she takes. It does, however, mean that neither “purity” nor debate skills rooted in the non-aggression (or any other) principle are enough.

A Libertarian presidential candidate should sport a resume which voters find credible. Note that I said voters, not Libertarian Party activists. LP activists are already going to vote for the LP’s candidate. Hell, they’re the ones who nominated that candidate. The point of running a candidate is to reach, and garner the support of the 100-million-plus American voters who aren’t LP activists. The ability to quote ten-page excerpts from Atlas Shrugged verbatim from memory is not a resume bullet to those millions of voters. Some things which are resume bullets: prior election to office, effective issues activism, academic credentials, wealth acquired through personal effort, military service, and personal celebrity. Once again, don’t get me wrong: being able to quote ten-page excerpts from Atlas Shrugged verbatim from memory isn’t a disqualification for a prospective nominee. It just isn’t a qualification: “What are your qualifications for the presidency?” “I’ve been a janitor at the local widget factory for 12 years. And now, for my one-man rendition of Galt’s Speech…”

A Libertarian presidential (or any other) candidate should, in some ways, be like the “leader” of a flock of geese: that leader takes note of where the flock is going, and positions itself at their head. This is not to say that a Libertarian presidential candidate should be willing to go in the wrong direction just because the flock is. What he or she should be willing to do, however, is think about what issues are important to the voters and take the lead on those issues, rather than on the issues that he or she personally finds important or which were bullet points in the last LP newsletter. He or she should identify segments of the electorate who agree with the Libertarian perspective on the particular issues that are currently central to the American political debate, and position himself or herself at the front of those segments of the electorate. This means that when the preeminent issues of the day are (for example) foreign policy and Social Security, the candidate will center his or her campaign around those issues, not on (for example) auditing the Federal Reserve and abrogating the Moon Treaty.

A Libertarian presidential (or any other) candidate should focus on policy proposals that are actual “deliverables” if he or she is elected. The Utopian Vision is proper and necessary. It animates the hard activist and philosophical core of a political movement. It is not, however, usually an effective tool in electoral, or even practical, mass politics, especially at the fringes. Even in the most radicalized situations, the masses are looking for “what can you do for me next week?” The Utopian Vision isn’t going away. It will not dissolve if the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate takes a viable, incremental policy approach in appealing to the voters. The LP, however, might as well dissolve — and perhaps become a purely intellectual movement infiltrating existing parties, think tanks and media institutions to achieve its goals, as neoconservativism did — if its presidential candidates don’t take a viable, incremental policy approach in appealing to the voters.

A smart Libertarian presidential candidacy will garner larger numbers of votes than past such candidacies and incorporate a higher percentage of those votes into the “base” which can be counted upon in future elections. A smart Libertarian presidential candidacy will “build the party” by positioning the party as embodying the aspirations of large numbers of American citizens/voters. A smart Libertarian presidential candidacy will bring the Libertarian Party into the “mainstream” not by sacrificing the Utopian Vision but by serving it up in realistic, achievable incremental policy bites — with the party’s activist cadre standing by to welcome those who like it enough to look around for an all-you-can eat buffet.

It’s time for the Libertarian Party to get smart about its presidential campaigns.

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About Thomas L. Knapp

  • http://www.alistreview.com Diane Ensey

    What you are really saying is that the LP needs to get relevant. I agree. Once they pursue topics that are relevant to daily life then they will become a viable third party. What leadership and hard core LPers forget is that the “Utopian vision” is more a process than a goal.