Is the Libertarian Party Ready to be Taken Seriously?

Created: 31 May, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

The Libertarian Party Convention convened over Memorial Day weekend, bringing together thousands of participants — from party delegates to true-believer activists — in the process of selecting the candidates who would go on to represent them during the general election.

And, like any other gathering of promoters of a non-mainstream political ideology, there was no shortage of unconventional behavior during the event.

There was a presidential candidate who suggested that the military hold bake sales as their sole source of income. There was a man draped in a see-through robe — as a metaphorical statement about the need for government transparency — named “Star Child.” There was the always lovable Vermin Supreme, nervously pacing the building with a giant rubber boot on his head. There was even a candidate for chair of the national party’s committee who disrobed and danced in a thong on stage.

Long heralded as a safe place for the libertine and provocative, the Libertarian Party is certainly free to express its unique ideology in creative and spontaneous ways. One attendee aptly described the event as the “political equivalent of the cantina scene from Star Wars." (Nicholas Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian Party, deserves some kind of award or prize for the equivalent of herding cats throughout the entire convention.) Finding ways to escape the stuffiness and staleness of dry political maneuvering can certainly appeal to disenfranchised voters. Politics is entertainment after all, right?

However, there were several moments during the convention that were unsettling — moments that would give any reasonable and independently-minded voter pause before throwing their support behind this party.

There was a roomful of libertarians who booed the eventual nominee, Gary Johnson, for stating that he would have signed the Civil Rights Act if he was president in 1964. Later on, the same faction booed him again for stating that certain restrictions on drugs, like heroine, should exist to keep them out of the hands of children. (Keep in mind, Johnson premised this argument by saying that all drugs should be legal, which is nothing short of a traditional libertarian stance.) Johnson was even booed for suggesting that blind people should be denied drivers’ licenses. Any subtle hint of the most minimal presence of the government in the candidates’ speeches was met with childish jeers and braggadocios taunting.

The divisive and questionable messaging carried on after the convention. Taking to social media, the Libertarian Party’s national team decided to post key components of the party’s platform as shareable content on Facebook. As the opportune moment to build its platform and showcase how the LP is drastically different than the other two parties, the party could have focused on its more popular stances on issues, such as ending the Drug War, addressing police brutality, scaling back military interventions abroad, putting a stop to domestic surveillance of innocent citizens, etc.

But they didn’t. Instead, their first effort to brand the party platform involved making the following profound political stance: “My body, my choice. Seatbelt laws are wrong.” The LP has already achieved self-parody and they haven’t even started the general election campaign.

Ian Tuttle of the National Review writes, “At their convention, they proved themselves wildly entertaining and terminally unserious.” If libertarians want to be taken seriously in the national political realm (mind you, this author self-identifies as one), then they need to be prepared to not only govern, but also inspire the imagination of voters.

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The Libertarian Party prides itself on “being ahead of its time.” For example, they were the first and only national political party to bravely advocate for the legalization of same-sex marriage. The LP endorsed marriage equality in its very first platform established in 1972.

If they want to maintain this forward-thinking mantra, then they need to soften their more radical edges, or else run the risk of alienating potential voters, donors, and supporters. Does the Libertarian Party want to be known as the party that would have opposed the Civil Rights Act? This is called “being on the wrong side of history,” and its strongly discouraged in the world of politics.

Furthermore, the party is on the verge of breaking out in front of a national audience who is overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the two major party front-runners. However, if you spend enough time in the libertarian blogosphere, you’ll find an unadulterated hatred of their nominees: Johnson and his pick for VP, Bill Weld. Brandished with damning libertarian pejoratives like “statists” and “gun grabbers,” Johnson and Weld were lucky to escape the convention without being tarred and feathered.

A strong contingent of libertarian activists found themselves split between the “non-Johnsons”— Darryl W. Perry, Austin Petersen, and John McAfee — as to who would carry the torch of the “true” libertarian philosophy. Respectively, it’s very easy for an anarchist activist, a website publisher, and a tech mogul to spout off anti-government platitudes when they have never held elected office or have been beholden to a diverse constituency. It’s ironically convenient that an ideology, in its more radical manifestations -- so adamantly opposed to governance -- has rarely handled the responsibility of governance.

Johnson and Weld's pragmatism is the byproduct of years of actually being in the business of governing, building consensus, compromising across the aisle, and working as an executive of an entire state comprised of millions of citizens. As Republican governors in blue states, both Johnson and Weld will certainly have their fair share of statist skeletons in their closets that will bring their libertarian bonafides into question. But this is because they were elected to govern actual state governments (with competing interests and differing opinions), instead of some Rothbardian utopia where everybody can freely purchase cannabis and fully-automatic rifles using cryptocurrency.

Johnson brought in over 1.2 million votes for the LP in 2012—more than any other libertarian candidate ever. After switching teams, Weld attracted an immediate flurry of media attention to the party right before the convention. Already dubbed a “dream ticket” of two well-established and popular governors who have more executive experience than both of the major party front-runners, this ticket is the party’s best opportunity ever to spread the message of limited government, fiscal responsibility, social tolerance, and peaceful diplomacy.

Libertarians would be best advised to take their own advice, and allow for the free market of ideas to innovate and attract new customers to their brand. If libertarians are not prepared to think “big tent,” then they will have to be satisfied with simply preaching to the converted who inhabit the hinterlands of the American political landscape.

Photo retrieved from the Orlando Sentinel.

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