Cross Purposes in the Libertarian Party

Education or Electoral Strategy?  Experience Shows: Neither!

Many times the question has been raised whether LP should pursue a strategy aimed exclusively at winning or affecting elections, or one aimed at propagandizing and educating without much regard to elections, or mostly one or the other of those, or an equal or flexible mix depending on circumstances. But the question of what should be pursued needs to be assessed in light of the realities of what will be pursued, as I do here. I answer "neither" above, not to indicate that neither strategy has been or will be pursued, but to say that neither will be pursued efficiently or done well, because each such orientation gets in the way of the other.

But first let's get out of the way the question of whether LP does, or should, really have some other primary purpose. It does also provide an outlet for socialization and blowing off steam. It's inevitable that an organization of its kind will serve such purposes, and those are benign. However, it should be obvious that an organization with "Party" in its name, despite the other meaning of the word, should not be geared primarily for such purposes, and that it becomes wasteful to the extent those take up too much of its time. The social and steam-blowing purpose is best suited to SIL (now ISIL) and other organizations such as ISI and the Eris Society.

Unfortunately the LP got organized and was around for some time before its uselessness became manifest. Some of us needed more evidence than others, who made that judgement years before me. In the meantime, LP grew very big as grass roots libertarian minded organizations go, so it has become the default place to go for radical libertarians to meet and/or hear from other radical libertarians. So as a social club, it's succeeded, at the expense of other organizations whose growth was stunted thereby, or which could have organized in the absence of LP. That situation need not continue, but it's important for enough people to get the message that LP is dead for a competitor to get far off the ground.

(We see here an unfortunate result of path dependence. LP is far from the ideal organization for people to socialize, commiserate, etc. in, and it's very inefficient, as I show here, for other purposes. However, it's just good enough as a social club, and there's positive feedback in that scale builds on itself there (the more people you have, the easier it is to get or retain them, because otherwise they'd have to start from scratch), that it has sustained itself for a long time at the expense of better organizations which would probably have formed in its absence.)

So let's consider first LP as a propaganda-education vehicle. (I'll use the abbreviation "edu-prop".) Does it make sense for a small political party to assume such a role, when such propaganda could be undertaken via other vehicles? Why should it, when there are so many handicaps to such a vehicle?

One handicap is the negative stigma of politics. There's a built-in negative reaction to politicians. People tend to see politicians and their organizations as self-serving, and tend to distrust what they say. Basically they suspect politicians and their organizations of lying or distorting or selectively presenting facts to aggrandize themselves. They're right, of course. All politicians must do this, libertarians being no exception, to succeed, and therefore always operate with this handicap. But why should someone or some group of persons oriented toward edu-prop electively handicap themselves that way? This handicap is particularly vexing for libertarian activists, because radical libertarians, and even persons with greater than average libertarian leanings, i.e. the persons who should be most interested in and susceptible to libertarian messages, tend to have greater than average suspicion about politicians. Approaching them with edu-prop in the form of a political campaign or organization is an especially bad idea.

There are frequently also institutional barriers because of the negative stigma of politics, and particularly of political parties. Many community organizations and other organizations have either an official or unofficial policy of non-partisanship. 20 years ago while in charge for the Bronx of the Libertarian Speakers Bureau (a function of LPNYC), I found it was like pulling teeth to get speaking engagements for our people. Yes, shortly before an election some organizations might have a Candidate's Night, but the tradeoff of gaining these speaking opportunities (for candidates for public office only) at the expense of losing a great many others was not a good one. Sure, we could form front groups with names not reflecting a political affiliation, but that pretty much concedes the party affiliation is a handicap, not a bonus.

How about the opportunity to do political advertising? It's true that in broadcast media, you can sometimes get a better deal, dollarwise, with campaign ads than with other ads, because of the law that requires them to give you the best deal. However, that opportunity exists only in a fairly narrow window close to Election Day, and often political ad space is rationed by a broadcast station. Yes, being a candidate on the ballot is a form of advertising, but the ballot has no edu-prop value at all, it's just a listing. Sometimes you get the benefit of a booklet prepared by the election apparatus including candidates' blurbs; there are also private organizations with such brochures online or in print. But political advertising has a very short shelf life compared to many other examples of edu-prop.

Besides, the cost of getting on the ballot is a considerable handicap of its own. This will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but I suspect that in many this cost far outweighs the benefit to be achieved in terms of getting one's message out. It is sometimes said (I used to myself, even) that there are some people who can only be reached in a practical way via a political campaign. That's true, but these are the people whose attention is most competitively sought and expensive.

Another handicap has grown large: LP's reputation as a loser. Losing, and losing big as LP candidates almost always do, reflects negatively on libertarians in general. This is no more than the psychology of the restaurant that has only a small clientele vs. the one people line up to get into. Success is its own advertising, and so is failure. People in screening ideas for further consideration will frequently employ the tool of popularity vs. unpopularity. If the numbers reflect that you're not selling, there must be something wrong with you.

Certainly this is true of individual politicians; a loss in a single prominent race is often enough to sink a career, or at least to keep the person from being considered a serious candidate for that same office in the future. There's the impression that the candidate had hir shot, and it's time for hir to step aside. This is probably true to some degree of political parties as well as of politicians. Libertarian Party nominees get creamed at the polls, so there must be something wrong with people who label themselves libertarian; it's probably their ideas. At least that's what many people will think. So the continued electoral failure of the LP casts libertarian thinking into disrepute, affecting negatively even the reputations of those who call themselves libertarian yet who have nothing to do with LP! It's not good for edu-prop if "libertarian" means "loser".

Politics also imposes the handicap of...politics! A political organization is tailor made for infighting. Sure, infighting can occur in any organization, but it's practically mandatory in politics. That gets in the way of edu-prop, because it gets contested over as well as all the other stakes.

The final handicap of an ideologic political party to edu-prop is the all-encompassing nature of the party as opposed to the need for flexibility and compartmentalization. (This will come up as a handicap of doing politics too.) It's hard for anyone to sell a piece of the package without selling the whole thing. While some may view that as a benefit, it's far more likely just to kill the whole sale. Some libertarian education will surely always be directed at selling the whole package as an integrated ideology or principle, but not all issues edu-prop should be. It's a handicap to be trying to promote one issue or another if people then think, "Well, you think that only because you're a radical libertarian, so I, not subscribing to that ideology, should just ignore you or at least discount heavily what you say about this issue." It's a handicap when people who are turned on to what you, LP propagandist 1, say, are then turned off by what LP propagandist 2 has to say on another issue. Political parties have platforms and programs, and nearly everyone finds something strongly objectionable in the platform or program of a radical ideologic party.

All those handicaps add up to make just about anything other than LP a better vehicle for libertarian edu-prop. But what about LP as a vehicle for politics? Hell, it's a political party, so it better devote a significant amount of its effort to politics! Oh, sure, you could look up the dictionary definition of party and point out that it's not officially called the Libertarian Political Party. LP could operate like the Revolutionary Communist Party or other non-electoral organizations with "Party" in their names. But I don't think that's good advertising.

So politics (which in a democratic republic are oriented around elections) should be the main focus of LP. But there are too many handicaps there too, I'm afraid.

The first handicap is inflexibility again. A large political party (or a smaller non-ideologic one such as the Independence Party) has enough room for candidates to say very different things and not be significantly contradicted by each other or by party functionaries or documents. By "significantly", I mean the contradictions are a substantial impediment to their campaigns. But the Libertarian Party is too small to hide such discrepancies. There'll always be somebody pointing to the platform or somewhere to say, "You can't campaign saying this and be a Libertarian." And the person pointing that out may be in the LP or outside of it as a critic or the person being pitched to.

It gets worse. "If you're a Libertarian, even though you're not mentioning those things, you must believe them. So I'm dismissing what you say about these issues, and dismissing your candidacy as unworthy." Candidates and campaigns need the freedom to tailor their messages, and to deliberately hide if necessary the full program of their ideology. It's the same problem mentioned above as an impediment to edu-prop, but possibly worse.

Another handicap is that the people drawn in to do edu-prop disdain the pragmatics of politics. Just about evertyhing that makes politicians and political campaigns successful is looked down on by many LPers as infra dig. I'll have more to say about this in another essay, because it takes in many aspects.

The campaign finance and tax laws make it relatively burdensome/expensive for an edu-prop organization to do politics, or for a political organization to do non-political edu-prop. They don't make it much more expensive for a political organization to do a little edu-prop, but such edu-prop must follow certain political forms which are less efficient. (For example, there seems to be a problem taking corporate ads for newsletters.)

Another major handicap is the narrow popular appeal of a small party such as LP. You may say, that's not a problem with the input factors, that's an adverse result. However, the two go hand in hand. It is extremely unlikely that after 30+ years LP's appeal will somehow broaden.

Robert Goodman
July 2004
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