We’re two months away from Election Day in the United States and us Libertarians need to look around and take stock of our situation. To our left, we have Democrat Hillary Clinton, possibly the most corrupt and ardently Progressive candidate in our lifetime and to our right, we have Donald J. Trump, an erratic, although occasionally correct, authoritarian. In a quite distant third place is the official Libertarian Party ticket, consisting of the two former Republican governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld. While marginally better than the two leading candidates, the Governors are a far cry from the Libertarian standard-bearers we had hoped for. Where is the great hope for 2016, heir-to-the-throne apparent Senator Rand Paul? Unfortunately, he is far from the Presidential race and is currently seeking reelection in his home state of Kentucky. With sober eyes, I believe we can look around and admit to ourselves that things haven’t exactly worked out as planned. We were supposed to have someone libertarian-ish as the GOP nominee, or at least to have made a good show of it. Unfortunately, we accomplished neither. Now, there’s still time for that to change. Gary Johnson could get in the debates and suddenly become an articulate and passionate defender of freedom, Donald Trump could change his tune on civil liberties (he has been sounding rather good on the Fed recently) and Hillary Clinton could…well, nevermind. But all this isn’t to say that the situation is hopeless. We’ve built large and successful youth organizations like Young Americans for Liberty and Students for Liberty. We have funding from various sources and numerous think tanks in the Washington D.C. area. Any cursory glance at a political website will reveal that we’re well represented online, at least in the comments section. And we’ve made legitimate headway on some very libertarian issues, such as criminal justice and drug war reform. So what went wrong, and where do we go from here?
I propose that our failures have not come from leftist incursion, lip service to the GOP, or the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right (although these are all factors.) No, I think our problem stems from something more fundamental. I think we lost because we lost sight of the ideas and passions which first brought us into the movement. We’ve forgotten about the issues and tried too hard to sell our ideology as a complete package. We’ve focused too much on Movement Libertarianism, and not enough on Issues Libertarianism. These terms are borrowed from a speech that Jeff Deist of the Mises Institute gave earlier this year to a gathering of the Texas Libertarian Party. In his speech, he describes how the Libertarian Party can get back in the game and start winning elections and influencing policy by focusing on selling individual issues. I would like to take some of the ideas from his speech and build on them, applying them to Libertarian activism in general and to the Liberty Movement started by Ron Paul in 2008 in particular.
Deist notes in his speech that we need “real, measurable, clear cut goals for the party.” Is this what we have been busy preaching as activists? Or, have we been focusing on converting people to our ideology? And what is our ideology? At this point I think it’s fair to say that our core philosophy, in some form or another, centers around the idea of the Non-Aggression Principle. Let’s put aside whether the NAP is a valid philosophical concept or whether it is truly a morally just guideline, the better discussion is – has it been a practical way to inspire people and convince the electorate to support the kind of change we wish to see in the world? I would answer in the negative. Talking about the non-aggression principle, our “philosophy,” or any of the other movement shorthands for classical libertarianism has only convinced a tiny minority of people and an even tinier minority of voters. And why should they be convinced? Why should Americans abandon their own deeply held beliefs to join our idiosyncratic (and somewhat cultish!) ethos? This is where Deist is correct to point out how Issue Libertarianism can help us, noting how a union truck driver from New Jersey and feminist studies Professor from U-Berkeley will both end up pulling the lever for the Democrats come November. They don’t agree on ideology, but they do agree on the issues. And what are our issues? Are we focused on the ideas and policies that initially got all of us so excited? Or have we drifted off on a separate course? We will need to do some serious soul-searching to determine which issues are essential moving forward, and which we would be willing to compromise on. Fortunately, I believe we’ve already been presented with a good foundation for this process.
In 2008, after Congressman Paul failed to win the Republican nomination for President but did generate and inspire a substantial following, he made a public appearance with Independent Candidate and Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader to discuss the potential for a third party alliance. The video can be found below. Paul and Nader agreed on 4 major issues: Foreign Policy and rejection of preemptive war, Privacy and Civil Liberties, getting the National Debt under control and auditing the Federal Reserve. These may not be all the issues we care about, but I believe they’re a good start. Imagine the kind of coalitions we could build if we focused on these issues rather than trying to persuade others to adopt our entire worldview! There is still great hope for the liberty movement, despite our temporary setbacks – especially if we adopt an issues-based strategy. These suggestions are, for the time being, merely food for thought, and I hope we will all participate in deciding which issues should be at the forefront of our movement. Which issues brought you to the movement? Which issues can we build coalitions with? These are questions I will explore in my next post, and there is one issue in particular I believe should be part of the foundation for an issues-based Liberty Movement.