The Libertarian party probably rejected any claim to normalcy from the get-go by holding its convention in a casino. The Republicans and Democrats hold their conventions in Tampa and Charlotte in a few months, but America’s third largest political party held its nominating convention from May 2-6 at the Red Rock Resort on the edge of Las Vegas. Delegates selected former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as their presidential candidate. News of Johnson’s nomination garnered a few obligatory headlines but was mostly met with a collective shrug by the political media. The lack of interest in the Libertarian party is a bit mystifying, given that voters routinely express dissatisfaction with both major parties. Well, that and the fact that the Libertarian convention was something of a freak show that descended into near anarchy.
After traversing acres of slot machines to get to the convention’s registration desk, I found myself gawking at a woman in a skintight white dress whose preposterous top story and precarious heels made her stand out even in Las Vegas. It turned out to be Kristin Davis, the Manhattan Madam who ran the escort service that ensnared former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Davis ran for governor of New York in 2010, though she failed to get the Libertarian nomination and ran instead as the candidate of the Anti-Prohibition party. Also in attendance was Norma Jean Almodovar, who quickly used up her 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s when she went public with her story about leaving the LAPD to become a high-priced Beverly Hills call girl, a career she declared was “far more honest.” After a short jail sentence related to her new line of work, Almodovar ran for lieutenant governor of California on the Libertarian ticket, hoping to pardon herself if elected, and garnered 100,000 votes. Waiting in line at the obligatory casino buffet, I saw a man walk by in a white wig, stockings, miniskirt, and bustier. After arching an eyebrow at the sight, Mike Riggs, an associate editor at Reason, the libertarian political magazine, simply looked at me and said, “You don’t know who that is? That’s Starchild.” Starchild, it turns out, is a well-known San Francisco sex worker. If whoring in politics is inevitable, libertarians are at least admirably transparent about it.
True, among the hundreds gathered for the convention, these are just difficult to ignore outliers. But many of the attendees wear their nonconformity like a uniform, as befits a party devoted to personal freedom. There probably hasn’t been such an assemblage of gray-haired men in ponytails since the Grateful Dead stopped touring. And even the outwardly staid tend to be firebrands on the inside. Brendan Kelly, who’s running for Congress on the Libertarian ticket in New Hampshire, has been married for over 50 years and is a grandfather of six. He’s amiable and clearly has the respect of his local community because he’s been elected a selectman twice. At a hotel bar, he insists on telling me that when people hear he’s a candidate, the first thing they ask him is, “Are you going to bring articles of impeachment against people in Washington for not upholding the Constitution?” a question he’s delighted to answer in the affirmative. In an era where Congress’s approval rating dips into single digits, this impeach-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out attitude isn’t necessarily a radical proposition among voters, but the candidates themselves are seldom this bracing.
The patina of extremism is why many libertarians in Washington are quick to volunteer they are “small-l” libertarians. Even if they’re ultimately on the same page philosophically, they don’t want to be lumped in with a political party that has historically emphasized legalizing sex work and marijuana, and generally razing Washington, D.C., over putting forward a message of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism that might attract new voters in large numbers. Even the most abstract and serious libertarian policy stances are often a hair’s breadth from weirdness. Libertarians were prescient to have spent the last few decades trying to draw attention to the perils of American finance, as well as urging reforms at the Federal Reserve. But when you start inquiring about the economy, the talk escalates quickly from paper currency to conspiracy. On a Libertarian message board, you’re often just one click away from a frightfully earnest conversation about the Bilderbergers and the Rothschilds.
Though Ron Paul is nominally a Republican these days, his obsession with monetary policy is much more representative of his longstanding allegiance to the Libertarian party. Time magazine recently ran an article about the reaction to their GOP primary coverage by his famously devoted fan base. Some of the more choice comments: “[Time reporter] Alex Altman is another perfect example of an employee of a firm paid by The Fed to make sure that dangerous Ron Paul doesn’t get elected. . . . Most everyone knows that Time magazine is in bed with the CIA. Ron Paul as President means that Global Banking Elite will lose money, so he’s being Blacked-out by the MIC [military-industrial complex] Media.”
Party activists at the convention concede they have an image problem. When I told an attendee that one of the vendors outside the hotel ballroom where the convention was being held was selling solid copper “Barter or Trade” coins with marijuana leaves imprinted on them, he audibly groaned.
Of course, libertarians can take solace in the fact that there is almost always tension in political parties between the establishment bosses who have to be pushed into doing anything bold and grassroots activists who can skew a little crazy—see the Republicans in Name Only vs. Tea Party disputes currently roiling the GOP. However, after 150 years, the Republican party has proven durable enough to weather factional infighting. The Libertarian party was founded in 1971, and garnered just over half a million votes in the 2008 presidential election. Its own struggle between the grassroots activists and respectable establishment is being brought to the fore by a palpable sense that if ever there were a moment for libertarianism to break through as an organized political concern, that moment is now.
Economic issues, where libertarians are at their most persuasive, are at the forefront of the political debate. The established parties are both implicated hip-deep in the financial crisis besetting Western economies. Libertarians also have an impressive and growing political infrastructure to push their ideas from inside the political establishment. The Cato Institute is one of the most influential think tanks in Washington, D.C. Similarly, the libertarian Mercatus Center at George Mason University has two affiliated Nobel Prize-winning economists and has a major impact on regulatory policy on Capitol Hill. The Institute for Humane Studies has programs drilling free market economics and other libertarian ideals into thousands of college-age kids every year. Reason is one of the most consistently engaging political magazines in the country, and helped turn the problems of public-sector unions into a major national issue.
At the opposite end of the institutional spectrum, there’s an incredibly energetic, Internet-savvy, radicalized strain of grassroots libertarian activism that has been quite successful at recruiting younger and disaffected voters to the cause. The activists tend toward a degree of ideological purity that makes them frequently dismissive of libertarian organizations and other attempts to fix Washington from the inside. Among the most hardcore, Reason and Cato are derided as Treason and Stato, the latter referring to that favorite libertarian epithet, “statist.” The Libertarian party has the unenviable task of trying to forge an electoral coalition by getting these two factions to work together.
How’s that working out? It’s telling that perhaps the two most influential libertarians in America—both formerly on Libertarian party presidential tickets—are devoting most of their time and money trying to mainstream the libertarian message within the GOP. The aforementioned Ron Paul was the 1988 Libertarian presidential candidate, but this election he’s racked up too many delegates in the GOP primary to be ignored at the upcoming Republican convention. Ron Paul T-shirts were all over the Libertarian convention, and it’s fair to say his candidacy has sapped a lot of energy that might otherwise have benefited the party. And then there’s David Koch, the energy magnate and philanthropist who, along with his brother Charles, is an oft-demonized money-man behind many GOP causes, though it’s often forgotten that they are longtime libertarians. As the Libertarian party vice presidential nominee in 1980, David Koch ran on a platform of, among other things, abolishing the CIA and legalizing suicide. In light of the dozens of recent Obama fundraising appeals caricaturing the Koch brothers as coldhearted right-wing billionaires, it took admirable restraint for David Koch not to issue a press release congratulating the president for coming around to his long-held position favoring same-sex marriage.
Given the minefield of political oddities that is the Libertarian party, consider the plight of Gary Johnson. The former governor of New Mexico is easily the most qualified and mainstream presidential candidate the Libertarian party has ever had. He founded one of New Mexico’s largest construction companies before being elected to two terms as a Republican in a state that is by no means a GOP stronghold. In 1995, Johnson slowed the 10 percent annual growth of New Mexico’s budget by vetoing 200 bills his first six months in office, and that was just a warmup. During his eight years in office, “Governor Veto” nixed more bills than the other 49 governors combined and boasts of once vetoing a bill for no other reason than “it was too long and I didn’t have time to read it.” Though he was elected as a Republican, Johnson has always considered himself a libertarian and been sympathetic to libertarian issues that fall outside the mainstream of the GOP. He pursued marijuana decriminalization as governor, and the fitness buff has admitted to lighting up as recently as 2008 to help recover from a paragliding accident.
Yet despite his reputation for setting legislative bonfires and a campaign centered around the promise of eliminating $1.4 trillion in federal spending in the first year, the word that came up repeatedly in describing Johnson at the convention is “incrementalist.” This was not meant as a compliment. Because of his unparalleled political experience and the measure of favorable publicity he received from the national press during his brief appearance in the GOP primaries, I was under the impression that Johnson was all but a lock for the Libertarian nomination. But the moment he wandered on stage at the convention to debate his sole challenger, R. Lee Wrights, I began to wonder if Gary Johnson was, in fact, radical enough for the party faithful.
The debate was a near-perfect microcosm of the tensions between the respectable establishment and the radical activists. Johnson’s considerable business and political experience suggested a mismatch. Reading between the lines of Wrights’s campaign biography, near as I can tell he has primarily been a writer of libertarian newsletters. Officially, “Lee works as the secretary and communications director for Sativa Science, a pharmaceutical start-up company.” Recall that cannabis sativa is the scientific name for marijuana.
Thin résumé or not, as a guy who hawks opinions to libertarian activists, Wrights clearly has his finger on the pulse of party activists in a way that Johnson does not. A Texan by way of North Carolina, Wrights also has a booming drawl and a natural gift for oratory that serve him well in a debate. He’s a fiery ball of aphorisms: “I believe in gun control, that’s why I use both hands. . . . It’s easier [for illegal immigrants] to swim the Rio Grande than climb Mt. Bureaucracy. . . . I believe in abolishing the Department of Education, because I don’t believe in child abuse. . . . We have global warming every year; it’s called summer.” These may be trite takes on complicated issues, but they appear to be winning over the ballroom full of Libertarian party state delegates who are voting to select a candidate the following morning. They holler and yawp with delight at each of his pronouncements.
The other key way that Wrights seems to be connecting with the crowd is by making antiwar sentiment the primary theme of his campaign. In fact, Wrights’s campaign slogan, to be found on all his signs and one that he repeats at key moments during the debate, is “I am not at war.” If the Libertarian convention has delegates from Eastasia they’re probably relieved, but as a political cri de coeur it borders on Dada. Wrights’s slogan does highlight that foreign policy is the biggest wedge separating libertarians from the GOP. If libertarians had traditionally found some room inside the GOP’s big tent, the post-9/11 landscape threatened the uneasy alliance. George W. Bush’s anti-terror surveillance policies and embrace of preemptive war in Iraq pushed many libertarians over the edge. By the end of Bush’s presidency there was a crusade for a left-libertarian alliance by Cato Institute scholars Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson. Just ahead of the 2008 election, Reason conducted a presidential poll of 42 prominent libertarians ranging from Craigs-list founder Craig Newmark to comedian Drew Carey. Fifteen said they were voting for Obama; only four backed McCain. (The rest were voting for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr, declined to say, or explained their opposition to voting.)
Though Bush’s $4.9 trillion in new debt didn’t make libertarians feel warm and fuzzy about the GOP, it’s hard to imagine they were so naïve as to believe that an election result that put Democrats in charge of all three branches of government was a vote for fiscal sanity, as opposed to registering their foreign policy and civil liberties concerns. But Obama’s presidency has turned into a libertarian nightmare on those fronts, too: the extension and/or expansion of nearly all of Bush’s antiterror policies, the invasion of Libya, executive orders monitoring gun sales, Government Motors, a newly unionized TSA empowered to take nude photos of air travelers, a federal mandate forcing you to purchase health insurance, not to mention over $5 trillion in new debt in less than one term.
The idea of a left-libertarian alliance now seems farcical—Lindsey and Wilkinson were eventually pushed out of Cato for their heresy—and libertarians are largely back on the same fiscal page as a Tea Party-chastened GOP. But the antiwar sentiment remains, and it’s a much broader concern for libertarians than just the protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. As tempting as it is to believe that the Federal Reserve and CIA have teamed up to sabotage Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy, the libertarian appeal to GOP primary voters was probably limited by Paul’s contention that American foreign policy is to blame for 9/11. And speaking of libertarians and terrorism, one of Ron Paul’s biggest supporters, Adam Kokesh, caught the attention of the Secret Service by musing on his YouTube talk show about an unorthodox plan to secure the GOP nomination for Paul by assassinating Mitt Romney. Kokesh spent much of the Bush era in the hard-left antiwar movement as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. (The Marine Corps revoked his honorable discharge for appearing at a political event in uniform and showing disrespect toward a senior officer.) If the libertarian movement is eager to draw energy from the antiwar movement, attracting Kokesh and his ilk might prove to be a decidedly mixed blessing.
As for Johnson’s approach in the debate, it was almost the exact opposite of Wrights’s. He spent much of his time telling the delegates things they didn’t want to hear. For one, the End-the-Fed crowd did not want to hear this: “Abolishing the Federal Reserve is not the end-all. The end-all is to stop printing money, and if the Federal Reserve were abolished, Treasury could still print money.” Wrights, on the other hand, not only wants Congress to abolish the Fed, he wants to repeal all legal tender laws and introduce competing private currencies.
Johnson had a few zingers of his own in the debate—on the recent financial meltdown, he remarked, to much cheering, that Wall Street wanted “capitalism on the way up, and communism on the way down.” But he was doomed from the start by the impossibility of topping Wrights in his antigovernment pronouncements. When Johnson spoke of abolishing the IRS and replacing it with the Fair Tax, a national sales tax proposal that’s gained some traction among the GOP grassroots, Wrights’s response was dumbfounding. “I agree we need to abolish the IRS; do away with the income tax and replace it with nothing.” The crowd went wild. For the briefest of moments, the normally implacable Johnson looked annoyed.
In his hotel suite the next morning, Johnson is back to his eerily calm self. Regarding the intraparty tensions at the convention, he speaks quite freely about the challenges of being perceived as not radical enough. “Philosophy is one thing, party politics is another. So I think the party politics that goes on here is ‘no compromise’ in getting from A to Z. Well, I don’t view it as compromise to go from A to D to E to F to get to Z. I don’t see that as a compromise, I see that as movement in the right direction,” he says.
Johnson is also adamant that he’s not going to pander by adopting unrealistic approaches. He notes that it’s not just Wrights who wants to eliminate federal income taxes. “Ron Paul says we’re going to do away with the income tax and we’ll replace it with nothing. Well, when people hear that, and we’re running a $1.4 trillion deficit, I think for the majority of Americans that’s a collective eyeball roll. You can’t go from A to Z.”
So if Johnson is going to run a campaign that’s in key respects more mainstream than the second-place finisher in the GOP primary, why not remain a Republican rather than suffer the slings and arrows of radical libertarians? Well, libertarians may fight over how to get from A to Z, but “I don’t think that Democrats understand where their Z is. I don’t think Republicans understand where their Z is.” And when Johnson says he’s “one of those believers where we’re really offering up the solutions to the problems that the country has,” his conviction is admirable.
Johnson’s confidence in libertarian policy solutions is characteristic of the movement, though slightly misplaced. Which brings us to the other wedge between libertarians and conservatives: For a party that takes much pride in its ideological constancy, libertarians don’t necessarily hold predictable positions on social issues. Gary Johnson is pro-choice, but Ron Paul, an OB-GYN, is staunchly pro-life, and there are deep libertarian arguments on both sides of the issue. As a matter of practical politics, Paul’s social conservative bona fides may be a major reason why his GOP primary bid lasted through May, while Johnson’s quickly stalled.
But Johnson’s loss in the Republican primaries proves to be the Libertarian party’s gain. Wrights may have won over some delegates at the debate, but a few hours after our interview Johnson accepted the party’s nomination. He won support from 70 percent of the delegates on the first ballot. He spent most of his short acceptance speech thanking his fiancée and his family. He also said that his brother called him after watching the debates on C-SPAN to let him know he got his butt kicked by Wrights, an admission that was a bit too well-received for comfort. Nonetheless, the party appeared to be united under the banner of Gary Johnson, and delegates were beaming with optimism about his chances to at least affect the national political debate. All the print reporters at the convention packed up and left, except for myself and Reason’s two diligent reporters, Mike Riggs and Garrett Quinn.
And that’s when the convention turned into a total goat rodeo.
To explain how ugly things subsequently got would be to punish readers with a tedious blow-by-blow featuring arcane parliamentary procedure. So here’s the condensed version: On the first ballot to vote for who would be the chairman of the Libertarian party, neither candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote. On the second round of balloting, “none of the above” won the support of 50 percent of the delegates. For a political party that exists largely because its members are convinced the major parties constitute the evil of two lessers, the ensuing uproar was so ironic as to suggest the convention was an elaborate bit of performance art.
According to party rules, no candidate could win unless they got 50 percent of the vote plus one. It took two days and countless votes to resolve the party leadership question.* Organizers had to go to the casino and ask to extend their stay in the ballroom long enough to resolve the matter. Near as anyone can tell, the “none of the above” vote was a coup staged by the radical grassroots—it was an organized campaign, replete with preprinted signs reading “Re-Elect No One.” From that point on, there was much infighting and contesting of every bit of procedure, as relayed by the increasing and comic frustration of Bill Redpath, the Libertarian party’s able and respected treasurer and the hapless fellow stuck with trying to apply the party’s rulebook. At various points his only recourse for maintaining order was hectoring delegates from the dais: “Quit being a pain in the ass. . . . It’s not a motion to revote, for Pete’s sake. . . . It may not be appropriate, but it’s legal. . . . I’m going to self-combust.”
The pivotal moment came when Lee Wrights addressed the tensions among “my family” and assumed the role of peacemaker. “I have said, over and over again, I am not at war. I’ll tell you something else, folks: We cannot even start thinking about stopping the wars outside this convention hall until we stop the wars inside these walls.” After six rounds of contentious balloting with different names being added and dropped, a candidate from the “purist wing of the party, Geoff Neale, won out, defeating two candidates from the more electorally focused wing of the party,” as Reason diplomatically summarized the result. The party -delegates then replaced every sitting member of the national committee. Starchild was elected to an at-large position. And notably, Wrights, who is close to Neale and is thought to have played a significant role in instigating the insurrection, was elected vice-chair of the party. For a guy who’s not at war, he’s a pretty good Clausewitz.
So, yes, the Libertarian party turned into a freak show. No doubt many libertarians might balk at such a description, but this is more or less what prominent members of the party themselves were saying by the end of the convention. Mark Rutherford, the vice-chair of the party coming into the convention, bemoaned the result. “I think the whole NOTA [none of the above] thing that happened in the chair’s race, and Starchild being elected, still shows that there are sizable elements of people that are not mature enough to make tough decisions and sometimes accept that things aren’t going to be the way they ought to be,” he fumed to Reason’s Quinn.
And on some level, to call it a freak show shouldn’t be passing judgment on libertarians. Electoral coalitions inevitably include those on the fringe, and the closer you get to a genuine grassroots movement the more fringy it becomes. We boast of our rugged individualism as Americans, but when confronted with manifestations of this virtue in a political context, the so-called establishment is quick to claim it’s discrediting. In one of the more noxious bits of Beltway wisdom to circulate in recent years—and that’s saying something—Politico editor John F. Harris and Time’s Mark Halperin wrote a book popularizing the term “freak show” to describe “a political culture that provides incentives for candidates, activists, interest groups, and the news media to emphasize ideological extremism.” Of course, it’s awfully convenient that what gets labeled “extremism” is largely determined by a political elite that includes the likes of John F. Harris and Mark Halperin. That elite also includes many entrenched interests who would be horrified to wake up one day and find Americans have elected the kind of freaks who take extreme measures to deal with $15 trillion in national debt and rein in a federal bureaucracy that seems to think it’s constitutionally empowered to force us all to eat broccoli.
Considering the alternative, the disorganized nature of the Libertarian party isn’t the worst thing imaginable. Following the machinations of the two major parties is increasingly a bread-and-circuses beat. Maybe the crowd gets rowdy and even expresses disapproval, but in the end there’s little doubt that there’s a group of party bosses and moneyed interests in the colosseum skybox whose Siskel-and-Ebert routine determines the fate of the combatants in the political arena. Most of the tensions at the Libertarian party were because the Libertarian party is at its core still concerned with being “small-d” democratic. They were going to vote and vote until the outcome was agreed upon by their delegates according to their rules. Compare that with how the Democratic party recently declared ahead of its Arkansas primary that any delegates won by John Wolfe—a grassroots candidate running against Obama who won over 40 percent of the vote—would not be counted.
If D.C.’s lords of conventional wisdom would dismiss the Libertarian party as extremist and irrelevant, Republicans and Democrats do so at their peril. Libertarians are unlikely to win a presidential election anytime soon, but they may decide it: According to Public Policy Polling, Gary Johnson is polling at 7 percent and 15 percent in the crucial swing states of New Hampshire and New Mexico, respectively. Now that Ron Paul is finally done with his GOP campaign, Johnson could conceivably rise in the polls if he can convince Paul’s supporters he’s the next-best thing.
Still, Johnson no doubt wishes party activists were more concerned with organizing to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states—a hurdle libertarian candidates often fail to clear—than, say, sitting around in a casino discussing the technical challenges of getting gas stations to offer variable price points that take into account the real-time fluctuations in commodity values used to back private currencies. If Johnson is serious about expanding the electoral appeal of the Libertarian party, at some point he’s going to have to contend with the purists in his own party. That may prove exasperating to Johnson and all of the “small-l” libertarians fretting that infighting is squandering their chance to be taken as a serious alternative at the ballot box.
Until that’s sorted out, you have to give the Libertarian party this—they don’t just believe in freedom, they live it. Maybe cross-dressing prostitutes and arguments over competing currencies should take a backseat for now, but it’s their party and they’ll do what they want to.
Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
*Article has been corrected to clarify the balloting rules and results of first round of voting at the convention.