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The Libertarian Party does Vegas

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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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.

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