Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Libertarian Party: What the hell are we trying to do, and how?

My recent post The Libertarian Party: Failing Our Own Candidates in New and Imaginative Ways has drawn several comments, a number of private emails (several from LNC members or alternates who swear that they are quietly working behind the scenes to fix things) and two long, thoughtful responses from John that deserve a wider audience than click-throughs to the Comments>

Here's his first:

You said: “The Libertarian Party currently does not have a national leadership organization that is either willing or able to do what needs to be done to gain electoral success.”

You are assuming that electoral success is supposed to be the mission of the LP. I agree that it should be, but it is not. The LP as an organization has never come to that conclusion. Ever since it’s founding the LP has been unable to articulate a clear mission statement. The so-called “Dallas accord” in 1974 and the adoption of the current “statement of principles” have made the LP a schizophrenic organization. Minarchists want to elect people to change public policy, Anarchists only want to run candidates but not elect them. Some only want to be candidates for narcissistic reasons. Some see the LP as a moneymaking opportunity. Various factions vie for “LP leadership” and paid staff positions. Whichever faction wins a majority or an effective plurality on the LNC tilts the LP in their direction. While the volunteer and the donor base are constantly losing and gaining members, the LP maintains a certain stable dynamic equilibrium among the factions.

Without an unambiguous mission statement you cannot do effective long range strategic planning. Without a long range strategic plan you cannot settle on a short-range plan. Without a short-range plan you cannot do day-to-day operational management. The LP will never do any of this.

The national LP operates from a series of perceived axioms laid down by Dave Nolan in his omniscience and they are never really questioned or evaluated. These perceived axioms are:

We need a top down organizational model.
We need a national platform.
We need to run a presidential candidate.
We need 50 state ballot access.
We need a national office with paid staff.

In response, I asked John:

For kicks, grins, and future debate, you have asked a question that has been niggling at me for some time: What would an LP organized from the "bottom up"look like?

I start with one major assumption: it would not be so fixated on presidential elections.

He replied,

That can only be answered if one knows what the mission is.

Assuming for the moment that the mission is to change public policy by electing “libertarians” to office, one way would be to organize at the PRECINCT LEVEL only where there are libertarians willing to be run for, be elected to and serve in local office for a number of terms. Each such candidate would need a local support team. A local PAC if you will. It wouldn’t matter if the PAC was created first and a candidate sought, or if a potential candidate sought to form a local PAC. These PACs would cooperate as they saw fit to support a credible candidate for higher office such as borough, town or city ward level. “Conventions” at the city, state or national level would only be held by or attended by “the willing” and any determinations made at such conventions would be enforced only the voluntary cooperation of the “convinced”. It would take a number of years for a cadre of experienced local elected libertarians to select from among themselves candidates for higher office that they could support and who could be credible and competitive.

Of course there are and would be a myriad of details and problems to work through and I can’t list them all and don’t know them all. But assuming that this non-hierarchical, decentralized, matrix organization was successful at the local and county level, there might not be any need to go further. It would be time to reevaluate the strategy. Maybe the Democrat and Republican parties would have been sufficiently transformed towards free market limited government that further debate and reformation could take place within the “reformed” parties. A firm libertarian base at the county level would be an inhibiting factor against the natural tendency for government bureaucracy to grow.

This organization would not necessarily be known as the "Libertarian Party" in all states and would not purport to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not libertarian. Other ideological organizations or individuals can claim/dispute that authority.

This response intrigues me, as it is a direction that I had not necessarily considered on my own. I'll have to spend some time playing with it. [Perhaps the reason I had never thought of this sort of county-based organization is that I hail from a state with only three counties to its name: everybody pretty much knows everybody else.]

What really stimulates my thinking, however, is John's observation about the perceived axioms under which the national LP is organized. It's worth repeating:

The national LP operates from a series of perceived axioms laid down by Dave Nolan in his omniscience and they are never really questioned or evaluated. These perceived axioms are:

We need a top down organizational model.
We need a national platform.
We need to run a presidential candidate.
We need 50 state ballot access.
We need a national office with paid staff.

I have recently begun to realize that (a) this list is accurate; and (b) it is not necessarily incorrect, just nice.


In the military we had a rule of thumb that divided things you had to have (like equipment) or things you had to know (skills) into the categories of NEED, GOOD, and NICE.

There are things that you NEED to have.
There are things that are GOOD to have.
There are things that are NICE to have.

You only go after GOOD things once you have all the NEEDED things.
You only go after NICE things once you have all the GOOD and all the NEEDED things.

Pretty much every one of the perceived axioms of David Nolan fall into the NICE TO HAVE category.

It would be NICE to have a top down organizational model, but what we NEED is a persistent, well-founded bottom-up organization.

It's NICE to have a national platform, but what we NEED are some limited, well-developed, soundly researched common issues that tie together Libertarians and libertarian-minded members of the Demopublican Party.

It's NICE to run a presidential candidate, but what we NEED are elected Libertarians in the State Legislatures and the US Congress.

It would be NICE to have 50 state ballot access, but what we NEED to do is make better decisions about spending our limited resources to produce success where we are strongest, not where we are weakest.

It would be NICE to have a national office with paid staff (assuming that staff actually supported State and local Libertarian candidates), but what we NEED is a functional national fund-raising organization that actually distributes campaign contributions to competitive Libertarian candidates.

You should understand my bias here. I do not believe that that libertarian ideals are going to be best served within the two existing major parties, and I think that the four-decade alliance between Libertarian Republicans and Social Conservative Republicans bears that out. I think that a vague Libertarian movement is wholly inadequate to challenging the dehumanizing power of the State, and that we need actual candidates in elected offices to make a difference. That means we have to learn how to play the political games necessary to force our way in without compromising our principles.

I think we need a Libertarian Party [whether we call it that or not] that functions like a real political party. [In that respect I believe that the nomination of Bob Barr represents not just carpet-bagging by Richard Viguerie et all, but also the ultimate failure of the David Nolan perceived axioms: The LP is running--without doubt--a presidential candidate enjoying the highest name recognition of any Libertarian nominee, and while he may break the one-million-vote plateau, he is doing so without offering a damn thing to down-ticket Libertarians around the country.

Large successful organizations--political, corporate, military or otherwise--manage to combine a top-down hierarchy with a bottom-up, emergent network.

The people charged with running the Libertarian Party today would not even be able to parse that last sentence.

So, guess what?

We're going to have to take the Libertarian Party away from them.

A final note: I reject the idea that the great schism in the LP lies between radicals and reformers, or between anarchists and minarchists, or even between Mary Ruwart and Bob Barr. The Great Schism in the Libertarian Party is between those who are serious about electoral victory as a route to libertarian political reform and those whose agendas (personal, financial, or social) have other objectives.


Brian Shields said...

So.. basically.. to heck with the national party, let them play their games, and we do what we can in our little neck of the woods to build real change in politics?

Sounds like a plan. They can't possibly try to orchestrate bottom-up from the top anyway. I agree that national should show their support of real candidates instead of trying to fight for ballot access in places where it really won't matter until there is a bottom-up organization there to keep it in place.

Oh, and air conditioners. Every email I see begging for donations I think of air conditioners. Sheesh.

Shirley Vandever said...

I have so, so much to say on this, it will have to be a post. A long ride today; good time to get some thinking in.

You, kavips, and Waldo always make me think. I hate when that happens. It is just so annoying.