Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is the publisher of Rational Review.


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The life of the Party
an introduction
part one of ???:
by Thomas L. Knapp

After the ecstasy, the laundry.
-- Zen saying

It's the stuff of folklore: in December of 1971, a few people got together in David F. Nolan's Denver apartment and founded a new political party. The following year, that party -- the Libertarian Party -- ran its first presidential ticket, receiving the vote of one renegade elector.

Since then, the LP has had its ups and downs but, as of 2003, has firmly established itself as America's continuing third political presence (not to be confused with the Green shadow of the Democratic Party, the Constitution/U.S. Taxpayers shadow of the Republican Party or the Reform Party which, as a presence, isn't, well, present).

Third, however, is not the desirable position in a political environment based on majorities, pluralities and "first past the post" electoral outcomes. In order to achieve its goals, the LP must either become one of the top two, or else force one of those top two to adopt its policy prescriptions.

A political party is a squishy kind of thing. Ask a Democrat or Republican exactly what his or her party is or stands for and you're likely to get an earful of slogans or references to particular politicians or issues -- but not the same slogans or references from any two Democrats or Republicans.

The same is true of the Libertarian Party, as much as many might wish it were not so. What is the LP? Is it its national committee, its headquarters staff, its newspaper, its "members" (people who pay annual dues to the national committee), its affiliate organizations (state parties in the fifty states and DC), its registered voters, its platform, its bylaws, its pledge, or all, some or none of the above?

More than three decades into its existence, the LP has yet to define itself beyond the scope of some narrow and obvious bylaws provisions passed by national conventions.

The LP's activists often attempt to define it by way of highlighting certain ideological positions or demanding that it undertake certain courses of action deemed necessary to success, but there is a political version of Newtonian physics at work within the LP: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Randites, Rothbardians, anarchists, minarchists, single issue enthusiasts and advocates of various syntheses compete for the attention of Libertarians and for control of the Party's apparatus, such as it is.

The effect, all too often, is much like that of wave superposition. The various elements are all out of phase with each other just enough to produce a softening or muting effect rather than a chorus or even a cacophany.

For all intents and purposes, the Libertarian Party is invisible to those who are not in some way intimately involved with it. Even at election time, Libertarian candidates capture the attention of a small minority of voters and the support of only part of that minority except in special local circumstances.

This problem is not unique to the LP. Every "ideological" party suffers from it. The parties which eventually succeed -- which see their policy prescriptions implemented --do so in one of two ways:

  • By becoming "non-ideological" parties, focusing on issues and personalities of the moment rather than abiding questions of principle, and absorbing the flotsam of other political movements in disarray (the Republicans and Democrats); or

  • By letting their ideology act as a grain of sand to another party's oyster, forcing that other party to encompass the policy positions flowing from that ideology and eventually present those policy positions as its own "pearls" (as the Socialists did with the Democrats in the early 20th century, and as the ex-Trotskyite "neo-conservatives" did with the GOP after World War II).

A third route, not successfully implemented in the United States since, perhaps, Jefferson's "second revolution," is to bring one's ideology to the fore and secure its adoption by the people.

All three routes enjoy substantial support among Libertarian Party activists. None enjoys unanimous support, and each meets with considerable resistance when proposed.

Introspection has been a weakness of the Libertarian Party in two ways. We drown in introspection on ideological issues; yet when it comes to practical political introspection, there is water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

The party's activists and organs have attempted to address these problems in a number of ways.:

Advocates of different organizational modes ("membership recruitment," "local organization," etc.) have made substantial arguments on behalf of those modes.

The Libertarian National Committee has undertaken "strategic planning" activities in an attempt to map out a course of future success, and the loyal opposition has countered with such activities of its own.

Advocates of "silver bullets" also abound. "If only the LP could run a 'celebrity' candidate;" "if only the LP had $10 million to spend on a presidential campaign;" "if only the LP would pour all of 'its' money into a single congressional or gubernatorial race;" and so forth.

What is lacking in these approaches is that few of their advocates truly regard the Party's own history, or the history of other political movements, as relevant or significant to the issues at hand. And, to the extent that they do, they tend to focus on narrow slivers of those histories to the exclusion of information that contraindicates their prescriptions.

There is an extent to which the Libertarian Party proposes, and must propose, a whole new way of doing things. Our history as a party suggests, however, that we've allowed our penchant for making such proposals to run far ahead of our ability to follow through and turn propositions into real accomplishments.

To which I must add, mea culpa. As an LP activist I, too, have spent too much of my time surfing from wave to wave of ideological discovery and euphoria over prospective success, and too little on the beach of defeat analyzing how I got there.

When I launched Rational Review a little more than a year ago, I intended to keep it out of Party issues for the most part. In its second year, I'm abandoning that intention (although, to be fair, at least one of Rational Review's editors abandoned it for me almost before it was uttered).

In coming months, I intend, in this "Life of the Party" series, to outline a vision -- and to publish articles by others outlining visions of their own -- for the Libertarian Party's future success.

My own offerings will no doubt suffer, to one degree or another, from many of the same defects I've pointed out in prior efforts. That's unavoidable -- if tacit assumptions were so easy to escape from, someone else would have already done so over the course of the last three decades. Nonetheless, I hope to create, over time, an online "symposium" incorporating competing visions, interactive discussions and modular resources, available to all, for the purpose of advancing a long overdue period of introspection in the LP.

To be continued ...