Thomas L. Knapp

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The life of the Party
The LP's multiple personality disorder
part two of ???:
by Thomas L. Knapp

Do not wait for the last judgment, it takes place every day.
-- Camus

The political party, as a concept, can be described in any number of ways: with reference to its organizational structure, its strategic approach, its platform or goals, and so forth. Over the course of this series, I'll probably look at most of those elements. In this particular installment, I intend to offer a proposition and to support that proposition by describing the Libertarian Party in terms of its strategic approach.

Resolved, that the Libertarian Party suffers from a case of multiple personality disorder.

By "strategic approach," I mean the overall method which a party uses to achieve its goals. That method doesn't exist in a vacuum -- it affects, and is affected by, a party's organizational structure and platform or goals. Nonetheless, the method can be, to one degree or another, isolated and examined.

There are three broad strategic approaches with which a party might identify itself:

1) The electoral approach;
2) The ideological approach; and
3) The revolutionary approach.

An electoral party strategy is centered around winning elections: mobilizing pluralities or majorities of voters to elect that party's candidates to positions of power from which they can then implement the party's platform (or, in some cases, mobilizing those voters around initiatives and referenda to directly implement pieces of the party's platform). The electoral strategy relies on putting together coalitions of "single-issue" voters and/or creating a "big tent" that draws in, through one "policy door" or another, the necessary plurality or majority.

An ideological party strategy is centered around rigorous adherence to principle and refusal to sacrifice goals for electoral gain. In order for an ideological party to succeed, it must, through propaganda and education, rally enough of the populace to its cause to a) create the pluralities/majorities that electoral parties rely on coalition/big tent methods to get, or b) create a voter bloc that forces a succesful electoral party to adopt its agenda.1

The primary historical example of the successful ideological party in American history is the Socialist Party of the early 20th century. Socialists won elections in many cases, especially at the municipal level, but did not achieve sufficient voter support to become the nation's majority, or main opposition, party. Instead, their increasing popularity forced the Democratic Party to adopt many of the Socialist Party's policy goals as its own. While the Socialist Party may have intended to be an electoral party, and while its approach may have sometimes been electoral, it ultimately went down in history as an ideological party -- and a successful one at that.

A revolutionary party strategy relies on armed struggle and/or resistance to overthrow the existing political system and replace it with one more to that party's liking.

The Libertarian Party, for most of its three decades, has adopted elements of both the electoral and ideological approaches (and, for all of that time, has eschewed the "revolutionary" approach). There have been attempts -- Rothbard's "Leninist" strategy, for example -- to force it into one mold, but those attempts have been successfully resisted.

There are some who would hold that a multi-pronged approach is superior: a frontal assault via the electoral route, coupled with a flanking maneuver: fight our electoral opponents at the polls, but also attempt to force them, through "spoiler" races and such, to adopt our policy recommendations.

This is, in my opinion, is a mistake.

If the LP was a much larger organization, it might be possible for it to split its forces in the face of the enemy, like Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, and get away with it. However, it is not a large organization and will not become a large organization in the near term so long as it retains its bent toward ideological purity.

A smaller force can only overcome a larger force by directing its entire effort at its enemy's weakest point.

Right now, the LP suffers from a severe case of multiple personality disorder. It is attempting to be both an ideological party and an electoral party, and the two are not compatible.

The LP needs to decide what it is going to be -- an ideological party or an electoral party (or a revolutionary party, but that seems unlikely).

That choice has ramifications:

  • An ideological party can afford "purity tests." As a matter of fact, that is what defines an ideological party. The LP's current platform is consistent with that of an ideological party. If we're going to be an electoral party, then our "platform" has to go. It needs to be replaced with something like what we now refer to as our "program" -- a laundry list of what Libertarian candidates, if elected to office, would attempt to accomplish during their terms instead of a manifesto for libertopia.

  • The same reasoning applies to "the pledge." In the context of an ideological party, the member certification required in the bylaws may have some value (assuming that it is interpreted in the same way by all signers and that everyone who signs it means it, neither assumption being safe). In the context of an electoral party, it has no value whatsoever -- all it does is act as a "Beware of Dogma" sign driving away the people who must fill the "big electoral tent."

  • While an ideological party might still run electoral campaigns, those campaigns would be of an "educational" and "spoiler" nature -- the enemy's weak points would be for higher office where publicity opportunities and the chance to affect the outcome in any way exist. An electoral party would eschew these campaigns for the most part, concentrating instead on winnable elections, most of which, for the nonce, are to local and lower-level office.

There exists one mistaken notion that I would like to address: being an electoral, as opposed to ideological, party does not require "compromise" in the way that that term is usually understood. It simply requires that party members and activists be willing to work with each other to make progress in a particular policy direction.

For example, the medical marijuana advocate doesn't have to agree that the next step will be legalizing heroin, and the no-drug-laws advocate doesn't have to agree to stop working on drug issues once medical marijuana is legal. The bridge is crossed when it is arrived at instead of never being arrived at.

The "big tent's" nature is not that it excludes the ideologically pure, but that it includes those who focus is on what the party proposes to do now (with now meaning "in the next two years, if we're elected").

My opinion on what type of party the LP should be is as yet only softly formed. I can live with an organization that goes in either direction. But it must, eventually, choose a direction, Until it does, the tension between the two "personalities" will keep it in one place (the distant third that it now occupies), or, at some future point, split it in two literally instead of just strategically.

To be continued ...

Part One --> The life of the Party


1. A third option exists for "ideological" parties: in polities where proportional representation, approval voting or instant runoff voting are practiced, even relatively small parties can hope to achieve representation in those polities' institutions. Unfortunately, most American elections are still "first past the post" -- it's winner take all, and parties that cannot rally a plurality or majority to their banner get nothing. For more information on on approval voting, click here.