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The life of the Party
The schism organism
part three of ???:
by Thomas L. Knapp

I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act.

-- Abraham Maslow

No political party functions without internal conflict and schism. It's the nature of the beast.

People who are motivated enough to become politically involved, and who affiliate with the organization that they find most efficacious and expressive of their ideas, soon learn that "most" is a relative term and that no party's membership is totally in agreement on all issues.

They also learn that arguments between allies are often more bloody than arguments between enemies -- precisely because the object of the former argument is control of the tools needed to pursue the latter argument.

The Libertarian Party is no stranger to internal controversy. Libertarians are perpetually sniping at one another and, occasionally, break out the heavy artillery. Our internal conflicts generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Disagreement on the goals the party should have;

  • Disagreement on what priorities the Party should set in pursuing its goals;

  • Disagreement on the best methods of pursuing its goals; and

  • Disagreement on the ethics of one's antagonists in any of the three preceding types of conflicts.

I want to handle that last category first, because it has been the Party's dominant form of internal conflict for nearly a decade.

I see no need to re-hash "the Willis Affair" or the "Cisewski Affair" in detail -- those who are unfamiliar with them can find out more about them here -- but those particular debates are characteristic of their type and have given rise to new, branching variations of themselves.

The "ethics" conflict may, of course, arise independently of other considerations. It is not necessarily true that accusations concerning the ethics of a Libertarian leader or official will be inspired by another conflict. That, however, has historically been the case: factions divided by disagreements of other kinds have alleged not simply error, but unethical conduct, on the part of their opponents, and have acted to remove the evildoers from power, or even to drive them from the Party.

In some cases, of course, the allegations are proven correct and remedial action is taken -- or not; the good guys don't always win. In other cases, the accusers prevail (or at least persist) whether their allegations hold water or not.

Obviously, I favor remedial action where unethical conduct exists. Just as obviously, I favor dismissing allegations that have no basis.

The latter, however, is not a simple thing. Accusations, proven or not, take on lives of their own. As Harry Browne aptly put it, "it's easier for a person to convince the world that my sister is a prostitute than it is for me to prove that I don't even have a sister."

Leaving aside the fact that, in at least some respects, Harry did have a metaphorical sister whose conduct matched the accusations, the point still holds true. If I accuse X of wrongdoing, X may disprove my allegations, but a year later, the allegations will be more clearly remembered than the rebuttal.

It is for this reason that "internal ethics" controversies are probably the most insidiously damaging to the Party: we can't afford unethical conduct, and we can't afford the ongoing harm that false accusations of such conduct does.

One need look no further than Virginia for an example of this phenomenon.

For many years, Jacob G. "Bumper" Hornberger has had a well-deserved reputation as one of the LP's most fiery and charismatic activists. Nobody speaks to audiences of all kinds like Bumper can. Few organizations publicize the libertarian perspective via op-ed pieces as effectively as his Future of Freedom Foundation. And Hornberger has also enjoyed a reputation as the LP's internal ethics watchdog, playing an important role in bringing to light the "Mother of All Ethics Controversies," the "Willis Affair."

Unfortunately, at some point, Hornberger fell into a habit of making accusations regarding the conduct of a fellow Virginia Libertarian that were simply unsupported by the facts -- and then issuing "retractions" that didn't, well, retract, when called upon to do so.

The victim of those accusations was himself a Libertarian activist with an equally impeccable record of working for liberty -- now-former LP chair Jim Lark, who has done yeoman's work in building student libertarian activism and who, under pressure from all sides, worked tirelessly to hold the LP together while the "Willis Affair" was hashed out.

When Hornberger announced his intention to seek the LPVA's nomination for U.S. Senate, Lark objected ... from the same soapbox that Hornberger had utilized, lo these many years, that of ethics.

Lark held that Hornberger's false accusations against other LPVA activists, himself included, brought Hornberger's integrity -- and therefore his fitness to represent the LPVA on the ballot -- into question. That Hornberger had only grudgingly and partially retracted those accusations (and at a much lower level of "volume" than he had originally made them) added credibility to this contention.

It was only the absolute dedication of these two to liberty that prevented complete schism in the LPVA. Hornberger withdrew his bid for the LPVA nomination and ran as an independent. The LPVA didn't nominate its own candidate, which left LP activists free, should they so desire, to support his candidacy.

But how much more might have been accomplished had Hornberger never made his accusations against Lark? Or had he volubly retracted them immediately upon presentation of facts proving them untrue, and apologized for his error?

Even given the heading off of a complete meltdown of the LPVA, everybody lost in this conflict (everyone, that is, except the statists).

The LPVA was deprived of the services of a formidable candidate; Hornberger was deprived of the formal backing of a substantial organization. For years in the future, the names "Lark" and "Hornberger" will call forth partial memories in the minds of some LP activists -- memories of allegations, certainly, but not always memories of retractions, exonerations, penances or rapprochements.

Ethics controversies have no winners, at least at the time that they take place and for some time after.

If allegations of misconduct prove to be true, the best that can be hoped for is that the misconduct will be stopped and that the perpetrators will be punished and/or cease and desist: that the stain will, eventually, come out of the rug.

If the allegations prove to be untrue, then it's just as bad-- the stain takes as long or longer to fade, and nobody remembers that it turned out to be ketchup instead of blood.

How, then, should the Party handle ethics controversies?

A number of suggestions have been made, and some of those suggestions have been adopted: Party policy requires disclosure of potential conflicts of interest on the part of Party leadership and staff, and forbids conflicting work to staff. Where those policies are violated, the whistleblower has no choice but to sound off, and the Party's leadership has no choice but to investigate the allegations and act on findings of misconduct.

The whistle having been blown, however, the whistleblower should be just as aggressive, and just as loud, in retracting allegations that prove to be baseless -- and the Party's leadership, having investigated allegations, should be just as ready to publish the results of investigations that don't find wrongdoing as of those that do.

to be continued ...

Part One of The Life of the Party -- "An introduction"
Part Two of
The Life of the Party --
"The LP's multiple personality disorder"