Thomas L. Knapp

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Malaise in the LP?
(The Life of the Party, Part Five)
by Thomas L. Knapp

Let's not kid ourselves: failure gets old, three decades is a long time to wait for success, and the fact that there's nowhere to go but up doesn't make climbing the hill any easier. Malaise in the LP? Hell, yes, there's malaise in the LP. If there wasn't, I'd have to question the sanity of Libertarians.

The proximate inspiration for this article is a piece from yesterday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Jo Mannies ("Libertarians try to drum up interest in their candidates").

Ms. Mannies -- a reporter who has, over the years, gone out of her way to cover the LP and its candidates with a rare objectivity -- interviewed several key Missouri Libertarians for the article: state chair Bob Sullentrup, executive director Greg Tlapek and two-time US Senate candidate (whose last campaign I managed and who is, not coincidentally, my mate) Tamara Millay.

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The thread running through all three interviews is uncertainty and unease. Bob, Greg and Tamara are among the hardest-working activists in the Party. They aren't six-month Libertarians who wandered over from another party and are leaving, disillusioned, after learning that success isn't instantaneous or guaranteed. They aren't leaving at all. They are, however, tired, and who can blame them?

This weekend was the occasion of the Missouri LP's state convention. Attendance was down from previous years, and the empty chairs were a depressing sight, but in some ways I wish that Ms. Mannies had had the opportunity to interview Bob, Greg and Tamara coming out of, instead of going into, that event.

Why? Because low attendance or not, this convention was evidence that the fighting spirit which animates the LP is still there. It's easy to put together a victory celebration. What's hard is putting one foot in front of another when the going is rough. And that's what Libertarians are doing.

Yes, there is a malaise in the LP. Some of it is self-manufactured.

Membership numbers are falling. Never mind that they are falling away from a level artificially inflated by aggressive direct mail recruitment and toward a more realistic number representative of our strengths in grass roots activism. It's still a bitter pill to swallow.

The LP has just emerged from serious internal scandal, and it's not possible yet to be sure that we have emerged from it, although the signs are overall positive. That's hard on morale as well.

The LP's membership has been engaged for more than two years now in an internal struggle over issues of war and foreign policy. The fact that the argument is necessary does not make it any easier.

Hanging over all other causes of the malaise, naturally, is the fact that, after 30 years of existence, the LP doesn't seem appreciably closer to accomplishing its goals than it did at the time of its foundation.

We continue to elect (and re-elect) local officeholders; we have assumed a continually more prominent place in the political debate; we have pulled far ahead of other third parties in terms of achieving political victories. And, ultimately, we have the facts on our side.

But this is a lot like telling a man crossing the plains of western Kansas on foot that he is actually getting closer to that mountain range in the distance. He is ... but it's hard for him to tell. From day to day, the Rockies, although they loom large in the distance, don't necessarily seem to loom larger. Nonetheless, he keeps walking.

The Libertarians who are sticking with the Party are much like that man.

Bob Sullentrup will go the extra mile to organize a meaningful convention, even knowing that interest has flagged for the moment. Not because he's a glutton for punishment. And not because he likes being with the underdog. Because it needs to be done, and because he isn't going to quit. Not yet.

Greg Tlapek will get in his car and drive for four hours to speak with a local property rights group and tell them that the Libertarian Party is on their side. Then he'll drive another two hours down the road to talk a prospective candidate into committing. Not because he thinks that his efforts will, all of their own, change the fortunes of the LP. And not for the money, either (the money is nothing to write home about -- as a matter of fact, it wouldn't be enough to cover postage). Because it needs to be done, and because he isn't going to quit. Not yet.

Tamara Millay will put her name on the ballot and spend the better part of a year shaking every hand that comes within reach. She'll talk herself hoarse extolling the virtues of freedom. She'll wear out her old car getting from hither to yon. Not because she expects to be sent to Washington by the electorate in November. And not for the glamor of it all, either, unless you find the notion of putting a thousand miles on a car with a stuck-down window in 35 degree weather glamorous. Because it needs to be done, and because she isn't going to quit. Not yet.

The LP may be getting smaller at the moment, but that's of little consequence. Less important than the fact that some people are leaving is the quality of those who are staying.

The Jim Larks who will drive 750 miles to talk with 40 fellow Libertarians and motivate them to continue working for freedom.

The Michael Badnariks and Gary Nolans who will essentially give up their lives for two years to seek the presidential nomination of a party that is not going to win that election, travelling from state to state in order to, as Badnarik puts it, "light the fires of liberty, one heart at a time."

The Bob Sullentrups. The Greg Tlapeks. The Tamara Millays. I could name more names -- but you know who you are.

You're the ones who aren't going to quit. Not yet.

The fact that you exist makes one thing certain: however distant victory is, defeat is more distant still. However long success may take to arrive, failure is simply not an option.