Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is Managing Editor of Free-Market.Net and publisher of Rational Review.

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Earn This -- "Spoiling for a Fight" Redux
by Thomas L. Knapp

I'm a sucker for well-done war movies, not only because I'm an old Marine infantry NCO, but because I grew up on the World War II film boom. "The Big Red One." "The Dirty Dozen." "A Bridge Too Far." There must have been 200 films of the late sixties and early seventies in this genre, many of them starring Lee Marvin, a Marine who served in my battalion four decades before me, when that battalion visited places like Saipan, Tinian, Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

"Saving Private Ryan" combined the sensibilities of those old flicks with the realism of "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" to produce nothing less than a life-changing experience. Everything that us young'uns ever perceived as good and righteous about the World War II generation was made real in Spielberg's epic. I've seen it four times, and each time I've experienced a renewal of my own deeply held patriotism (and used up a box of tissues).

I hope you'll pardon me, then, for using the central moment of the movie's denouement in a polemic. The parallel is just too good to pass up, and the movie is old and well-known enough for me to not spoil any surprises for viewers.

We are, of course, in Europe in June of 1944, just after allied troops have waded onto the beaches of Normandy to begin the liberation of France. Captain John Miller, U.S. Army, has an assignment. He and a hand-picked squad are to pluck Private James Patrick Ryan, of the 101st, out of the chaos and get him home. His brothers are all dead. He's all his mother has left, and General George C. Marshall wants him out of there -- now.

They find Ryan, of course, but he's not going anywhere. There's a battle to be fought and he won't leave his unit. So Miller and his men stay to help hold the bridge (literally) until reinforcements arrive. And, as they retreat, Miller falls. Clasping Ryan's hand in his, his dying words are:

"Earn this. Earn it."

Well, hell. Hold on a minute while I find that box of Puffs.

Not quite two years ago, a fireball by the name of Chuck Muth ascended to the leadership of the Republican Liberty Caucus and issued a challenge to the Libertarian Party. The Republicans had ignored, derided and laughed at Libertarians for three decades, said Chuck. Now, at the head of a group of libertarian Republicans, he proposed to take a different approach.

He was ready, he said, to fight the LP for the allegiance of freedom-loving Americans.

At that time, I welcomed the challenge and said so in a prologue to this very article ("Spoiling for a Fight," 3/26/01, on my personal site).

Mr. Muth has since left the RLC and is now executive director of the American Conservative Union. And he still wants to fight.

To his credit, he spends at least as much time fighting "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only) as he does fighting Libertarians. His aim is to force the Republican Party to live up to its promises of limited government.

However, he still misses the point, and that's why I'm revisiting the issue myself.

In his newsletter, GOP News and Views (you can subscribe at -- it's free and informative), Mr. Muth takes two different, and mutually exclusive, approaches to the existence of the Libertarian Party and the fact that it runs candidates for office.

On the one hand, Mr. Muth leaps on any opportunity to explain "why nobody takes the Libertarian Party seriously."

On the other hand, Mr. Muth complains bitterly when enough people take the Libertarian Party seriously to affect the results of an election.

November 5th provided a new magazine for Mr. Muth's rhetorical rifle, as Republicans lost a Senate seat in South Dakota, the Governor's Mansion in Arizona and other lesser, but still important races ... by fewer votes than the Libertarian candidates in those races received.

This is sometimes called the "spoiler factor," and it relies on a certain skewed logic subscribed to by both those who comprise it and those who complain about it.

Imagine that there are 100 voters in a district, and three candidates for an office in that district. If the Democrat gets 48 votes, the Republican gets 47 votes, and the Libertarian gets five votes, some will hold that the Libertarian "spoiled" the election for the Republican, who would otherwise have won with 52 votes.

This relies on several unproven assumptions, the first of which is that Libertarian voters, in the absence of a Libertarian candidate, are predisposed to vote Republican. Exit polling in different elections has established that this is not necessarily so. In some places, the Libertarian vote may represent dissatisfied Democrats. And in all cases, there is certainly a core vote of "yellow-dog" Libertarians who would simply not cast a vote in the absence of a candidate running on their party's ticket.

The more foundational, and therefore more pernicious assumption, of course, is that votes "come from" anywhere, or "belong to" anyone, other than the voters who cast them. It is the height of arrogance for a Republican or Democratic politician to regard a given bloc of votes as "belonging" to him or her. They don't.

Votes have to be earned.

There are a number of ways to earn votes. Among them are hard, grassroots political work -- walking precincts, shaking hands, kissing babies, being there for your community when an issue requires effort. That's an area in which we Libertarians have a lot of catching up to do.

Another way to earn votes is to articulate positions on a number of issues that appeal to the desires of voters. It helps to be good enough at this that you not only gather in the support of those who take your position, but actually cause more people to consider that position and adopt it (and, as a matter of course, to support the party that they now agree with).

Libertarians have a lot of work to do on this, as well ... but we're getting better at it.

A third way to earn votes is to take a philosophical stand that voters concur with, and this may be where Libertarians outdo the "major parties." In some ways, the Libertarians are the McDonald's of American politics. Talk to a Libertarian candidate in Maine or Mississippi, California or Connecticut, and you're likely to find that their ideas are very similar -- a philosophical consistency that does not prevail in the "major" parties.

In terms of root philosophy -- and that does play out in policy -- a Georgia Democrat probably has more in common with a Utah Republican than with a California Democrat. A New York Republican probably has more in common with a Minnesota Democrat than with a Texas Republican. A Libertarian candidate is likely to have little in common with any of these characters, but a lot in common with any other Libertarian.

The Libertarians, of course, have not been as successful as they'd have liked in selling themselves on this point. A 2000 Rasmussen poll identified about 20% of the American public as being "libertarian" in terms of belief. Few Libertarian candidates poll 20%.

Many Libertarian candidates, however, earn enough votes to cover the "balance of power" separating their "major party" opponents.

And "major party" candidates and advocates of all stripes hate that. They were counting on those votes. They aren't willing to earn them. They just think that they're entitled to them.

As I've mentioned, Mr. Muth is superior to most of these advocates in one regard. He does urge Republican candidate to earn Libertarian votes. However, he also urges Libertarian voters to change their voting habits in advance of any evidence that Republican candidates get the message -- indeed, in the face of evidence clearly demonstrating that they don't.

This time, the Republicans got lucky. They were able to retake control of the Senate, and maintain control of the House, despite the Libertarian "spoiler" factor. Whatever their other failings may be, however, stupidity isn't one of them. They know that there will be other election days, other tight races, other occasions when the Libertarian vote, in their view, will make the difference between victory and defeat and even between congressional majorities and congressional minorities.

Their reaction to this fact of life has not been pretty. Instead of correcting their own eight years of inexplicable failure to follow through meaningfully on any part of their stated agenda that might appeal to Libertarian voters, Republicans want to shift blame to the party that really represents those voters.

In advance of the election, it's the "wasted vote" or "lesser of two evils" argument. Afterward, it's the "spoiler" complaint.

It's as if Captain John Miller, dying on a bridge in France, had grasped Private Ryan's hand and said "this is all your mother's fault, that evil wench."

That wouldn't have made much of a movie. It's not much of a rallying cry. I think I prefer Spielberg's vision.

Mr. Muth, you've got a clue. Your message is best directed at the Republicans who won on November 5th. Point to the bloody corpses of John Thune and Matt Salmon on the bridge that connects running for office and serving in office.

Tell them that the Libertarian vote isn't theirs by default. Tell them that if they want that Libertarian vote, they've got two years, in total control of Washington's political apparatus, to prove themselves worthy of it by enacting policies that accord with the desires of those Libertarian voters. Tell them that no, the tax cut can't wait in favor of the president's leftist foreign policy agenda. Tell them to back off on medical marijuana. Read them the Second Amendment. And the other nine of the first ten as well.

Tell them that dumb luck isn't reliable and that they need to buckle down and get to work instead of straddling the fence and hoping nobody notices their total lack of any philosophical lodestone to direct their actions.

They may not listen. Indeed, I doubt that they will. But you tell them.

Tell them it's time to earn it.