Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Learning From Libertarians
A few years back, I found myself born again in making a political party conversion from Republican to Libertarian. As such conversions go, this wasn't so much of an "Ah Ha" moment as it was an "Uh huh" moment. I had been encouraged to attend the gathering of a group that was attempting to start up a Libertarian organization in Lucas County, Ohio at which that friend of mine (Brian Wilson) was speaking. While I knew that he was a long-time small 'L' libertarian who was more than up to the challenge of presenting the party's point of view, I was curious about those others who might also be attending.
We were a pretty mixed lot as it turned out; some strongly pursuing a single issue that was likewise held under the general principles of the party, some who were merely curious like myself, and some who were seriously trying to pursue a rational framework in which to few the world in general and government and politics in particular. While not really much of a joiner in the past, I found myself impressed enough with what I discovered that I decided to fill out one of the the forms that was handed out at the end of the meeting and register as a member of the Libertarian Party.
As everyone knows who has lived through such an experience, parting with an 'Ex' is a difficult time. Investing yourself in a relationship (even with a political party) carries with it a residual of memories and emotions that are difficult to let go of. Having grown up in the Democratic hotbed of the Windy City, I rejected its teachings after Bobby Kennedy and while not a Nixon fan went over to the Dark Side. I was not of age to vote until the 1976 elections however, and having Jimmy Carter pitted against Gerald Ford was an experience that damn near put me off voting for life. Like many others however, my spirits recovered in 80 and 84 when Reagan ran for office; even though a lot of the small government ideals espoused never really came to fruition. In ensuing years, my spirit again flagged, as the GOP ran a series of big government, 'me next' candidates (though I did have some enthusiasm for Jack Kemp).
So I suppose that in my new found enthusiasm as a libertarian, I hoped that my 'Ex' would not only understand the reason for my desertion, but might even learn something from why it had happen; perhaps someday embracing the path that I had chosen. Government after all, had been inexorably growing regardless of the party in the power or the number of branches in which they held sway. Sure, Clinton could talk about the fact that "the era of big government was over", but nobody really believed it ... including him. Now that I was truly part of a movement that truly believed in smaller, less restrictive government; where Washington spent only the money it took in, (and the less of that the better) I hoped that Lincoln's party might learn enough to once again free us from chattel service to the bloated nature of Washington (the city, not the man).
Now some of you might wonder why instead I didn't fall into lockstep behind every Libertarian candidate out there in order to promote the world I sought. The answer however, was simple. While libertarian beliefs were a logical and organized sense of principles, the party that espoused them was often anything but. Something about the nature of libertarians made them inherently suspicious of a party 'organization'. Perhaps the freedom they sought to follow their own paths and their willingness to accept personal responsibility for doing so may have made them ideal to lead the country, but it also made them as easy to get going in a single direction as a herd of cats.
Just being a libertarian (unlike some places where just being a Democrat or Republican) did not automatically make a person the a good candidate, let alone a good elected official. In a party that prided itself in having nothing to 'trade' with big donors, libertarian candidates were often woefully short of funding as a consequence. The long-entrenched nature of the two-party system in this country did nothing to make it easier, and rules specifically designed to leave it a two-player system made it damned near impossible for anyone else to try and play the game. (If you don't believe me, read up some day on the struggle required to even get Libertarian candidates on ballots or count the number or recent state and national debate venues in which a libertarian candidate was allowed to participate.)
And so the libertarian was also placed in a unique position in American politics of knowing the path to be followed, but unable to guide the team. Libertarians constantly found themselves during elections in the unenviable choice of holding fast to their principles and gaining nothing; or abandoning them to pick a 'lesser of evils' that might slow, of not stem the growing tide. Neither choice served well, and both left one with lingering pangs of guilt.
I've discovered recently however, that without noticing it, some of the lessons of libertarians have in fact crept into mainstream Republican thinking. Unfortunately however, they are not the ones that I hoped for. Instead of returning to the shadow of conservative principles that they knew under Reagan (and even to an extant, under the Contract with America), what they've learned instead is a is an attempt at greater popularity through a dilution of those ideas. Instead of enacting their own vision of a smaller government, they've learned instead cover their light in a basket of blandness lest they be called extremists and scare the children. Instead of presenting a united front of shared beliefs in self-reliance and personal responsibility, they hide at the first resistance by the nanny state to protect single issues which by themselves are largely indefensible in the current political climate.
If you haven't figured what I'm getting at yet, what Republicans have learned from libertarians is to adopt a pattern of practiced and and almost endemic disorganization, to fail utterly in rallying and holding the troops in key issues, and to find themselves scattered at the first sign of resistance. Like those they often themselves cast aspersions on, they have learned a pattern of failed tactics in everything from discovering what their message is to getting their message out. They have allowed their opponents to characterize them and their ideas (much as with libertarians, such characterization becomes about legalizing drugs and prostitution), without demanding an understanding of the core philosophy from which such ideals germinate. Far too often, they are now forced from the debate not because of flaws in their position, but by the outmaneuvering of their opponents.
Yes, unfortunately the GOP has learned the worst of what the libertarian party has to offer, rather than accepting its best. Perhaps its a sign that we are in fact witnessing the last days of a party in retreat and the ascension of one only now beginning to learn its way. I can't yet say for sure. I think however that if conservative principles are to play a realistic part in the national debate however, one of the two needs to learn a better way of cat herding for both's sake.