TCS Daily

Libertarianism's Extreme Makeover

By Max Borders - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

The Libertarian Party is politically moribund. Most libertarians don't even vote for the Libertarian Party, much less affiliate with it. Why? Because we have a pragmatic streak that we just can't shake. And that comes simply from being American. It's in our bones. Some of us vote Republican because we care about defense. Others vote Democrat because we're afraid Crusaders will overrun the barricades between church and state. In either case, we hold our noses and go to the polls just to feel some civic connection with all those folks in our community -- even though we know they are wrong, and are voting for all the wrong reasons.

Most libertarians understand the profoundly irrational aspect of voting -- i.e. that you'll have a greater effect on politics if you call in to a radio show and say something clever instead of going to the polls. You have a better chance running into Michael Badnarik at the Piggly Wiggly than having your vote be the deciding factor in an election. In the meantime, the teeming hordes follow their baser instincts all the way to the church basement and vote their "consciences." But aside from the Constitution and the Courts, democracy is the only game in town.

Thus, things can't get any lower for many libertarians. And that's why if we're going to keep trying to enter politics through the front door, we have to prepare to change.

Playing the Game

Libertarians must get it together. That's going to mean shifting the mindset, overhauling the current LP, and spending lots of money. If we're going to have an effect on electoral politics, we're going to have to get some people into office. Now, for the immediate term, that may mean running as a D or an R and acting like Ron Paul -- or even supporting a Schwarzenegger. But the other option is to begin transforming the LP inside and out. But how do we do that?

First we need to define ourselves better. Some people think libertarians are the party of Lyndon LaRouche. (I kid you not.) Keep it simple. At the moment, our elevator pitch sounds like the Bill of Rights. There's nothing wrong with the Constitution, but sadly, getting people on board requires lowering ourselves to the level of vacuous talk employed by our bigger, better bipartisan counterparts. That means we need a simple, visceral message that works. Then, and only then, will we start to see some interest from the masses.

They're libertarian and they don't even know it. How many times have you heard someone describe him-or-herself as "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative?" Many of these are the people who either hold their noses at the polls, or simply don't bother. They are disenfranchised by the two-party system and the "Party of Principle" just isn't reaching them. The first order of business should be to tap this political market. But how do you get these libertarians-who-don't-know-it interested? Indeed, how do you steal them from the major parties?

A Purple Brand and an Unyielding Media Blitz

From the nominated candidates, to the branding, to the talking points. Everything visible about the current LP (and the Movement) has to change -- maybe even the name. Consider the stereotypes of utopians and pot-smokers who throw around terms like "individual rights," "coercion," and "statism" like it came from the Randian Scriptures. Rectitude isn't worth a dime when it just smells funny to people.

One approach might be to tap into this popular blue-red dichotomy. Start coloring everything LP purple. Make it obvious that we're the best of both parties. Take the top Libertarian talking points from the Rs and the Ds and merge them to make the LP talking points. Then avoid the rest like the plague.

Who are we? The best way to tell the world about us is through good ole advertising -- name your medium. (Midterm elections might be a good time to start experimenting.)

How about this for a commercial?: split screen, red and blue. On the red side you see the words low taxes... security... fiscal responsibility...parental choice in education... One the blue side you see civil liberties... freedom to live my life my way...a woman's right to choose... The two sides merge into a large, purple screen. The New Libertarian Party... America is deserves the best of both. Or some such. TV, Radio, Newspaper, Internet. Again, defining ourselves is the first step. And we're going to have to spend money doing it.

From Principles to Pragmatics

"The Party of Principle."

Unless you just put down the Fountainhead, reading that line just made your bile duct secrete. Most people think their party is the party of principle. The LP should get rid of that slogan, and fast. That doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater, it simply means you think strategically about how to reach out to people. It means being realistic. Incremental. Manipulative, even.

For example: "support the repeal of all taxation." Now, a repeal of taxation implies there should be no taxes at all, which means no state at all (as there would be no revenue stream for a state to exist). What else are we to infer? Unless you're trying to woo the bloggers at, you might consider moderating both the message and the views. Instead, how about "do away with the income tax" or "support a national sales tax?" Then you can talk about how we could retire the IRS and save a lot of money. Everybody hates the IRS. Everybody likes money saved. Nobody likes anarchy, even if it's coupled with a warm and fuzzy term like "capitalism."

Alternatively, more like this (from the LP site) would be good:

"Recognizing that abortion is a very sensitive issue and that people, including libertarians, can hold good-faith views on both sides, we believe the government should be kept out of the question."

And most importantly, throw most of the Jeffersonian claptrap to the dogs. The language of the layman voter is a far cry from what we libertarians are used to spouting. And with a change in language, a change in tone.

Escaping the Echo Chamber

Adopt an outreach mission. There is something about our cutting logic, our cynicism, and our moral indignation that creates a ten-foot radial barrier around most of us. (And you thought it was the garlic you had for lunch.) Then when we do find each other, we cluster -- and are subsequently confused for the Dungeons and Dragons Club. To spread the gospel, it's going to take innovative ways of engaging with other groups -- because, like I said, there are hoards of these less reflective libertarians out there just waiting to be marshaled.

And razor-sharp argumentation alone is not going to cut it. Instead we should use our keen intellects to make them wonder -- to pull them into the discourse. Finding common premises of agreement is a good place to start, as this helps to establish trust. But most importantly, we should learn to leave our egos at home. And this may take some practice, because let's face it: most libertarians are used to being combative rather than compelling.

We might even try talking like THEM. The Left, for example, has done a brilliant job both of co-opting our vocabulary and of making themselves seem innocuous -- caring even. Consider their favorite nomenclature: "freedom," "democracy," "toleration," "diversity," and "peace." If you're in a conversation with a Lefty, instead of saying: "how dare you people think you can expropriate -- by force -- my hard-earned property for your pet causes?" Try something like: "I look forward to the day when we are all free and prosperous enough to get back to the grassroots, so we can each support the causes that are most important to us as individuals." In any case, do away with any language that could come across as the libertarian equivalent of "because it's right here in the Bible!"

Adopt a Communication Strategy

This leads me to the need for a communications strategy. Fred Smith -- one of the most beloved and bombastic members of the libertarian movement -- has co-authored a dynamite little book called A Field Guide for Effective Communication. Buy it. Set it by the bedside or in the bathroom. Memorize it. Internalize it. It has much of the basics you'll need for winning intellectual sympathy (to borrow a phrase from Michael Polanyi). Whether you're in the LP or have aspirations for it, a communications strategy is vital.

Part of what you'll get from the Field Guide is an overview of basic cultural values borrowed from the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. The idea is that people respond to messages in different ways based on their fundamental cultural predilections to one of four basic categories: egalitarian, hierarchical, individualist, and fatalist. Thus, when reaching out to different audiences, our priority should be to try and determine their motivations, in order better to tailor our messages...

Messages for egalitarians (fairness):
Because opportunity for all comes in equal freedom."

Messages for hierarchists (order, security):
"Protecting citizenship, community, and personal responsibility."

Messages for individualists (freedom):
"Is there an entrepreneur in you?"

Messages for fatalists ("cant fight city hall"):
"Freedom needs leaders. Are you ready to answer the call?"

Memetics, Mental Models and Mottos

The Blogosphere is doing a great job of disseminating some of the movement's best ideas. If nothing else, we libertarians have mobilized online. Another good way to spread our memes is to find thought leaders. There are groups out there doing just that and we can always use more.

But what is it that we want to spread? Mental models, maybe. The basic libertarian mental model is something like "no one, including the government, should be allowed to initiate the use of force -- except in self defense." Hmm. Society's immune system will swallow up that virus pretty easily. How can we repackage that meme for the people? How about: "True freedom brings out the best in all of us." If not that, then something else. When it starts working, we'll know it.

E Pluribus Unum

In the course of writing this, I realized that I have moved back and forth between reference to the LP and reference to the Movement as a whole. Ultimately, I guess I'm hoping for change in both. Real change in the LP will make the party more palatable to both the libertarian cynics and the too-cool-for-school crowd (not to mention those outside the Movement). On the other hand, it's going to take some soul-searching by everyone in the broader movement -- to become more community-focused, less insular, and more open to compromise.

I'm aware of the difficulties here. Most libertarians cling to their principled worldview like NRA members cling to their assault rifles, i.e. -- "you'll have to pry them from my cold, dead fingers." But that's the very attitude that will keep us on the margins. If we are not prepared -- superficially at least -- to attenuate our message and open our minds, we can expect to remain on the margins... Grumbling in our esoteric journals. Applauding at our incestuous conferences. And blogging ourselves into the comfortable numbness of self-satisfaction. Instead, we must do one of the toughest things for rugged individualists to do. We must unite.

Max Borders is a blogger for Jujitsui Generis.


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