The question of electability has haunted the Libertarian Party for years. At its best, the historical trend is confusing. At worst, critics claim it paints a picture of an organization with no hope of electoral success. The latter is wrong. The time for liberty is coming sooner than you might think. Americans can elect a Libertarian, and there is a clear path for victory on the local, state, and federal levels.
I count myself lucky to be among those who work full time for liberty: professionally, and as a volunteer. Following a disappointing election season in 2018, I posed a question to readers: where do liberty friendly candidates go from here?
Dozens of people sent emails, called, or reached out online. Some were kind, others sent nasty messages and threats, and others wrote long detailed emails about their plans. Some even sent invitations for me to join projects already in motion.
The most productive conversations I had in the months following that article were those who reached out to explain in detail what they are working on. A very important group of people responded to the call and stood up with ideas, and defined plans for the future.
The American battle to advance liberty is facing an uphill fight.
On May 28, 2019 I sat in Scottsdale, Arizona with a room full of more than a thousand conservatives attending the Heritage Foundation Resource Bank. The Heritage Foundation is “A research and educational institution whose mission is to build and promote conservative public policies,” but the message being presented was simple: support the Trump agenda.
Donald Trump is the path forward for America’s Republican Party. While their message is popular in Republican echo chambers, it is questionable whether the MAGA movement is sustainable and healthy. There is an immense pressure to believe the rhetoric, and only focus on the good.
On the left side of the political spectrum, Joe Biden is at the forefront of a machine that will propel their candidate forward regardless of his mental fitness for the job. They are grouped closely in their policies, and also in how they approach the public. The Democrats are the best organized political machine in the history of the world, and they have the most sophisticated data apparatus ever constructed for electioneering.
Both major political parties, despite their many flaws, are objectively more successful than the Libertarians – but it does not have to be this way in the years to come. Here are 5 ways the Libertarian Party can achieve electoral success and move the ball forward on liberty:
ONE: Commit To The Big Tent
Is the goal to advance liberty? Or is the goal to advance the Libertarian Party?
I argue that the goal is to advance liberty, and in order to do that, the LP and its members must eliminate the purity tests. In order to grow, Libertarianism must open the doors to making pragmatic forward steps with those who are not “big L libertarians,” or even libertarians at all. Principles must come before politics even when, and especially because, the goal is political victory. Beyond the principle of “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff,” let it go.
When Justin Amash ran for reelection as an Independent. Should the Libertarian Party have run someone against him? Absolutely not. Amash holds libertarian beliefs and advances a libertarian voting record regardless of the letter after his name. Liberty is a winning and timeless philosophy – Libertarian is just a political label that will fade with time.
Larry Sharpe, former Libertarian Candidate for Governor of New York, advocates for planting seeds of liberty. Instead of shutting down conversations with Republicans and Democrats, lead with a smile, leave the door open, and keep having conversations. Advancing liberty is a long fight – stop eliminating potential allies from the conversation. This is especially true at the state level, where relationships are among our friends, neighbors, and other parts of our community.
“I can’t worry about what the national LP is doing – all that matters is the strength of our leadership in the state affiliates. The most important thing is getting our activists and volunteers together.”Former NH State Representative Brandon Phinney
TWO: Acknowledge The Flaws
The Libertarian Party has never won a federal election. No seats in Congress, not the Presidency. The Libertarian Party has never successfully elected a Governor, or a State Representative (though the Libertarian Party has been a home for elected representatives switching parties.)
These are facts. These are problems. They can be fixed. If these are uncomfortable to read: good. These are not reasons to quit, they are reasons to analyze, adjust, and carry on. Everyone in the business of advancing liberty must develop tougher skin and acknowledge what is going wrong instead of continuing to repeat the failed behaviors of the past.
This starts at the top of the party structure. When the Libertarian Party defines “victory” as 3.3% of the vote, it cheapens the effort. Though that may be progress, it is not victory.
There are ballot access victories, there are legitimate and worthwhile election victories, and many other things to celebrate and share. Recognizing when the effort falls short is not an admission of defeat, only an admission that there are things to fix, and an honest assessment of what needs to happen for things to be better in the future.
Making systemic and structural changes will require a deep audit of every organization that professes to care about liberty. Everyone is falling short of their full potential, and the evidence is all around us.
THREE: Build Coalitions
Conservatives and libertarians are, historically, not good at building coalitions and grassroots organizations. There are exceptions like Americans for Prosperity, various PAC’s, the State Policy Network, among others, but they are newer organizations in need of more liberty groups to interconnect with.
The problem is systemic:
Building coalitions takes work, and a broader approach than some would prefer. It will require seeking out friends, rather than engaging in arguments with political opponents.
“We are accused of allying too far to the right. I wouldn’t focus on a specific segment of society. We can find allies even in the far left on an issue by issue basis.”Former NH State Representative Brandon Phinney
Coalitions are important components of a successful political infrastructure.
When looking at reforms needed in criminal justice reform, marijuana, and (sometimes) free expression, find a Democrat ally.
When it comes to the Second Amendment, the principles of liberty, a return to Constitutional principles, and (sometimes) financial controls, find a Republican ally.
When we build friendships – leading with the olive branch rather than the sword – we can leverage those relationships into deeper conversations about liberty. Humans are tribal animals. How are you making sure people want to be part of your tribe?
FOUR: Data, Data, Data
Among the worst habits in libertarian campaigns for office is the need to reinvent the wheel. In all but two campaigns I have worked on in the last ten years, candidates are starting from scratch in terms of collecting signatures, identifying key voters, and using data to narrow their focus to “likely” and “persuadable” voters. If Libertarians continue to reinvent the wheel, there will be no traction, and nothing to build on.
Cara Shultz, the Candidate Recruitment Specialist for the Libertarian National Committee, wants to break that wheel and replace it with a robust data centric system through which every candidate and their team can build websites, host project management, communicate in a streamlines format (no more slack channels and google docs spread across the internet).
“There is a big difference in where candidates and campaign teams are at for 2019 and 2020 compared to where they started in 2018. One difference that is becoming the cultural norm is that candidates already know their win number, funding goal, and have a list of potential donors before they ever talk to me.”Cara Schultz
I am a believer in the D.R.E.A.M. philosophy, an acronym for “Data Rules Everything Around Me.” I believe that alone is a major key to victory, understanding who we are talking to, and what messages will resonate. Every conversation about liberty requires strategy in a world so beaten down by media bias. The Democratic Party has more than 30 organizations focusing solely on data that sprung out of the Obama campaigns. The Republicans have three. The Libertarians have none of any scale, yet, and are forced to jump onto existing structures where they can.
The plan being explored, and implemented, by the Libertarian Party is a necessary centralization of resources, to decentralize the ability to win. Libertarian candidates are already able to make less money stretch further. Big ticket items like data systems, CRM systems, and education tools run by an organization like the Libertarian party can cut out some of the largest costs and allow those dollars to go even further. By the end of 2019, at least 33 state parties were integrated into the first iteration of this program.
Companies like i360 and Voter Gravity can and do work with Libertarian candidates, but there is not yet enough money in the Libertarian effort to support an organization to serve this vital purpose. As the both the Democrat and Republican Parties continue to move away from the core tenant of liberty, it is necessary to provide legitimate viability to capture those defectors.
“Young people get involved in progressivism and YAL groups because those groups are talking about key topic. When they arrive they find that the activities do not match the speech. They find a political home after.”Cara Schultz
The old parties have succeeded by holding an iron grip on every aspect of their operations – the Libertarian Party is building toward a reality in which the tools constructed at the national level are used and controlled by each state affiliate. Organizations that can empower people to be more successful are necessary.
While the growing pains are uncomfortable, the result will be a more nimble network of liberty friendly organizations that can adapt to a changing technological and cultural landscape.
FIVE: Win Where It Counts
The principle of liberty has stood the test of time better than any other, in American politics and in human history. While the Democrats were passing the Defense of Marriage Act, the Libertarians have supported marriage equality since their inception. Where the Republicans have lost their way on fiscal responsibility, the Libertarians have remained principled. The ideas are sound, and well organized. The races won, however, boil down to a small section of the LP printed newsletter every year.
In the end, what I have heard and seen from across the country boils down to this: the institutions we build are composed of people, and in order for the Libertarian Party to succeed in electing national candidates, the vast majority of resources available must be spent fighting locally, and under a big tent. Local elections today enable larger elections down the road.
“Many who want to run for state or federal office are running to win at the local level first. To gain experience, build name recognition, and build their donor and volunteer networks. They have an 8 to 14 year plan for winning in higher office.”Cara Schultz
It is entirely debatable whether the Libertarian Party should be running candidates for President and Congress. Gary Johnson raised and spent 12M on his presidential bid. At an average cost of $55,000 to win a state house seat, that 12M could have made more than 200 viable liberty focused candidates.
“Lets stop worrying about congress and senate, we are spreading our limited resources too thin and we are never going to win unless people can’t see us win things locally.”Former NH State Representative Brandon Phinney
Personally, I believe it is necessary to run federal candidates. Brand recognition and continuing to gain free media coverage is an important part of laying the groundwork. These races need to be called what they are: unwinnable, for now.
When we evaluate local and state candidates, the checklist of questions is simple, and best organized by Larry Sharpe:
“Can you build a team of at least three people… Can you take off at least 3 full days per week to campaign… Can you take an emotional punch in the face from the establishment… Can you take a knife in the back from the liberty movement and keep going?“Larry Sharpe, Brian Nichols Podcast
Sharpe’s quick list is useful both when you evaluate whether to help and support a campaign, when you evaluate viability, and when you are deciding for yourself whether to enter a local or state race.
Is It Too Late For Liberty?
The answer is no – there is still time, and the future of liberty depends on you as an individual to take a stand for the American ideals inherent in liberty – freedom and fairness.
“Get to work. If you’re doing the work, you shouldn’t have time for the bullshit.”Former NH State Representative Brandon Phinney
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