The little party that could

Posted: Apr 20, 2008 12:00 AM
The little party that could

I like alluding to the classics. When I’m not referencing the great poets and novelists, I try to sneak in books I’m certain actually to have read. Like “The Little Engine That Could.”

Great story. Inspiring. A lesson for all time. Can a day go by when one does not think of that engine chugging “I think I can I think I can I think I can”?

I especially think of that story when the subject of the Libertarian Party comes up.

No political organization in America persists against all odds and all principalities and powers to . . . survive.

The party never quite gets up that hill, chugging as it does (note: allude to Sisyphus’s rock), but it never gives up.

You might think that a political party is there to elect people to office. And the Libertarian Party has elected a few people here and there. But, well, though in general LPers are not exactly the most “spiritual” of folk — they are not as apt as an incense salesman is to spout homilies like “it’s the journey that counts” — they do keep running candidates that, for the most part, get no more than 3 percent, 5 percent, or (occasionally) 10 percent of the vote.

The Democrats and Republicans, on the other hand, elect candidates every election day. Since the LP was formed in 1972, Republicans re-elected their glorious contender (Nixon) and elected three more: Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger. After LP candidate Prof. John Hospers (heavy-duty philosopher) and Mrs. Tonie Nathan (professional media person) received one renegade Electoral College vote for their first-time-out effort, the Democrats have elected two presidents: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The Libertarians, however, have never even garnered a million votes for one of their candidates.

I mention all this merely to say that I prefer to think of the persistence of the Libertarian Party as charming, not pathetic. Everything is stacked against them. The two parties in charge have made sure that it is very hard for “minor parties” to challenge them. Just getting on the ballot is no picnic. The Libertarians have spent millions and millions of dollars and massive quantities of man-hours maintaining ballot status in the forty-odd states they have maintained it, over the years.

And now that persistence has paid off. In a way. The party has become a magnet — a magnet for disgruntled major-party players.

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who ran for the presidency on the Democratic ticket, now offers himself for the Libertarian nomination. Former Republican Representative Bob Barr, for the last few years a regional representative for the Libertarian Party National Committee, is now also considering the nomination. “Seriously,” he says.

As different as the two candidates may be, in both cases they are extremely concerned with the erosion of civil liberties under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Barr has joined the ACLU, and works for them; he has also set up an organization called “American Freedom Agenda,” to work to "restore checks and balances and civil liberties protections under assault by the executive branch."

Gravel adds a concern for restoring political power to voters, against the major political establishment. He favors nationwide (indeed, national) initiative and referendum rights, and has about as much confidence in current election laws as a fat man has in an antique wicker chair.

Both Barr and Gravel have served at high levels in American government, as major-party players. Both have joined the Libertarian Party. Both want to . . . make a statement.

I’ll let them make their own statements. I won’t interpret them for you at length. I will say that I know them both — Gravel fairly well — and like them. Barr seems to be a serious man; Gravel is seriously amusing.

By that latter crack I only mean that his peculiar presidential video stunt (not an ad really — but it garnered more attention that most other candidates’ ads) of staring at the camera for an extended — almost excruciating — period of time, and then throwing a big rock in a lake, struck me, last year, as the most “out there” artistic statement in American politics in years. And I’m so “out there” I think I got the point, though I’ll spare you the explanation. Just stay glued to YouTube for further instructions.

Gravel’s recent rendition of “Helter Skelter,” widely seen on YouTube, shows a man who’s long abandoned trying to “look presidential” in order to spark interest. He picked a great song.

Well, Gravel made a splash with his rock-in-the-lake act. And he was an unscripted breath of fresh air in the early debates. What he’ll do among Libertarian Party members — people who are, after all, just as interested in radically reducing (say: abolishing) business regulations and taxes and privatizing Social Security etc. — I have no idea. For his serious work on initiative rights, I can only express mounds of empathy and enthusiasm. (Mike’s charming wife also has some killer recipes for salmon, my favorite dish — but that shouldn’t count for him politically.)

Barr, on the other hand, is a lot closer to the usual LP candidate. He has Republican roots. (So does the party, which grew out of the Goldwater movement and dissatisfaction over Nixon’s betrayal of the free market.) And, not insignificantly, he has been a member of the party longer than a few weeks.

Of course, to actual Republicans, Barr looks like a traitor. Sean Hannity asked him if he really wanted to elect Hillary Clinton.

But such questions miss the point about the Libertarian Party. It does not exist to help the likes of John McCain get elected, even if Hillary or Barack is the real-world alternative. The Libertarians are stuck on this notion that principle should matter even when electing presidents. Damn the consequences . . . or, at least, damn the short-term consequences. (Libertarians tend to reason like this: If you are always willing to compromise to get a little liberty, a little liberty is all you will ever get. If that.)

Indeed, that is how Barr answered Hannity: "Sooner or later, we have to put principle ahead of expediency." Barr also said he was getting tired of “whining” from Republicans.

The point seems to be: Until American libertarians can get Americans in general to support real individual liberty, what’s the use of worrying about half-measures?

If you find this sort of thinking appalling, then you won’t be voting for Gravel or Barr — or Steve Kubby, the medical marijuana activist and LP insider out front in the race — when you go to the polls this November.

But it is worth realizing that the Libertarian Party is poised to continue. Never in American history has a minor party persisted so long after it had failed to “catch on” to become a major one, and persisted even to affect the outcomes of races. The Liberty Party morphed into the Free Soil Party which morphed into the Republican Party. But the Bull Moose died, as have the many celebrity vehicles; the Prohibition Party lingered for ages, but after alcohol Prohibition ended the party failed to maintain the kind of broad, nationwide support the Libertarians have managed to muster.

If the LP takes enough votes away from McCain to ensure a Democratic success this time round, the Republican Party will have to start taking the libertarian wing of its supporters a tad more seriously.

Wouldn’t that be a good thing? I, for one, would weep no tears for a McCain loss, even if that meant losing his fairly consistent support of free trade (an issue that both Hillary and Barack are abominable on). He’s just done too much against freedom otherwise to make me trust him an inch.

So, you can see: the LP is seriously out for my vote.

If party members select Gravel instead of Barr or Kubby (an unlikely possibility), could they grab enough Democrats away to help McCain?


Americans’ support of the current two-party hegemony is at an all-time low. The Libertarians, having chugged along (they think they can they think they can they think they can) to reach the top of the Third Party heap, have placed themselves in the odd position of (gasp) actually making a difference.