The libertarian movement in the United States has gained significant traction over the past decade. Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 campaign put the principles of economic and personal liberty on the minds of many Americans.
Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns gave libertarianism a mouthpiece at the national stage. The Tea Party movement of 2009 was an attempt to harness the newfound passion of the electorate and promote the principles of economic freedom and limited government.
These movements allowed various liberty-minded candidates such as Rand Paul to enter public office. Additionally, there were several other local and state victories. Numerous political organizations and PACs such as LibertyPAC, Campaign for Liberty and Republican Liberty Caucus, have also attempted to harness the momentum of the movement and impact the political process.
There are also numerous educational institutions such as the CATO Institute, Mises Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education that have attempted to inject the libertarian philosophy into the populace from an intellectual point of view.
Despite these efforts, many within the movement are not happy with the current state of liberty in the United States. The lingering question remains, how can we achieve liberty in our lifetime?
As someone who has worked extensively within politics and public relations, I will answer the trillion-dollar question. The reasons for these shortcomings and failures are easy to pinpoint.
The primary answer is that most people who are part of the liberty movement have no idea how politics really works. They have an idea, or presumption, of how they want politics to work, but “want” does not equal reality.
What is Politics?
Those of you who, like myself, wasted time in political science courses will likely define politics as the art of governing, or the practice and theory of influencing people.
A much more accurate definition is that politics is the adjudication of power. It is the process by which people everywhere determine who rules whom. As such, politics is about force. It is about making others do what you want them to do. It involves the never-ending ebb and flow of individuals and parties hoping to achieve power.
If you believe converting people to the side of liberty is not about exerting influence or power, you are mistaken. If you want to live free, you must exert influence over those who would otherwise want to imprison you, or steal your property.
If you don’t believe in force or violence, or that we can live without these, then you live in a fantasyland. We can certainly minimize these through the free market, but even the free market exerts force and violence. In what other ways would you protect private property?
Ideology versus Politics
I mentioned that what people want doesn’t always equal reality. I don’t want to discount the importance of ideology. Ideology is an important driver of human action. Each and every one of us has different drivers.
These drivers can be diverse. Examples include philosophy, religion, protecting our family, defending the Constitution, smaller government, increasing prosperity for everyone, etc.
Yet none of these things are politics. While I hope these things motivate us, and occasionally a politician as well, they should not be confused with politics.
Unicorn Theory of Government
Everyone knows that unicorns are mythical creatures, and don’t actually exist. Imagine a little girl who wants to be happy and decides the only way she can be happy is to have a unicorn; therefore, unicorns must exist. We know she won’t ever be happy as long as she continues to believe in fiction.
The little girl is an ideologue just like many in the liberty movement. For example, many people believed that Ron Paul was right and the last hope for liberty; therefore, he should have won the Presidential election. This belief couldn’t have been further from the truth. If it were true, Ron Paul would have won.
The State is Fiction but Politics is Not
I can already hear the anarcho-capitalists and voluntaryists screaming, “but the state is fiction too!” This section is for you. While there are exceptional philosophical arguments arguing for the elimination of the state, politics is not philosophy.
Murray Rothbard, one of the most celebrated and uncompromising libertarians, understood the difference between politics and philosophy. He believed that political action was the only means to achieve liberty. He wrote:
I see no other conceivable strategy for the achievement of liberty than political action. Religious or philosophical conversion of each man and woman is simply not going to work; that strategy ignores the problem of power, the fact that millions of people have a vested interest in statism and are not likely to give it up. Education in liberty is of course vital, but it is not enough; action must also be taken to roll back the State.
It doesn’t matter if you believe that the state is fiction, politics will still exist despite your belief.
Politicians Make Public Policy Not Anyone Else
Politicians make laws despite of public opinion, not because of it. This is why Rothbard alluded to the shortcomings of education to political action. Many make it a personal crusade to educate the public, because they believe that if only the politician or the public knew the truth, they would do the right thing.
If education and public opinion were successful in influencing politicians then right to work would exist in a majority of states. Polls show that 71% of Americans support right to work. 82% of Americans also oppose being forced to join a labor union. Despite these figures, only 24 states have right to work laws in place.
Those Who Don’t Compromise Won’t Survive
A crucial component of politics is making deals, building alliances, and building coalitions. This means making compromises in order to move your agenda forward. Failing to do so will simply put you on the fringe and alienate your ideas from the mainstream.
For example, the lines between anti-establishment and anti-state can easily be blurred. The rejection of societal norms and embracing counter-culture can be seen in the mainstream as a rejection of American values and norms. There’s a reason that politicians wear a suit and tie.
Wearing an “End the Fed” shirt with the anarcho-capitalist flag tattooed on your forearm, while smoking a joint in public, will perhaps boost your image with people who already agree with your views, but won’t help influence the people who actually matter.
Blogs and Social Media Don’t Matter
Debating on social media with people who oppose your views won’t help. It may feed your ego, but you’re not actually making a difference. The people who are debating you will likely never change their opinion. This is true because someone who is taking that much time out of their lives to debate on social media typically has very strong views to begin with.
You can post the most riveting and intellectual articles on your blog, but you won’t reach anyone other than the same few people who already visit your blog. You’re likely not converting anyone, but simply regurgitating the same views that have been written by countless authors before you to people who likely already support what you believe.
The truth about digital media is that you won’t reach people outside your small circle of influence unless you put money behind your message. Doing this requires healthy budgets and digital strategists who know how to best target the demographic you are attempting to influence.
Politicians Don’t Care About You
I once sat with a Democratic senator behind closed doors to negotiate a crime bill that was being introduced by my employer at the time. We got into a side conversation about gun rights. He was a firm believer in gun rights and supporter of the 2nd Amendment. He said, “I would never admit to that publicly.” A month later he voted for additional restrictions on gun ownership.
Despite polls showing increased public support for gun rights, why do politicians still not support it? First, we must understand there are opposing efforts to influence the public on the elimination of gun rights. This is the case for every issue you care about. There is always someone spending lots of money, organizing lots of people, with highly focused messaging. Their purpose is to discredit your position and influence the margins.
Second, politicians only care about the margins. Who are those in the margins? If you’re reading this, you are likely not in the margins. You have a firm set of principled beliefs and will not change them no matter how much influence the opposition exerts.
Those in the margins are people “in play.” These are the voters who can actually be influenced and decide the outcomes of elections. The number of people in the margins is smaller than you think.
The following chart provides a breakdown of voting in any given election. Keep in mind that these numbers are generalized, but this pattern holds true.
Let us examine this in more detail. Despite popular belief 50% + 1 does not win elections. Keep in mind that of the entire population, not everyone is eligible to vote; consider felons, green card holders, illegal immigrants, or those under age 18.
While 60% of the population is eligible to vote, only about 40% are registered voters. However, even though people are registered, it doesn’t mean they actually take the time to vote on election day. Only around 24% of the population actually votes on this day.
Even though 24% actually vote, a large percentage will always vote along party lines no matter what. This only leaves about 6% of the vote, leaving a margin of victory of only 3% + 1.
Elections such as local races, primaries, and special elections often have even lower turnout than these percentages.
Politicians are only worried about the margin. The margin is small, so they live in constant fear of alienating the 3% +1 they need to win an election. The best way for a politician to avoid this is to do nothing when it comes to controversial issues. This is why newly elected politicians usually follow the status quo, and there is little change.
Good political operatives put voters into three categories: Are they for me, against me, or are they in play? For example, I know that evangelicals will always vote Republican. As a result, I only need make sure they do three things: show up to vote, give money, and volunteer (free work). These are the only things I care about with this group. Why? Because I know they won’t vote Democrat.
Political Actions Have Consequences
All political actions have consequences, especially for politicians. We can use the margins to our advantage. By mobilizing and directing voters around a single issue, you can change the political environment for a politician, or group of politicians. One relatively small group can make it more costly for the politician not to act than it is for him or her to act as you want him to
Third Parties Don’t Matter
There is a belief that the two-party system is broken and that if we only brought more attention to third parties, things will change. Take for example, the Libertarian Party, which has been working to restore liberty for over 40 years as a third party. In that time, the party has yet to win any seats of note. Consider that in 2012, Gary Johnson received 0.99% of the vote.
Also, consider that third parties are not invited to presidential debates by the Democratic and Republican controlled Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). The CPD has a standing rule that parties must garner at least 15% support across five national polls before being allowed to participate.
Arguments have been made that third parties are able to swing elections like that of the Green Party in 2000; which some have claimed cost Al Gore the election. Yet the facts are very fuzzy, and Nader himself claims that he did not impact the election.
Fractured Movements Have Little Power
There is a reason that the strategy of divide and conquer has stood the test of time from the ancient world to the present. That’s because it works. The elements are simple:
- Create or encourage divisions in order to prevent alliances that could challenge the power seeker
- Aid and promote those who are willing to cooperate with the power seeker
- Foster distrust and hostility between leaders of the opposing group
- Encourage meaningless expenditures that reduce the capability for political action
These tactics are made that much easier for your opponent when the movement fractures itself via infighting and internal disputes. I can’t count the number of articles, Facebook posts, and in-person debates I have seen among those in the liberty movement.
All of these exercises are a waste of time. Figuring out whether or not intellectual property is legitimate does nothing to impact politics, or your liberty. Voters in play also don’t really care about whether Ayn Rand’s objectivism or Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism is the right answer. Writing hit pieces in order to show how someone isn’t really a libertarian because they don’t match your criteria won’t help either.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with intellectual debate and educating yourself. What I am saying is that you must evaluate how much time you waste engaging in actions that do nothing to advance liberty. You must evaluate whether you prefer to be an armchair general, or be bold enough to fight on the battlefield. Many people wonder why they have yet to achieve liberty. They only have to look in the mirror to find the answer.
As mentioned earlier, politics entails creating alliances and coalitions. This is where you have the opportunity to unite with those who likely believe in many of the same things as you. You can fight together on these causes, and once we have achieved a place where 95% of our liberty is reached, feel free to debate about the remaining 5%.
The Greatest Lie In Politics
Finally, we must address the greatest lie in politics. It is this:
Good people are obligated to vote for the lesser of two evils.
Supporting a candidate that is “hopefully at least a fiscal conservative” is supporting the lesser of two evils. There are at least five reasons why this belief is hurtful to our cause:
- The lesser of two evils is still evil.
- You are rewarding the political establishment for bad behavior and they will never change their behavior when they are already being rewarded.
- Good people and good activists are demoralized if the only thing you can offer them is someone that is “hopefully at least a fiscal conservative.”
- When “our guy” is passing bad policy, we can’t mobilize against him.
- When “their guy” is passing bad policy, you can mobilize to change things.
- By compromising, we prove that we will always compromise and we are forced to continually compromise.
A candidate that is “hopefully at least a fiscal conservative” is just a socialist. Nothing was ever accomplished in politics by swallowing your pride and hoping for the best. If we have to accept these candidates, we will be force fed socialism until we die.
Progressives understand this and the Democratic Party is continually forced to conform to their activists, not the other way around. If we ever hope to reverse the direction that this country is heading, we will have to stop settling for the lesser of two evils.