The Prospect Before Us

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It’s hard to write this. Like most of the country, I’m still in shock. But we need to face the fact that on January 20 either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president. According to recent public opinion polls, it will be Trump. He and Clinton are neck and neck, but he underpolls to a very significant degree.

Nevertheless, libertarians have a choice. I don’t mean the choice of whether to vote Libertarian. Go ahead and do that if you want. It makes no difference, except for whether you want to hurt Clinton more than Trump, or Trump more than Clinton; and right now it isn’t clear which one would be hurt more by an LP vote. The real choice has to do with how libertarians are going to work for liberty in the new environment of 2017.

I say “new” because I think that either a Clinton or a Trump administration would pose problems that libertarians haven’t thought much about, at least lately.

Clinton:

If Clinton is elected, it will be because she squeezed the last ounce of support from the only groups that actually support her: some ethnic minorities, some feminists, most academics, and all of the newer labor unions, mainly those representing government employees. She will try to pack the courts with judges who favor the extreme demands of pressure groups claiming to speak for these voters.

“So what’s new?” you say. “Obama has been doing that forever.”

But that’s the problem. Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to. Until Trump came along, many young people had never heard a national figure defying the political correctness that many of them assume has existed forever. The Obama ideology has been swallowed whole by a large segment of the “educated” population, preparing the way for Sanders and his crew, now including Clinton, to demand that the promises of this ideology be fulfilled — make college “free” and totally “correct,” bankrupt the prosperous, cripple the banks, sue firearms manufacturers for “gun violence” (thereby destroying the manufacture of guns), escalate the government take-over of healthcare, and so on. If Clinton is elected, libertarians will have the hard job of showing that this ideology is simply nonsense and that it has never before been part of American ideals.

Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to.

That task may be as formidable, and as interesting, as the task performed by the libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, who had to argue hard for what should have been virtually self-evident propositions: America was historically anti-imperialist, and should return to being that way; conscription was rare in American history and should never have been continued after World War II; lower taxes have always strengthened, not weakened, the economy; and so on. Libertarians must now argue harder, for even more no-longer-self-evident ideas. To do so, they will need to review their own concepts and make them more accessible to other Americans.

Trump:

If Trump is elected, libertarians will have to spend a lot of effort disentangling good and popular ideas about the incompetence of the current government and the evils of political correctness from bad, yet popular, ideas about free trade, taxation, and (above all) the use of utilitarian, as opposed to moral, standards for the assessment of political action. This will be a mess, because the American exceptionalism, and even the American nationalism, with which Trump is associated have strong associations with the libertarian core of American history and with the utilitarian, yet true, idea that liberty has enormous practical benefits.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up, and the work of understanding American history better than the Trumpetorians do. You may think, “That won’t be hard,” but if so, you may be overestimating the amount of historical knowledge that most libertarians have been getting along with.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up

Now, in dealing with Trump or Clinton, libertarians will have strong support from members of the defeated political party and the defeated segments of the winning party. (And after all, there are plenty of libertarians in both the major parties; I am writing to them as much as to the LP libertarians.) But libertarians must be alert to the danger of being swept up in the emotions, the bad ideas, and the phony rhetoric of these new allies.

Can we do it? If we can’t, 2017 will be a very bad year. And, to be candid, even if we can, it will still be bad — though getting better.




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Countdown and Aftermath

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The bylaws of the Libertarian Party stipulate that, prior to the vice presidential election, the presidential nominee be granted five minutes prior to voting “for the purpose of endorsing or objecting to” any of the candidates. Gary Johnson only used four of those minutes, and he used them entirely to plead with the assembly to elect William Weld — even closing his speech on a note of desperation: “Please, please give me Weld. Please. Please!”

If any of the attendees didn’t realize by then that the Weld candidacy was in trouble . . . well, then they hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. But this was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback (and, yes, boring) demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Let’s back up a little bit to the VP nominating speeches, the first business after the assembly returned to order. The caprice of the 20-sided die determined that Weld would be the first candidate to speak, which meant all the others after him — in order, Judd Weiss, Derrick Grayson, Alicia Dearn, Larry Sharpe, and Will Coley — could take their shots after. The last two, in particular, had impressed in the debates a few nights previous for their passion and personal narratives; their alliance would determine whether the NeverWeld movement could deny Johnson the “running mate of his wildest dreams.”

This was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include the former Massachusetts governor? Johnson drew justified scorn for referring to Weld as “the original libertarian,” but the sentiment behind his infelicitous phrasing is apt: Weld was one of the few figures with a national profile who spoke in favor of gay marriage — about the same time Bob Barr was drafting, and Bill Clinton was signing (with Hillary’s outspoken support), the Defense of Marriage Act. Weld also called for a drawdown in the War on Drugs, and the legalization of medical marijuana in particular. Prior to his gubernatorial days, he went tough on white-collar crime, an increasingly popular position among Libertarians who see Wall Street and Washington DC locked in loving embrace.

The opposite case is easier to enumerate. First, whatever his previous inclinations, Weld had hardly even looked at the LP before (in 2006, he briefly considered seeking the Party’s nomination for governor in New York; another black mark in the minds of many). He backed Romney in 2012, and Kasich this year, before Johnson came calling; even when he could have backed a fellow Republican-turned-Libertarian in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama instead (not that Barr was long for the LP . . .). Second, in 1990 he supported various restrictions on gun ownership, something which plays particularly badly in a group where Second Amendment rights may be more of a third rail than abortion or anything else. Third, Weld’s Massachusetts was hardly a model of fiscal prudence; admittedly, there was a great deal of bleeding to staunch after Michael Dukakis’ tenure, but like so many politicians Weld lost his nerve once actually in office. There’s more numbers to be had, but I’ll skip ahead: lastly, even now, he believes that Hillary Clinton, who has overseen a disastrous war in Libya, and who would gladly have added another in Syria (and probably still will), has been a “good Secretary of State.”

In his speech, Johnson emphasized what Weld would bring to the ticket: fundraising knowhow, and media access. The latter had already been proven on day one at the media credentials table, and underlined every day since with the numbers of reporters on the ground, many of whom acknowledged that they would never have been dispatched to Orlando if the dual-governor ticket weren’t a strong likelihood (and, of course, if the major-party candidates weren’t both so dreadful). Give me William Weld, he said, and anything is possible. Anyone else, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity would be lost.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include former Massachusetts governor William Weld?

It was a hard sell. Weld’s first nominating speaker, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, rang his endorsement of Weld, despite his disappointment at being eclipsed in the role. For that, he drew calls of “Statist!” from the crowd — something which is less true of Gray than possibly of any other single jurist in this country’s history. Things got tougher still with Marc Allan Feldman spoke as Weld’s second nominator — a speech which several of the anti-Weld radicals received as betrayal, though “backhanded” would be a mild way of describing the endorsement. Feldman felt that, with Johnson taking the top of the ticket, he should be given the running mate he pled for, and he agreed that a Johnson-Weld ticket would get far more media play than any alternative. That was it for the positives; the rest was taken up with every reason Weld shouldn’t get the post.

After some befuddled applause, and a few more boos, Weld rose and gave an animated, almost fiery speech, his best statement of the convention. While admitting his lack of familiarity with the LP and its workings, he nonetheless pledged to be “Libertarian for life,” and to work not only for his own campaign The party platform, meanwhile, which he had read two weeks before when considering Johnson’s proposal, he found elegant, “like the Declaration of Independence.” He noted that the whirlwind process had been “a learning experience,” that he would continue improving, and that he was “open to suggestion” as to how.

As Weld went to take media questions, Judd Weiss stepped up, not to make his case for vice president, but to pull out of the race. Weiss had been McAfee’s right-hand man, and with his boss out of the picture, he used his time to promote their video series and speak to the importance of supporting the grassroots and downballot candidates — noting that what he saw in the LP was a marketing problem; specifically, that the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Interestingly, he endorsed radical favorite Will Coley rather than McAfee’s preferred backup candidate, Derrick Grayson, who was an odd presence in several ways. First, he seemed to take issue with the speech McAfee gave before the VP nominations, in which the ex-candidate took the LP to task for the overwhelming (and visually verifiable) white-maleness of its ranks, even to the point of saying, “Shame on you, and shame on me,” for allowing the outreach effort to become so ossified. Grayson, a physically striking, smartly-dressed black Georgian with preacherly cadence, instead drew attention to the few people of color at the convention, before pivoting to say that, “When I enter this building, I don’t see race, I see people who love liberty” — which is great rhetoric for the mid-’90s, perhaps, but not ultimately convincing in an assembly that is whiter than Maine.

What Weiss saw in the LP was a marketing problem: the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Grayson had some memorable lines, though, including that the idea of nominating someone like Weld for media coverage and then fixing principle, rather than nominating someone for principle and then seeking media coverage was “butt-backwards.” It was almost enough for some to forget that this exact thing had been tried multiple times throughout party history — or, on an entirely different track, to forget Grayson’s campaign as a Republican, including having his primary challenge to US Sen. Johnny Isakson shut down by the FEC for failing to file campaign finance reports. Not everyone forgot, though: there were calls from the floor demanding to see Grayson’s party membership receipt, dated and timed, to ensure that he was eligible to run; unfortunately, the vehemence of these calls came off less as principled and more as unhinged, Birther-level conspiracy-mongering (especially when accompanied by calls to see the same for Weld, who was verified as a Life member).

After this, things got odd. Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis attorney who had done work for LP ballot access and the 2012 Johnson campaign (the fees for which she had later written off), had nonetheless been one of the major hopes of the Never Weld campaigners; Austin Peterson endorsed her in his own concession, and wore her sticker on his lapel. While other contingents didn’t mobilize around her, they did agree on a strategy to use the first ballot to establish the strongest competitor to Weld, and the second to band together and bring him down. But Dearn herself wasn’t convinced of the plan. After speaking on the importance of party unity, she posed a question to Weld: will you swear not to “betray” the LP?

It became clear she expected Weld to actually come up to the podium, which she relinquished to him when he did so. Weld wanted clarification, understandably: we’d already seen the very different definitions of what people in this audience counted as “betrayal.” But he said that he would never (unlike the specter in the background, Bob Barr) return to the GOP. “Is that sufficient?” he asked. “Yes!” cried some in the crowd, who may already have been supporters. “No!” shouted others, who never would be, no matter what he said. Still, the net result was Weld getting three extra minutes to stump, and a seeming endorsement from Dearn — except then she pulled back from that edge; she declined to withdraw, encouraging everyone to “vote their own heart,” even though she did not know hers yet.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc to survive even the first ballot. The two were a study in contrast: the former Tea Partier Coley relatively well-known from his radio show and his work with Muslims for Liberty, a forceful speaker with experience crafting talks for the liberty-curious; Sharpe an outsider not known for much of anything (certainly not his day job, a sales training course about as culty as others of its ilk), but with a genuinely inspiring life story and a winning manner. This life story was the interminable focus of his nominating speech, which included no speeches for the first ten minutes while a video played detailing Sharpe’s family history, the challenges he’d overcome, his leadership in the Marines and in Ivy League teaching gigs, etc. It was all fine enough, but a lot to ask of a crowd many of whose members had brought beers back with them from lunch. Coley was more traditional: several speakers from the Radical Caucus spoke for him, underlining the need to “balance” the ticket as well as the candidate’s ability to challenge Trump and Clinton on their biases against Muslims; then Coley himself spoke, promising to “inspire and electrify” voters, even though this speech was perhaps his most subdued on record. Then Johnson made his plea for Weld, and the ballots were distributed.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc.

As ever, it takes a while to hand out and recollect ballots, especially from the larger delegations like California and Texas. This left quite some time for the mood of the room to turn rowdy, and a little ugly. In the normal course of voting, there are speeches, there are parliamentary points, there are supporters of various candidates walking the aisles with the signs of their chosen. But now was added loud chanting, especially by a small Never Weld group, often making it impossible to hear points from the podium or floor microphone. Now was also the confrontation between several of these — including radical candidate for party chair, James Weeks II — and Feldman, as he defended his Weld endorsement as a chance to speak to the negatives, as well as to demonstrate the virtues of compromise, of “learning to live with people you hate.” But nothing spilled over into physical confrontation; the worst I saw was a visibly drunk 20-something guy yelling at a woman of similar age holding a Weld sign: “You hate Ron Paul! Hey, she hates Ron Paul!” He withered under her glare and, finding no support among those around him, bumbled on.

The vote count didn’t make anybody any happier. Weld couldn’t take the first ballot, bringing an initial cheer from the Never Welders that lasted about as long as it took to see the tally: the ex-gov took 426 votes; 49% of the total and single digits away from what he needed. The only hope would be to swing everyone behind Sharpe, who had gotten 264 — not just the Coley and Grayson totals, but also Dearn’s, and the NOTAs, and maybe even the spoiled ballots and write-ins.

As lowest votegetter, Dearn was granted time to concede, but could not be found — she’d left the event, and would have to rush back. In the meantime Coley went ahead and dropped, endorsing Sharpe as per their pre-vote agreement, but also reminding the delegates of Weld’s role in the past helping to shoot down Libertarian legitimacy. Dearn arrived in the meantime, and noted that she hadn’t even voted for herself; she and her husband both abstained from the first ballot. Now she completed the endorsement of Weld she had considered before, and earned lusty boos from pockets of the crowd for her perfidy.

Only after the second-round ballots had been printed did Grayson decide to withdraw. He also endorsed Sharpe, claiming those going Weld were “Kool-Aid drinkers.” This particular pedant must intrude here to note that the Jonestown massacre-suicide was through Flavor-Aid, not its better-known competitor, and besides that casting a vote in an LP VP contest is some distance away from killing yourself and your family. But the comment got under some delegates’ skins for other reasons, with one even trying with some vehemence to object to the point from the floor mic.

When Weeks kicked off his shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed.

Counting continued. With time running low on weekend and the use of the ballroom, the body moved as usual to allow candidates for party chair to speak during the ballot count. This meant incumbent chair Nicholas Sarwark handing off the gavel to prepare for his own speech — a fateful move. Sarwark had drawn the admiration of every other reporter I spoke with that weekend, many marveling at his ability not just to keep things moving, but to do so with grace and good humor. (An example: during a lull, one delegate asked for a point of information, which granted, said: “Mr. Chairman, is taxation theft?” Without missing a beat, Sarwark: “Yes, taxation is theft,” before acknowledging the next speaker.)

With Sarwark off the podium, podium duty fell to former LP chairman Jim Lark, a distinguished, almost august figure in the Party, but one not at all prepared to marshal a rambunctious group riding emotional and, in some cases, chemical highs. Lark could not effectively quiet the chanters, or get the aisles cleared, but what he was about to face may have been beyond the ability of any parliamentary chair to wrangle.

The candidates for chair were four: Sarwark, Brett Pojunis (Nevada state chair), Mark Rutherford (former chair in Indiana), and James Weeks II (former congressional candidate and county chair in Michigan). The debate between the former three a few nights earlier had been one of the most civil and well-mannered I’ve ever seen, even if the trio all substantially agreed with one another on most things. When the 20-sided die was cast, it was newcomer Weeks who would speak first, followed by the other three.

Weeks came to the stage with a nearly empty pint glass, which he deposited at the podium. Then he signaled for music to play, and started clapping in time, getting the delegates to do the same. He even did a little dance — nothing too odd, just getting the audience moving and on his side. And that was when he started removing his clothes. When he kicked off the shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Shirt and pants followed, leaving only black bikini briefs between the audience and full knowledge of what Weeks had to offer. After a brief dance, during which a couple friends of his (one hopes) rushed on stage to tuck dollar bills into his waistband, Weeks said he was withdrawing from the race, and the whole thing was on a dare; then gathering his clothes, he withdrew.

During all of this, I was about five feet away, right in front of the podium, probably closer than any other person in the room, and I could not stop laughing. It’s an odd thing, knowing with absolute certainty that what you are seeing is about to blow up online — the C-SPAN cameras and the internet’s appetite for novelty would ensure that. What I didn’t expect was the outrage from so many delegates about what was obviously a little bit of surrealist theater — and even that more Monty Python than Monster Raving Loony Party. But one should never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Delegates queued up to denounce Weeks, competing with each other on how best to punish him; one even suggested permanent expulsion from the Party. Another joked that Weeks’ presentation of his zaftig form constituted a “violation of the non-aggression principle”; at least a couple of observers took him seriously. Lark couldn’t handle the commotion; it took Sarwark, speaking from the floor this time, to calm everyone and get them to move on. (What didn’t get mentioned much, even in his local press, was Weeks’ Iron Cross tattoo, increasingly used by white supremacist groups in the US and elsewhere — though as often used by metalheads, bikers, or provocateurs of various stripes; conclusions are difficult to draw.) A later proposal to officially denounce Weeks failed, and the assembly returned to its business; though the striptease was widely reported (and how could it fail to be?), somehow it did not end up defining the LP’s weekend.

Never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Instead the focus remained on the LP’s ticket, and after the aisles were cleared of the indignant, the results of the second ballot were announced. Though Sharpe picked up nearly all the votes in play, “nearly all” wasn’t enough; by gaining only 15 more votes, William Weld was confirmed as the Party’s VP nominee. In his concession, Sharpe noted his admiration for Gary Johnson, saying the 2012 campaign was what brought him to the LP to begin with. Judging by his performance over the weekend, it’s not the last we’ll see from Sharpe within Party politics.

What struck me most, following the VP election, was what didn’t happen. The radicals may not have been represented on the ticket, but unlike in 2008 there was no immediate call to splinter off from the Party, or to abandon it to its new Republican masters. Instead of a mass gathering in the exhibition hall outside the convention ballroom, there was instead a small, only slightly downcast postmortem in the Petersen hospitality suite, with the door open to the adjoining McAfee suite. The candidates congratulated their operatives for good work against steep odds, and encouraged them to push on for the sake of the Party.

There’s not much chance Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen will ever be friends, but the latter will work for the former and wait for his chance down the line. John McAfee, who had planned to walk out if Johnson was nominated, said, “Nothing was lost today — this is just the beginning.” While some of the radical caucusers I spoke with were unsure about whether or not they could cast a vote for Johnson-Weld, they nonetheless were eager to dive into local downballots and grassroot-growing. (In the days after the election, Will Coley seemed encouraged by Johnson, if still wary of him, following personal phone calls in which Johnson sought guidance on how best to speak about ISIS, Iran, and Middle East politics generally.) And, to judge from the results of the officer elections, with Sarwark and vice-chair Arvin Vohra reelected handily, the Party as a whole seems content with its present leadership.

In the days after the convention, the media coverage was impressive: not only because there was media coverage, but also because it was generally sympathetic, or at least without the overt misrepresentation, scorn, or dismissal standard to accounts of American third parties. Even my driver to the airport had heard of the convention, and — as a self-described entrepreneur trying to "build his personal brand" so he can provide for his family — he's a natural for the LP's message, if only they can convey it to him and the millions of others who just want to be left alone to work hard and live as well as they're able.

It's on that basis that Johnson made his plea, and it worked: the Weld gambit is underway. With both major parties and especially their nominees deeply unpopular, everything is set for the LP to achieve historic highs in the election to come. What remains to be seen, as ever, is if they can keep from screwing it up.



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Presidential Prelude

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If you got a bunch of people together and asked them, in an average week, what day and time would be the best for picking a presidential nominee, chances are they wouldn’t say “Sunday morning.” Yet here we were, 9:30 ante meridiem, waiting in a hotel ballroom in Orlando resortland, waiting for the assembly to come to order and select a champion.

The candidates milled about shaking hands, checking in with allies, killing time without actually doing much — least of all Gary Johnson, refusing to get beyond generalities other than a specific, strong denunciation of the debate questions the night before. To be fair, the media questions weren’t much more inspiring; many of the outside reporters started coming to me and a couple of others who had been through the event previously to fill in details about what, exactly, was going on.

While the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure.

The Libertarian convention is a wholly different manner of thing from the Republican and Democratic versions. Because the nominee has almost always been established weeks beforehand, the entire convention gets bent to their caprice; backstage drama is not about who will or won’t head the ticket, but rather who will or won’t be allowed a speaking slot to address the convention — a must for anyone with present or especially future designs on party power. Thus while the primary system in theory allows broader input from across the country, its actual effect is to concentrate power in the hands of an imperial figure. In large part, political beat reporters long for a contested convention for the sheer sake of having something to report on other than mid-level position jockeying and embarrassing ego stroking.

The beauty, and the danger, of the Libertarian model is that every convention is contested. Whatever your advantages going in, nothing can be taken for granted (as Bob Barr learned in 2008) and almost anything can happen (as the entire Party learned with Michael Badnarik in 2004). From an outsider’s view, there was no way that Johnson, with his higher profile, past political experience, and infinitely greater access to media outlets, could do anything but cruise to victory. I wasn’t so sure: while none of the competitors seemed likely to steal away the nomination, they might be strong enough together to make things difficult — if their coalition held. With Johnson straw-polling at about 35–40%, and the next three pulling between 13–15% each, we looked set for at least two or three rounds.

There was a motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master.”

With the ballots distributed, we hurried up and waited. The interim between voting and counting was filled, as usual, by a variety of speakers, most of them candidates for Congress or even state office. These are not the operators of the major-party scene; these are people who have entire lives outside of politics: hobbyists and dilettantes, certainly, but ones who care enough to devote their own time and money to a losing cause — whether that be standing up to an incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed, or calling out the tyrannies of opponents on either side. They’re also an incredibly mixed bag: among the convention speakers were Lily Tang Williams, a Senate candidate from Colorado who “grew up eating trapped rat meat in Mao’s China”; Kimberly Schjang, a black lesbian running for the Nevada state senate; Rick Perkins, a Texas candidate about as white as one man can be, who then called up to the stage a black teenager from Georgia who planned to start a “freedom club” at her high school upon returning home. “This is the future!” he said, lifting her hand with his — a great message for whatever TV audience was looking on, though unfortunately far from the defining image it should have been. (And it wasn’t all highlights: choice among the opposite number was Ernest Hancock of the Arizona delegation lambasting the “lame-stream media” for not “getting it,” in front of the largest mainstream media contingent the Party has ever drawn to anything.)

The remainder of the time was taken up with an incessant stream of questions from the delegates, in the parliamentary forms of points of order, information, inquiry and personal privilege. Though often just a guise to promote the Party’s website, phone number, and social media info, these moments can also serve as funny or surreal irruptions amid the more orderly business. Two stood out: one motion to make Dobby the House Elf from the Harry Potter series into the party’s mascot, because “Dobby has no master” (and by the end of the series, one might note, no life either); and another lamenting the lack of an official song for the convention, which the speaker remedied for himself, at least, by playing a jaunty tune on his harmonica.

At last the tally was complete, and the chairs of each state delegation commenced the finest part of any convention: stepping up to announce vote totals and brag about their state. In the LP, this usually means highlighting defeats of overbearing legislation, or historical points of relevance; for instance: “The great state of Illinois, where we send our governors to prison, casts its votes as follows . . .” Others took a different tack: “Those of us from the state of New Jersey would like to say, We’re sorry . . .” New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help Granite Staters “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

Witty or otherwise, all the states took a turn; as each was announced, it became clear that Johnson could take the ballot, but it would be very, very tight. Johnson was polling better than 40%, but Petersen and McAfee scored in most states as well, and there was a small but surprising tally for Feldman off the back of his energetic debate performance. All of these appear to have drained a bit of support from Perry, who kept only the hardest core of the Radical Caucus, but still cleared the 5% necessary to carry on. Kevin McClintock came in last with nine votes, less than 1% of the total — which normally would have made him a non-factor, except that in the final count, Johnson lacked only five votes to win outright.

New Hampshire’s chair claimed the state’s high Libertarian percentage would help NHers “survive the zombie apocalypse.”

By the time McClintock finished his two-minute concession, the campaign crews were hard at work. The McAfee and Petersen crews each expected to get the other’s support when they dropped out, and Perry’s as well (though Perry would personally have gone None Of The Above before Petersen) — but the three of them together would also have to pull votes from Johnson’s haul. Part of Petersen’s strategy was to stage a confrontation with Johnson outside the ballroom, breaking through the media scrum to accuse him of refusing to “unify the party” with a more conciliatory VP pick. But Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers. Really the governor was just serving as decoy; as Brian Doherty details, instead of waiting for the McClintock faction to drift in, the Johnson campaign was busy whipping Feldman voters, reminding them that it was the governor’s support that got him in the debate, and making the case that one tribute vote was enough.

The strategy bore immediate dividends: Johnson took the second ballot with almost 56% of votes cast; out of the 60 he picked up, 40 came from Feldman. McAfee held onto his count, and Petersen picked up a handful, but not close to enough; Gary Johnson would be the party’s presidential nominee for the second election running.

Johnson saw through theatrics and stepped away, leaving Petersen to get caught up in arguments with ungracious hecklers

And yet, strange as it may seem, all the foregoing served merely as prelude for the real fight of the day, over whether or not former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld serve as the Party’s vice-presidential nominee. As soon as the victory was announced, everyone switched gears: Johnson, with Weld at his side, went to meet the press as nominee; Petersen quickly declared his endorsement of Johnson at the top of the ticket, but threw his own support behind Alicia Dearn’s campaign. McAfee left the floor entirely; given past statements that he would be LP for life except if Johnson was the nominee, some wondered if he was gone for good. Perry attempted to round up any outstanding VP tokens to see if he could get into the race — not actually to run, but to withdraw and urge support for either Larry Sharpe or Will Coley.

Over the lunch break, the “Anyone But Gary” coalition morphed into a “Never Weld” one. And, unlike with Johnson — who for all his drawbacks remained reasonably well respected, even liked, among the rank and file — this time, they would be going after a much more vulnerable target.



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Staging and Blocking

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Back in (comparative) reality — even in the main ballroom, the night’s event was ticket-only, reserved for top-tier donors, or those who had $20 to spend on being there. Despite that, people lined up early and eventually filled the room past seated capacity, with Johnson and Petersen supporters chanting out the names of their candidate — a mindset which I know I will never, ever be able to fathom: why invest so much in a person who, through the process of politics, will inevitably disappoint you in principle, performance, or both?

Moderating would be radio personality and self-styled “Sage of Southern California” Larry Elder, the same question in different wordings. Thankfully the debate format — 30 seconds to respond to any question, 30 seconds rebuttal to any rival mentioned by name — kept things mostly on track. But the questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why, between barrel-fish such as “What should we do about the Fed?” for the candidates to dutifully shotgun, and spring-load traps such as “Should driver’s licenses be required to operate a car?” for the candidates to either produce extreme responses, or get booed for their lack of extremity. And that’s not even to mention simply bizarre questions such as, “Do you think American intervention in World War I and World War II was justified?”, as if anyone could answer such a question in 30 seconds.

In the main ballroom there was introductory music from a man playing gently looping ambient guitar, with occasional lyrics urging hearers to "arm yourselves to the teeth."

Johnson had, in many ways, the hardest task, forced to play not only to the more radical crowd on the floor, but also the TV audience and the bumper crop of media. So he concentrated mostly on process: noting not the utopian ideals he would instill as president, but which bills he would or would not be prepared to sign should Congress put them on his desk. His economic plans were a buffet of conservative thinktank ideas: flat tax, vouchers for schools, states as labs for entitlement plans, higher retirement age and means testing for Social Security (huge boos here), privatized infrastructure, etc. Asked about Trump, he said he “didn’t want to talk about him,” before rattling off a long list of ways the Republican candidate is wrong, a rapid-fire preview of what a 2016 Johnson campaign could be.

He often returned to his experience as governor, but it got him in trouble once: when asked how or who he would appoint to the Supreme Court, Johnson brought up a bizarre hypothetical he used to vet candidates in New Mexico: if a law passed making graffiti punishable by the death penalty, would the candidate uphold an indisputable conviction under that law? It’s a strange thought experiment at best, but one that was never going to land in a roomful of people who earlier that day had committed the party to a platform plank against the death penalty, whatever the offense. More generally, Johnson has a strange catch to his voice when he talks off the cuff, so not only is it very clear which responses are practiced, it also makes the spontaneous ones less confident, or in the sharper words of a fellow reporter, “more pulled from his ass.” If he somehow manages to get a debate with the major-party candidates, Trump will pick him to pieces for that if it’s not dealt with. However, he showed that he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on answers he knows will draw disapproval, in particular in reaffirming that he would sign off on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in both public and private establishments.

The questions disappointed. Afterward, nobody would own up to having written them, and it’s easy to see why.

Johnson was on his strongest ground in asserting that he is the only candidate with even a narrow chance of getting to a national stage; several of his opponents were rhetorically smoother, if perhaps not more practiced, but their lack of name recognition or record of political accomplishments would make sure they never saw any media time, period. The only exception among the debaters was John McAfee, who can command media attention, but at the cost of no one having any idea exactly what he’s going to say at any given moment. He left open more room for government involvement (by Libertarian Party standards) than anyone besides Johnson; e.g., in transitioning Social Security and entitlement programs rather than just ending them outright, allowing a minimum role in repairing and maintaining interstate highways, and possibly in discouraging lawsuits, both because of the costs added to health insurance by malpractice suits, and similar; and because of personal experience — “I’ve been sued more than 200 times; lawyers are the hand of Satan.”

On other issues, though, he went out the farthest on the limb, such as being the only candidate to explicitly acknowledge climate change as a manmade phenomenon, even as he noted (as did Johnson) that government, and especially the military, is the biggest polluter, and it will take free markets to provide the necessary solutions. Despite this, he didn’t get booed as Johnson did — possibly because he wasn’t a Republican governor in the past, but possibly also because his magnetism in one-on-one conversations doesn’t really carry through to a debate format. McAfee was perhaps constitutionally unable to play a crowd; one can see why he’s out of step with the Silicon Valley hordes in the era of huckster-pattered TED Talks.

On the opposite spectrum was Darryl W. Perry, a New Hampshire-based anarchist with no problems filling the room with his voice. Perry’s extensive catalog of applause lines, honed on his radio show Free Talk Live, demonstrated both his greatest strength and weakness: the former his ability to riff on almost any question that could be put to him; the latter the sheer predictability of his answers — not even in content so much as in rhythm: start with a seeming tangent or even non sequitur, then bring it back to the subject by the end. Thus, asked about Social Security, Perry starts by asking the crowd “Do you love grandmas?” and how people will support grandmas through voluntary contributions if the program is eliminated. Asked about transgender rights and the North Carolina bathroom law, Perry introduces the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

I had heard these same anecdotes from Perry in an interview the day before, almost down to the exact pitch and modulation (and, a bit unfortunately, nearly the exact volume as well, in a smaller space). Perry’s voice is a strength — “radio quality” as several media onlookers noted — though as he gets excited, he can lose command of it, with a tendency also toward destructive gestures such as podium-pounding. He has a sense of theater; he was the only candidate to liven up his obligatory “end the Fed” answer by ripping apart a dollar, noting that act was “probably a felony”; he also may have been the only candidate to quote literature or classical liberal philosophy, dropping in references to both Mark Twain and Frédéric Bastiat. None of which was likely to earn him a single vote outside the radical faction: many in the LP would applaud lines about conducting all government business via charitable contribution, making all drugs “as legal as tomatoes,” and eliminating the entire presidential cabinet in alphabetical order, but they weren’t going to make their speaker the face of the party.

Perry introduced the question of where Buck Angel — a musclebound trans male porn star — would “go potty” in an NC government building.

Petersen put great faith in his face, and in polished image and presentation generally; it was only when the debate (or events off the convention floor) went off-plan that the cracks began to show. In the debate, he had the great advantage of being at Johnson’s right, meaning that for four out of every five questions, he responded immediately after the ex-governor. Whenever Johnson suggested an incrementalist approach to reducing the size of a government program or agency, Petersen was right there to suggest ending it immediately. If Johnson said the free market had bankrupted coal, Petersen retorted that it was government regulation and crony capitalism instead. If Johnson suggested user fees for the road system, Petersen broke out his best Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Amid all this needling, Petersen’s best moment was a reminder of the racist origins of the minimum wage, passed by union-backed white legislatures as a means of keeping black labor from entering the market. But Petersen lost some support elsewhere: in particular by responding to the question of when life begins (which Perry rightly called out as a trap meant to divide the audience), by asserting it’s at conception — though he wouldn’t be drawn on when, if ever, terminating a pregnancy would become a criminal act. Asked about the appropriate size of the military, he trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis: “Be professional, be polite, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” Petersen even got booed from some corners for suggesting that it would be reasonable to have laws preventing children from buying heroin or other hard drugs.

If Petersen profited by having Johnson at his left, he got himself into the red by having Marc Allan Feldman to his right. Feldman wasn’t exactly the breakout star of the event — as he reminded everyone, he was nobody before he began his campaign, and he encouraged them to vote for nobody in the ballots to come. He began by noting that he was passing up part of his son’s wedding weekend to be in Orlando; to judge from his performance, it was the correct decision. Here was a man having the absolute time of his life: with no need to attack anyone or defend any particular position, Feldman spoke with honesty and humor, handling even the thornier questions with grace as well as lines that meandered less than some others’. He sidestepped the religious question by noting that, for religious reasons, he didn’t believe in mixing milk and meat — yet he wouldn’t argue that cheeseburgers should be illegal. On the question of withdrawing from or ending NATO, the IMF, or the UN, he quipped that maybe the UN was fine, since it didn’t ever seem to do anything.

Asked about the appropriate size of the military, Petersen trotted out a favorite phrase of recently retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Maddis.

I don’t mean to suggest that these lines were the height of wit, but rather to credit Feldman for selling them with his warmth and obvious sincerity. On every question where the candidates were largely in agreement — cutting government spending, opening up trade, easing or eliminating immigration controls (there was scarcely a word to be heard here for tight borders, all those voters evidently having gone to Trump) — Feldman offered at least a little joviality through his responses. For his final statement, the candidate who had run a video of himself rapping during his nomination speech went back to the well, running through a sort of slam poem with an intensity that brought the house down; he very nearly got carried out on the crowd’s shoulders.

After the debate, the candidates pressed the flesh while operatives scurried about trying to get rough counts for the next morning’s election. While Feldman was soaking up the well-wishes of debate attendees, he was also already getting pressured by both Johnson and Petersen campaigns to drop out after the first ballot and endorse the respective candidacies. McAfee and Perry had earlier worked out an agreement of reciprocal support, but now Petersen (whose campaign suite shared an interior door with McAfee’s) sought the same — though it would be uphill going, to judge by the several radicals I spoke with on the night who would vote McAfee, but preferred that old Libertarian standby, None Of The Above, to either Johnson or Petersen. Nonetheless, via various channels, the three campaigns began work in earnest on an “Anyone But Gary” coalition. As the candidate machine hustled, convention attendees moved in knots and bunches out to the pool, into the bars, and up to the various room parties. With the nominations and debate done, the true business of the convention could begin.



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One-Ring Circus

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And on the third day, the Libertarian Party rose again, and ascended to the stage, to sit at the right hand of the party chair. From there they shall judge whose campaign is living, and whose is dead.

OK, maybe not. But it was a day of judgment. And Jesus did appear to the masses. But all that in good time.

The morning session saw leftover platform material from the night before; in particular, a motion failed to delete the party’s longstanding, 10th-Amendment-inspired “Omissions” clause: “Our silence about any other particular government law, regulation, ordinance, directive, edict, control, regulatory agency, activity, or machination should not be construed to imply approval.” Additionally, the LP passed, for the first time in Party history, a platform plank calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The other morning diversion was a William Weld meet-and-greet that turned into a grill session, with Gary Johnson wading in to help out his floundering partner. (Sample of said flounder: asked what sort of threat the CIA might pose, Weld tried to joke about how his wife’s great-uncle Kermit Roosevelt helped orchestrate the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, thus making him “probably the wrong person to answer that question.”)

One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Now, to Johnson’s credit, this was already far more engagement than was shown by 2008 candidate Bob Barr. But by the afternoon session, the LP Radicals, energized by their successes in the bylaw and platform portions, were even more eager to rattle sabres (or whatever the equivalent is for anarchist anti-warriors) against Johnson/Weld. As of the afternoon session, the delegate count stood at 907: half again as many as in 2012. Each delegate could cast a vote, or “token,” for one presidential candidate: 30 tokens would suffice for nomination, but it would take 86 to enter the evening’s televised debate. In the end, that meant six candidates out of the 16 potentials moved forward: the high-coverage trio Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, and John McAfee; anarchist Darryl W. Perry; and rank outsiders Marc Allan Feldman and Kevin McCormick, with only the first four (at least initially) qualifying to debate.

The order of nominating speeches was determined by a favorite of both libertarians and the next-door MegaConners: a 20-sided die, which dictated that McAfee would go first. He was nominated by Derrick Grayson, a Ron Paul supporter and failed VP candidate from the night before; McAfee then went without a seconder in order to talk on the importance of supporting the grassroots and creating “a different definition of victory” within the party — something that would involve “derailing the train” that we are currently on. One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Next was Gary Johnson, whose bona fides were established by Bill Redpath and seconded by one-time prez candidate Steve Kerbel, before the ex-NM gov. took the stage with the less-than-inspiring message that he was “not an old white guy” nor “a Republican-lite.” Afterward, though, everything was red meat for the libertarian soul, with even a Gandhi quote landing. I found myself confused, however, by his statement that, though he “doesn’t understand or articulate LP principles as well as some here,” nonetheless behind his lead “we can get this thing done.”

After a too-long rap video, the candidate urged attendees to “Vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Johnson then did double duty by speaking as a second for Feldman, as a means of encouraging delegates to get him the few more tokens it would take for debating privileges; all would end the night grateful for the maneuver. Despite a too-long rap video start (no, really, he rapped), he charmed by noting that he was running for president “because I can,” and urging attendees to “vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Austin Petersen’s nominator, Sean Haugh of North Carolina, said he used a “call my mom” test to decide which candidate to support — as in, which candidate most inspired him to call his aged mother and tell her to turn on the TV. (It’s a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.) The candidate urged everyone to gather together and counter “the armies of darkness [that] are on the march,” something that would involve ending the Fed, for a start. Petersen was also the only candidate to put down a clear anti-abortion platform (though, as he would clarify in the debate, not favoring criminal charges against women seeking such), earning him some boos from the crowd.

Darryl W. Perry was the first candidate not to speak on his own behalf, though whether this is because his nominating speaker went overlong — rattling on about Orwell and Ruby Ridge, before using the Platonic cave as an allegory for libertarian epiphany (unaware, one hopes, of Plato’s more explicitly political works praising tyranny and repression) — or because he made a strategic choice to save it all for the debate. Either way, Perry received a second from Starchild who, wearing a Wilma Flintstone number with matching leopard-print parasol, set off a cascade of press photographers getting social media snaps.

Last, in every way, was McCormick, who didn’t seem to have much reason to be there — he admittedly entered the race late; he didn’t have a nominator; he didn’t even speak in favor of his own campaign — his message instead was to encourage party unity come November. (He also asserted that this gathering was “the most diverse group of people ever at a political convention,” which just — no, dude. No.) Following this speech, LP chair Nick Sarwark announced that Feldman had indeed made the debate via late tokens; McCormick remained nowhere close to debating, but would still be in the mix as designated Round 1 casualty the next day. And after that, they adjourned (early!) to set up for the debate.

Austin Petersen's nominator said he used a "call my mom" test to decide whom to support — a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.

Let me preface this next statement by noting that I am comfortable with both the bizarre and the avant-garde. And I relish particularly the sort of oddity that pops up in gatherings of individualists, such as the LP. That said, John McAfee’s campaign reception was the weirdest scene I’ve come across while covering this beat. It’s not that it was that out there, more that there was just enough of the sheer mundanity of the convention reception — standing tables, too-large room, cash bar, people standing about awkwardly — to underline the strangeness of the rest of it and turn the whole thing into a screeching car-crash. The room was semi-dark, with strobing lights and projected visuals like butterfly wings, with tech-company Euro-trance playing over the PA. There were two women standing on chairs dressed as architecture swaying gently to the tunes. The MC, a man in a tuxedo T-shirt, came in to play live, amplified violin over top of the recorded music while a woman in a cat costume cavorted onstage behind him. Later an acrobat draped herself across a large ring in the midst of the room, while gossamer-winged women on stilts stalked through the crowd and the aforementioned Jesus spun round slowly, parading himself on stage. All this happened, and we hadn’t even yet hit the debate.

Part two of this report to follow Sunday, with election report and convention wrap after. For up-to-the-minute coverage, follow @libertyunbound on Twitter.



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Defying Convention

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This year’s Libertarian National Convention is indisputably the most widely covered in Party history. Walking the halls of the Rosen Centre today, you would have seen CNN reporters making video diaries with Austin Petersen; a Spike TV team filming a documentary on John McAfee; MSNBC interviewing Gary Johnson and his handpicked veep candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld; a gaggle of onlookers from ABC, CBS, and regular NBC; and an extremely bored-looking crew from Vice News that probably expected rather more sex and drugs, and rather less parliamentary procedure. And that’s just the TV folks: there’s also reporters on the ground from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, et very much alium. All seem to agree that the event matters this year in a way it previously hasn’t, though the exact matter of that mattering is up for debate. And all those without prior experience of the LP seem a bit unsure exactly what to cover, or how.

Some, like the Vice crew, clearly came to confirm some stereotype that doesn’t reflect the actual makeup of a crowd much more inclined to policy wonkery than debauchery. (If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, guys, you should have tried the Republican Convention.) Some came to document grotesques, only to find that the most outré LP members—like Starchild, resplendent today in a translucent polyvinyl poncho over a black Speedo; part of his quest to encourage “transparency” in Party dealings—are also often their most erudite and well-spoken.

If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, you should have tried the Republican Convention.

Many of the reporters resorted to hanging around the back of the main ballroom, trying to wend their way through the Byzantinia of LP procedure; others wandered in a daze around the exhibit area, latching onto T-shirts with Ayn Rand’s face on them, or booths advertising some sort of holistic healing, as proof at last of the dogmatism or crackpotdom of the attendees. (Not knowing any better, they already missed the story there evident only through absence: the lack of booths devoted to the 9/11 Truth movement or other conspiracies—all those types having already jumped ship to Trump.) Most, though, bounced around campaign events for the three high-profile candidates, trying to get some sort of comment. And this is odd, because in the three conventions I’ve now covered, I can’t imagine a convention where it is less necessary to get vox spots from the mainliners, given what’s already on the public record.

Start with Petersen. He’s a fresh-faced Seth Macfarlane-looking guy, barely old enough to fulfill the constitutional requirements to serve as president. He has a stable of press-ready statements about how he is the “outsider candidate in the outsider party”—though he has worked within the LP apparatus for years now. He presents himself, especially via his personal pro-life beliefs, as the option for outreach to conservative #NeverTrump-ers—but his main method of limiting abortion would be through expanded access to contraceptives: a sensible approach, but not one likely to seduce those Catholics left unhoused by events in the GOP. In the past, he’s been goaded into boastful, callow statements by people he should handle easily; though he claims to have “grown” since then, one wonders just how much difference a year can make—and likewise, how much difference it will make to the national press, who can and will harry him with that comment should he ever become relevant.

McAfee, on the other hand, seems to be carrying out some sort of publicity stunt. I actually don’t doubt the sincerity of his beliefs—few people have seen firsthand the dangers of government like he has—but whether under his own steam or others’, he’s involved in this quest to rehabilitate his image through what must be one of the last outlets open to him. He’s a striking figure, to be sure, and even a brief talk with him provides glimpses of a rogue and roguish intellect, but given his past troubles and present unpredictability, few I’ve talked with can actually envision him as anyone’s standard bearer; even his threat to leave the Party if the “boring” Gary Johnson gets nominated is met with a resounding, “So?”

Given McAfee's past troubles and present unpredictability, few I've talked with can actually envision him as anyone's standard bearer.

Johnson is boring, don’t get me wrong, as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be. Firebranding doesn’t come naturally to him, and his stump speeches labor, as if he has to remind himself continually what emotions are, and which one he should be showing at any particular point. There are legitimate concerns about his campaign expenditures, and the percentage of funds going to consultant services or servicing past debt. (And here I note the sad lack of an R.W. Bradford to scour spreadsheets and turn up the story behind the story.) And there is an argument to be had about whether the LP can claim to be the “party of principle” when it serves as landing pad for career Republicans on the outs. But it’s evident also that Johnson must be the choice if the party wishes to take advantage of an election whose likes, God willing, we will never see again. And whatever happens here, it seems unlikely to produce the sort of recrimination or schismatic bluster of the 2008 convention.

All the media I’ve talked to without prior LP familiarity are confused by the idea that Johnson wouldn’t be the nominee—after all, why wouldn’t you want the person clearly best positioned to maximize your returns in this cycle? But they underestimate another libertarian stereotype, one more deeply grounded: that inherent anti-authority stance, the perversely impish bird-flipping to anyone or anything telling them what to do, even (or especially) if it’s in their best interest. In Orlando, you can see this most clearly in the response to Weld, whose VP candidacy is under fire from Petersen and others wondering why the Libertarian newcomer didn’t endorse Johnson this time or last. Johnson’s reply, that Weld was “the original libertarian,” was met with the scorn it deserved; even if the ex-New Mexico Gov. gets nominated, it may be without his fellow gubernatorial alumnus. Catchphrases like “taxation is theft” clunk off Weld’s tongue, and he was vastly outperformed in the evening’s VP debate, by black veteran Larry Sharpe in particular—though Weld did still take the straw poll after; much of the drama of this convention could well cohere in the vice-presidential election.

Johnson is as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be.

Enough about them, though. In Party news of actual note, if there were any GOP takeover on the cards, it proved abortive on the day. The Radical Caucus was in full force at the bylaws and platform meetings, with several members patrolling the ballroom aisles with neon lightsabers and signs emblazoned with thumbs—if the caucus supported a motion, the sabers glowed green and the thumbs turned up; if not, then a red gleam and thumbs down. Their biggest success on the day was defeating an effort to delete the “personal conscience” abortion plank in the LP platform—led, many suspected, by Republican refugees, although there was also a group seeking to delete that plank in order to replace it with one more explicitly supporting a pro-choice position. The assembly also rejected the addition of “Parental Responsibilities” to the “Parental Rights” plank. While one would hope that very few attendees would speak for the rights of parents to abuse or neglect their children (or as one speaker put it, to prostitute their 2-year-olds and give them heroin), the plank itself was considered too vague, with even such words as “child” lacking a clearly delineated, legally valid meaning.

Platforming and electioneering, and Liberty’s coverage of it all both here and on Twitter will continue on the morrow.



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Can This Be Real?

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Like millions of other people, I’m used to regarding the current presidential campaign as something I see on television — a long-running show that isn’t nearly as good as the original Law and Order, and is much farther removed from reality.

But now I’m convinced that this thing is real. It isn’t just a drama about Martians invading the earth. The Martians are actually here. Beings called Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will actually be nominated for the highest office in the secular world.

I have only some scattered thoughts to offer.

1. If the establishment “conservatives” had done what they promised to do, and could have done, instead of giving veto power to Harry Reid and every pressure group in the country, this never would have happened.

2. If the establishment “liberals” thought that funding universities to teach people nonsense would not produce a perennial crop of agitators, they were stupider than I thought. But yes, they were stupider than I thought. You can see this in the amazement on Hillary’s face whenever somebody hits her with a slogan that comes right out of Democratic Party 101.

If Donald and Hillary were people of responsible character, they would not be the presumptive nominees for president of the United States.

3. It has been said that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. Both parties have spent the past generation subsidizing the arrogance of the rich, the illusions of the poor, and the ignorance of everyone. Can you imagine Donald Trump reading a book? Can you imagine Hillary Clinton reading a book, even a book she “wrote”? Now imagine one of these illiterates in the seat of Adams and Jefferson.

4. If you went for personal advice to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, what do you think you’d hear? Can you think of anyone, not criminally insane, who would give you more spiritually debilitating counsel?

5. Does character count? Yes it does, but in politics it often counts in ways we wouldn’t like it to count. If Donald and Hillary were people of responsible character, they would not be the presumptive nominees for president of the United States.

6. Some libertarians believe that this amusement park election will expose the evils of American politics. I’m sure they’re right. In fact, it has already done so. The question is, what condition will we be in when we stumble off the roller coaster at the end of this ride?




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Power or Persuasion

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My title may suggest a Jane Austen novel, but I have something totally different in mind. I write about the politics not of amour, but of state. There isn’t much love in our politics, and there probably never has been. But the bigger and more oppressive the government becomes, the smaller the space left in our society for love.

When I speak to fellow libertarians of the Republican and Democratic parties as “major,” and the Libertarian as “minor,” the sparks fly. They’re insulted because they think I’m suggesting that the Libertarian Party is less important. Since that’s not what I mean, I’ve tried to find more accurate terms. The Democrats and the GOP are the parties of power, but the Libertarians are the party of persuasion.

These terms respond to the fact that the two types of political parties have different functions. If we remember what that difference is, we may keep a clearer picture of the goals we can accomplish. Not only that, but we’ll likely spare ourselves a lot of frustration.

The bigger and more oppressive the government becomes, the smaller the space left in our society for love.

Devotees of the power game can’t understand us, because they don’t understand the importance of persuasion. No truly free society can exist without it. If coercion and aggression are everything, then only power matters. People who think like that will always belong to parties of power.

Libertarians are believers in persuasion. We measure our political success not by “winning,” but by convincing. It took me some time to make my peace with that concept, but when people tell me that my candidate has no chance of winning an election, in that condescending tone they always use, it no longer makes me gnash my teeth. I simply measure success by a different yardstick.

Even if we’re not capital-L people, if we are lovers of liberty we are people of persuasion. And a growing segment of the public is being persuaded. We have every reason to hope that the number will continue to grow. Power players will go right on telling us what losers we are because we can never “win.” But the game is changing.

The success of anti-establishment candidates in the power party races has plunged the power players into gloom. They think the voters are having yet another temper tantrum, and are lecturing us all on the unsuitability of the popular favorites. Their argument has morphed, however, from hyperventilation over Trump’s vulgarities and Sanders’ revolutionary fantasies into warnings that they can’t “win.” It’s almost — almost — enough to make me wish that the two surprise contenders would face off in the finals, making it a battle of losers, one of whom would then actually win. It would, at least, confound the morons who’ve mistaken the process of choosing the most powerful executive on earth for a national championship.

If coercion and aggression are everything, then only power matters. People who think like that will always belong to parties of power.

Would it lead them to see how silly the exercise has become? Perhaps it would, for some. For a great many others, it already has. Polls show Libertarian Party presidential frontrunner and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson poised for an historic level of electoral support for that very reason. Johnson won’t win, but he’s changing the game — and persuading.

We need parties of persuasion to exist as civilized people. Politics isn’t going away, whether we like it or not, because for the foreseeable future, despite how much we hate the idea, government is here to stay. And power politics will exist as long as there is big and intrusive government. The twin Goliaths care about nothing but power, having long ago abandoned most pretenses of caring about persuasion. That’s where the Davids come in, and it’s why we’re necessary.

Even when they win, power-game voters almost never get what they want. They are merely being used as a means of keeping the Goliaths in charge. And this time, until the next time, once they have served their purpose they will be discarded and disregarded. If we explain this to them, some of them just may stop telling us what losers we are and begin to consider voting for more libertarian options.

The primary concept to get through to them, though, is the difference between power and persuasion. Which function do they want politics to serve? That is the decision that determines not only their own choices but the direction our country will take.




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Duly Noted

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In my romantic moods I liken myself, as conductor of this column, to a lighthouse keeper on a distant isle. Picture him, if you will: scanning the waves, tending his lamp, doing his duty so that others, duly warned of danger, may safely reach their port. Alternatively, I see myself as a prison guard standing in his tower, wary and farsighted, watching to make sure that the criminals don’t run loose.

In short, this is a lonely job, and it can make you a little strange.

But to return . . . people with solitary occupations sometimes amuse their empty hours by keeping diaries or notes of the things they observe. And that’s what I do. Some of my notes find their way into the column right away. Others build up, and worry me. This is a good time to purge a few of them.

Any order will do, so I’ll start with:

1. Hillary Clinton, April 13, speaking at a conference hosted by Al Sharpton, and addressing the problem of white people, of which she is one: “We need to recognize our privilege [she said], and practice humility.” A good thought. And if either she or her host wants to start practicing humility, none of us will stand in the way. Start now! By the way, don’t you love seeing pictures of politicians that show them as they really look? If you do, you’ll enjoy this link to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

2. Headline, Washington Post, March 22: “Infamous ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford dies after cancer fight.” Ah, wasn’t it Franklin Roosevelt who said, “Rob Ford — a mayor that will live in infamy”? Well, the Post can take its pick: either recognize the distinction (not a small one) between “infamous” and “famous,” and substitute the latter for the former in headlines like that; or consciously employ its headlines to editorialize on the news. But it is not an option to keep writing headlines without a head.

3. Alas, another report about Hillary Clinton, this one from Reuters, April 2: “Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination in the Nov. 8 presidential election, has apologized for using a private email server for official business while in office from 2009 to 2013 and said she did nothing wrong.” I believe this wording comes fairly close to the truth — she did say she made a “mistake,” which I guess is something close to making an apology, and she does continue to talk and act as if she did nothing wrong, often chortling about the very idea that she might have done so. But shouldn’t the report at least signal the disjunction between apologizing and saying you’re right? Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

4. It occurs to me that the great unsolved mystery of the presidential campaign is this: what would Donald Trump sound like if he ever prepared a speech? He is the first major presidential candidate who ever started to run for the office just because he thought it would be fun, and his grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (what there is of it — you try to diagram his sentences) reflect that fact. They continue to reflect it, now that he’s taking the campaign seriously. They haven’t changed. I wonder, if he ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, would we discover that he actually is in favor of free trade and would welcome open borders? Or would it be the same mishmash of notions and promises that it is right now?

5. You’ve probably seen those Ancestry.com ads in which personable men and women talk about not having known the families or ethnic groups from which they descend, until they paid for the services of Ancestry.com. That’s fine: who am I to object to historical research? But one of the recent ads seemed strange to me, and the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. In this one, a young woman says that because of what she learned through Ancestry.com, “I absolutely want to know more about my Native American heritage.”

I wonder, if Trump ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, what would we discover?

Of course, one curious feature of that sentence is its substitution of the trendy “Native American” for the old-fashioned “American Indian.” I don’t particularly care which expression people decide to use, but I would feel better if they recognized that the expressions are both inaccurate. (That’s an ordinary characteristic of ethnic monikers: people who don’t like something I wrote often claim that I wrote it because I’m a “WASP,” although I have only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon “blood”; I’m just white, that’s all.) American Indians aren’t Indians in the sense that they once came from the (East) Indies, as Columbus thought; but if you believe there’s something authentic about naming yourself after Amerigo Vespucci, you ought to be more reflective. Besides, anyone born in this country is a native American.

But where do these broad claims of “heritage” come from? If you’re brought up in a community of Germans or Jamaicans or, yes, American Indians, or if you know even one family member who can transmit that community’s cultural heritage, why yes, you yourself have a heritage that you may perhaps enjoy. In a nation that seems to be filling rapidly with genealogists, however, I have met precisely two persons who have recovered some significant knowledge of culture from their genealogical research. The rest of them are just filing in blanks on family trees, and paying as little attention to Great-Grandmother Emeline’s life, historical circumstances, or distinctive culture as stamp collectors pay to the political careers of Paraguayan statesmen.

Yet the ad doesn’t merely suggest that would-be genealogists will learn about their “heritage”; it asserts that they already have it: it’s their heritage; they possess it. Now, how can you have something like that, without even knowing it? You can’t — unless culture is, somehow, in your “blood.” Which it isn’t.

6. If you’re seeking wisdom about cultural matters, you might seek it from — guess who? — Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure exactly when she said this, but it was recently, because it appeared in remarks on current events that were replayed by Fox News on March 26. I was unlucky enough to be walking past the television when I heard her being asked a question about what makes people want to become Islamic terrorists. She opined: “People who feel marginalized, left out, left behind, are going to want to join something.”

The best teachers — have you noticed? — are the kind who inspire their students to ask questions. As an eager student of Mrs. Clinton, I have some questions I’d like to ask about that statement of hers. Here are a handful:

A. Do you mean we can fight Islamic terrorism by giving money to the Boy Scouts?

B. Why, in your opinion, don’t these people who feel so marginalized join something that will place them a little closer to the center? Why do they insist on joining something that wants to destroy both the center and the margins?

C. Or are you saying that clubs, churches, mosques, temples, auto racing associations, kennel clubs, the Loyal Order of Moose, the NAACP, and the Friends of the Library are filled with people whose need to join something would otherwise have made them terrorists? This quest for belonging — is that why people wander into your own campaign?

D. You’re quite a joiner yourself. You’ve been a member of countless organizations. Is that because you felt marginalized and left behind? If you lose the presidency, will you turn terrorist?

E. The terrorists in San Bernardino — a civil servant, making a decent income; a wife who was given a baby shower by his coworkers not long before the couple tried to murder them all: in what sense were they left out?

G. But why confuse ourselves with specifics? Let’s be more general: Do some people get left behind because they don’t move fast enough? Do some people get marginalized by their own bad qualities? Is it possible that some people become religious terrorists because they are disgusting, hateful people who have finally discovered a convenient excuse to act out their hateful feelings? Do you think that by making comments such as the one we are discussing, you may be making that excuse more convenient?

There’s no point in going on to H, I, or J. As the man says in Citizen Kane, “You can keep on asking questions if you want to” — for all the good it will do.

7. Bernard (“Bernie”) Sanders at the Democratic Presidential Town Hall, March 7: “Every other country on earth, as you may know, has a national healthcare program of one kind or another.” What shall we say to a statement like that — delivered, as always with Sanders, in a tone of total certainty and extreme indignation? Let me try a couple of responses.

The first is admittedly off the subject. It is: haven’t we had enough of faux folksiness? If the gathering at which Sanders pontificated (but where doesn’t he pontificate?) was a “town hall” meeting, so is an animal act in Vegas. Town meetings are places where real business is transacted; they aren’t arenas set aside for political hacks to exhibit their grotesqueries.

No one had suspected Sanders of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny.

My second, and more relevant, response is simply: how can anyone listen to this stuff with a straight face — and without asking questions about what, if anything, it means? The United States has not one but two national healthcare programs. They’re called Medicare and Obamacare. In fact, Sanders went on to mention Medicare, in an odd manner, given his earlier statement: “We have a program called Medicare which needs improvement.” Whether this means we’re doing worse than Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Surinam, or Bhutan, I do not know, but I strongly suspect that “national healthcare” in those places may not be so well established, if it exists at all. Probably “one kind or another” is meant, in a lying way, to cover all such possible states of the international healthcare biz; but if so, why doesn’t it sufficiently cover our own national healthcare? Why does it justify everyone except ourselves?

Sanders went on to claim, essentially, that insurance causes accidents:

If you are a physician, my guess is you spend half your life arguing with the insurance companies, is that right?

And, you got [sic] people out there filling out forms. Every person in the room has private insurance, filling out forms. The reason that we are so much more expensive than other countries is that we have huge bureaucracy in the healthcare system, and we pay much, much too much for prescription drugs.

Again, you can keep on asking questions (such as, “By the way, what’s your source for all this?”) — but nobody does.

The reason nobody does may be that Sanders is so highly esteemed for his “sincerity,” “authenticity,” and “honesty” as to be protected from normal inquiries about even his most ridiculous claims. And he maintains this esteem because the journalists who surround him simply let him prattle on, without asking factual questions. It’s a perfect circle. But believe it or not, a person is actually not honest, sincere, or authentic if he keeps saying things that aren’t true, just because he wants to say them — because, although he wants enormous power over other people’s lives, he isn’t responsible enough to make ordinary attempts to find the truth.

8. Since I, however, have some sense of responsibility, I will admit that among the thousands of idiocies that gush forth daily from the lips of the leading presidential candidates, one can, if one inspects the torrent with exhaustless care, discover an occasional remark that is not idiotic. I have one comment marked “entertaining” in my record of current sayings, and by God, it’s by Senator Sanders. No one had suspected him of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny. It’s about (who else?) Hillary Clinton, and it’s the centerpiece of Sanders’ perpetual demand for her to publish the text of that extraordinarily well-paid talk she gave to “Wall Street bankers.” Sanders’ crack is: “That musta been some speech, if it was worth $225,000 dollars.” This isn’t hilarious, but it’s funny, much funnier than you’d expect from a man who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union; and at this point in the Campaign from Gehenna, I’ll take any kind of humor I can get.




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Ideas Have Consequences

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It probably couldn’t be any worse. The current presidential candidates are about as bad as bad can be.

Just look at them.

  • Ted Cruz, who called a press conference to say that he would not “copulate” with a rat like Donald Trump.
  • Donald Trump, who had every opportunity to gather all anti-establishment voters into his fold but insisted, instead, on alienating as many as possible — e.g., stipulating that in some hypothetical world in which abortion was outlawed, women who had abortions should be “punished,” then putting out a press release saying that he didn’t really mean that, and then saying what he didn’t mean again.
  • Bernie Sanders, spouting non-facts 24/7.
  • Hillary Clinton — say no more.

The temptation is to attribute the horror of 2016 to the candidates’ abominable personalities, or at most to the failures of the electoral system, which is warmly responsive to televisable personalities (Trump), and to the indefatigable pressure groups that gave us Clinton and Sanders (and Jeb Bush and a few other sparklers).

I think that those factors are important, but they are as nothing when compared with the ideas that are insisted upon by the pressure groups and are projected so abominably by the personalities.

All the problems that are used to justify the literally insane campaigns now being waged were the direct results of unlimited government.

The ideas aren’t many. We’re not dealing with the intellectual intricacy of the questions that Lincoln and Douglas debated. Most of what passes for ideas in today’s campaigning results from a handful of crude, outdated assumptions, as follows:

1. The idea that work produces wealth, and therefore ought to be rewarded — an idea that had the stuffing knocked out of it by the discovery of the principle of marginal utility, a mere 14 decades ago.

2. The age-old idea that wealth should be apportioned by political means; i.e., by force.

These two ideas provide most of Bernie Sanders’ intellectual equipment, if you want to call it that.

3. The pre-1830s idea that free trade is bad for the economy.

Here you will recognize Donald Trump’s motivating idea, and one of Sanders’.

4. The 1970s idea that racial — and “racial” — sensitivities have rights that government must enforce.

This belief, which is merely the flipside of the much older belief that white racial sensitivities must be enforced by government, is the basis of the grievance industry which fuels both Sanders and Clinton, and without which their candidacies might not be able to exist.

5. The idea that, as H.L. Mencken said, “the people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.”

This is populism, which fuels the preposterous windbaggery of Trump and Sanders, and to a degree that of Cruz. It was adequately discredited by the idiotic behavior of the ancient, direct democracies, if not of modern Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.

Now, you may say, and you would be right to say to it, these fallacious notions get a lot of their steam from the true, or sort of true, ideas that are associated with them. Sanders’ people and Trump’s people are right in believing that the financial system is rigged against the majority of Americans. Trump’s people and Cruz’s people are right in thinking that the country is being run into the ground by small groups of wealthy, or otherwise privileged, self-serving apostles of political correctness, seemingly bent on outraging all feelings but their own. Trump’s people are right in thinking that a welfare state cannot admit hordes of immigrants without grossly disadvantaging its own citizens. Clinton’s people are right in their visceral aversion to populism.

It’s remarkable that Clinton’s supporters, though undoubtedly the best “educated” of any of these groups, has the fewest ideas, right or wrong. It’s certainly a commentary on elite education.

But the most remarkable fact is that all the problems that are used to justify the literally insane campaigns now being waged were the direct results of unlimited government. If the American people had voted to increase income inequality, strangle the middle class, create racial tensions, ship jobs overseas, enlarge the permanent underclass, and grant a permanent veto power to an unelected class of well-paid parasites, they couldn’t have gotten better results from their decades of votes for people who wished to expand the government.

Now people of common sense and what used to be common knowledge are seeing (the cliché is unavoidable) the chickens coming home to roost. Are you happy? I’m not.




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