Libertarians and Educational Politics

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Libertarians and Educational Politics

by Ari Armstrong, January 3, 2002

The goal of libertarians is to achieve a libertarian society. If the Libertarian Party has any value, it is in helping to attain that goal. The LP, then, is solely a means to an end. The question, then, is it a useful means? If not, should it be abandoned or changed?

Lois Kaneshiki, who serves as the chair of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania and an at-large member of the Libertarian National Committee, argues members of the LP should change strategies. Her article "Are LP Candidates Serious About Politics?" is dated January 2002 and appears at http://lppa.org/chair/. Kaneshiki's article has been cited by numerous Libertarian leaders in Colorado, and an advertisement for it ran in the January edition of the LP News.

Kaneshiki criticizes what she calls the "membership club model of the LP." She says the LP should stop running candidates in order to gain new members and start running to win. Her essay contains a great deal of useful advice for Libertarian candidates.

  • Candidates should worry about winning, not promoting the Libertarian Party.

  • Candidates should speak to issues that concern voters. They shouldn't get stuck on issues that only Libertarians care about.

  • Libertarians should try to appeal to the voters. In local races, they should spend their time contacting voters.

  • Successful candidates build a grass-roots campaign.

  • Political success is built on small victories. In almost every case, a person moves up from small, local offices to regional offices. "Libertarians have to gain the respect and credibility as public servants in their communities." Kaneshiki relates, "The Pennsylvania LP won 47 offices this past November not by running more candidates per se, but by encouraging Libertarians to run for offices they could win."

  • "We cannot run a political operation from one central office." It's more important to build strong local and state organizations to run serious Libertarian candidates.

Kaneshiki's message contains a lot of good sense and it serves as a wake-up call for those who sometimes treat the LP as an end-in-itself.

However, Kaneshiki risks falling into a different set of errors. The proper purpose of the LP is to help create a libertarian society. The LP is part of a much broader libertarian movement, and much more than a political party is necessary for success. Some argue a party is ineffective or even counter-productive in the struggle to achieve greater liberty. I think the LP has its place (obviously, as I've become active in the state LP). I agree with Kaneshiki and those who make similar arguments (especially in Liberty Magazine, which Kaneshiki cites) that the LP sometimes focuses too much on perpetuating itself at the expense of electoral success. However, it's also a mistake to treat the LP as if its primary goal should be to elect candidates to public office.

The LP's primary goal should be to help achieve a libertarian society. If the only concern is winning elections, then the libertarianism of the LP is destined to fall by the way-side.

Today, the main objective of the Democrats and Republicans is to win elections. True, many participants of those parties are also, even predominantly, concerned with ideology. I think it's fair to say as a general rule, however, that principle is sacrificed for electoral success. That's precisely why the LP came into existence in the first place: to restore the principles of liberty to the American political system. If the LP becomes just another political party that runs candidates who sound and act like all the rest, what's the point? We might as well work within some other party to promote the most pro-freedom candidates available.

Kaneshiki's major error is to conflate "membership" campaigns with "educational" campaigns. A candidate could easily run to promote libertarian ideas without thereby attempting to promote LP membership. Kaneshiki rightly criticizes membership campaigns, but her criticisms of educational campaigns frequently miss the mark.

Kaneshiki lists as one of two "serious mistakes that are made by LP candidates" the fact that "[t]hey focus on issues that they as libertarians believe strongly in, without concern for what might be of utmost concern for the voters in their district." If this means Libertarians should tailor a libertarian message for voters, that's great. If it means Libertarians should abandon a libertarian message in order to appeal to voters, then that's problematic. What if the "utmost concern for voters" is to implement more socialism?

"In the LP," Kaneshiki laments, "campaigns are used as marketing gimmicks to 'teach' voters about libertarian ideas and the party, and to attract new members." However, is there anything wrong with teaching voters about libertarian ideas? Is it not possible to do this in a way that also appeals to voters?

Kaneshiki argues that Libertarian campaigns that aren't competitive are both morally wrong and politically counter-productive. She's wrong on both counts.

Concerning the morality of running strictly "educational" campaigns, Kaneshiki states, "Political campaigns that are not trying to win are frauds on the voting public. The public has the right to assume that a candidate on the ballot is serious about serving in office, qualified to do so, and competitive with the other candidate(s)."

Hopefully when she refers to the "right" of the public to see only candidates on the ballot who have a serious chance of winning, Kaneshiki doesn't mean the point literally. Did Jesse Ventura have a "right" to be on the ballot? If the public has such a "right" as Kaneshiki describes, then who is to decide when a candidate is "competitive with other[s]" in the race?

Also, as David Bryant has reminded me on several occasions, the ballot system itself is an arbitrary and questionable aberration from voting standards that once ruled. In the old days, a voter would simply walk into the booth and write in the name of a candidate. Of course, such a system today would reveal the massive level of political ignorance among the voting public. Most people would not be able to name any candidate for most offices. A multiple-choice ballot is the only thing most voters can handle. Certainly there is nothing inherently just or necessary about the ballot system, as Kaneshiki seems to presume.

Besides, Kaneshiki's analysis depends upon some absolute determination of viability that simply cannot exist. Nobody predicted early on that Ventura would win. I never really believed Bob Glass would win his governor's race (had he stayed in the race), but I thought it was possible. Even though Dr. Shawn Elke Glazer pulled less than 10% in her race for state house in 2000, I thought the potential for a considerably higher total existed.

Running an "educational" campaign is not fraudulent. A candidate may easily claim, "I am running to promote libertarian ideas and increase the chances of the future attainment of a libertarian society. I recognize that my chances of winning this particular race are slim." What's fraudulent about telling the truth? Are voters somehow entitled to have their hands held and be prevented from voting for a candidate whom they mistakenly believe to have a greater chance of victory than is realistic? Where these alleged rights come from shall, I fear, remain a mystery in libertarian philosophy.

In short, there is no moral problem with running an educational campaign. (I should note that I ran an educational campaign in 2000 for state house that I'm quite proud of.) Neither is there a pragmatic basis for rejecting such campaigns. Kaneshiki states,

By continually losing campaigns by gaining no more than single-digit vote percentages, we are advertising the fact that we are not a viable political party, not gaining the credibility we desire.... Libertarians must not be encouraged to run campaigns at levels higher than ones in which they can be competitive. If you can't get over 30% of the vote in a 2-way race, or over 20% in a 3-way race, you are running for office higher than for which you are ready.... Using political campaigns to 'educate' people is a waste of time and distracts the voters from the viable options and political reality.

I certainly don't want to argue that running losing campaigns is better than running winning campaigns -- obvious the later is preferable. However, Kaneshiki's strategy would limit the LP to running only a few state legislative races in the nation and probably no U.S. congressional races. It is Kaneshiki's strategy that would be massively counter-productive.

Of course, we must first differentiate between "good" educational campaigns and ineffective ones. A smelly candidate who tends to slobber and can barely speak a coherent sentence in public won't be very successful at educating people about libertarian ideas. So let's discuss those educational campaigns in which the candidate actually helps to educate the voters. I think it's obvious these are a good idea.

Another caveat is in order, though. I think Harry Browne could have achieved the same educational results on a small fraction of the budget his staff spent. I wholly agree with Kaneshiki that LP members should not dump all their resources into high-level educational campaigns when they could be supporting winners at lower levels.

Another detail: the only options are not winnable races and educational races. Another type of race I whole-heartedly endorse in certain circumstances is the "balance of power" race. This is what David Nolan talks about in his interview with me at http://www.lpcolorado.org/cl/2001/11nolan.html. These should not be called "spoiler" races. "You can't spoil something that's already rotten." In fact, if the LP could figure out how to pick and choose which candidates we wanted to lose, we would gain an enormous amount of power. The best example of a "balance of power" race I know of is the current Colorado race for governor. Bill Owens sold out gun owners and he is not a libertarian in any respect. He is no better than a Democrat, and he is in some respects worse than a Democrat because he pushes other Republicans to vote for less freedom. I hope the LP candidate for governor wins, but if the LP candidate can help oust Owens, that would also be a productive move. That is not to say, of course, that a "balance of power" campaign cannot also be educational.

In general, educational races are useful for a variety of reasons.

  • In the long run, we are fighting a war of ideas. Some individuals who hear the libertarian message will accept it. Others will move in our direction now or in the future. We do want people to join the libertarian movement, even if they never join the LP.

  • Educational races force main-stream politicians to address issues they wouldn't otherwise address.

  • Such races can help put libertarian issues on the political landscape. Kaneshiki assumes Libertarians must always follow the interests of the non-libertarian public, but Libertarians can also be leaders and create public interest in libertarian ideas.

  • Kaneshiki argues that by running candidates who don't win we are "advertising the fact that we are not a viable political party." That's simply untrue. In Colorado, the increased presence of the LP has gone hand in hand with running more educational races. Indeed, Bob Ewegen wrote a major editorial for the Denver Post in which he cited precisely the LP's ability to run many candidates. Ewegen added (November 24), "Libertarians have quietly become America's best organized and most significant third party... Libertarians have organized at the grass roots for the long haul. They are fast approaching the point where they may force the major parties to reckon with Libertarian ideas." True, Ewegen's article was prompted by Libertarian victories on the Leadville city council and by defections from Republican office holders. But the fact that we ran many educational candidates helped our image and didn't hurt it in any way.

  • As Bill Bradford has pointed out in Liberty Magazine, candidates get to talk about politics in ways other people don't. As a candidate, you can simply walk up to somebody's door and ask, "Would you like to discuss the latest tax proposal?" Such behavior is considered quite normal for a candidate, but totally inappropriate for non-candidates. In addition, candidates tend to be invited to speak at numerous events.

Again, I wholly agree with Kaneshiki that educational campaigns should never be run at the expense of winnable campaigns. Ultimately, the LP's primary purpose is to affect policy by electing candidates. I wrote an essay discussing Kaneshiki's ideas because I believe they are valuable.

However, I trust Kaneshiki realizes that winning for the sake of winning is not a proper Libertarian goal. And Kaneshiki ought not conflate educational campaigns with membership drives. The two are quite distinct, and Kaneshiki's failure to fully recognize the difference causes her to ignore the many benefits of educational campaigns.

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