David Nolan Reflects on the Libertarian Party on its 30th Anniversary
[Sections of the following article appeared in the November/December 2001 and January 2002 editions of Colorado Liberty.]
The Libertarian Party turns 30 years old on December 11, 2001. It seemed an opportune time to ask the founder of the party for his reflections. I conducted the following interview with David Nolan on September 7, 2001, four days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On September 12, Nolan wrote a short article about the attacks which is available at www.freecolorado.com/2001/09/nolan.html. The interview covers the history of the party as well as Nolan's thoughts on where the party has been, where it might be headed, and its significance. --Ari Armstrong, Westminster, Colorado
Ari Armstrong: I thought I'd get some of your comments, as it's the LP's 30th Anniversary.
There's some controversy as to where and when the LP was actually founded. Basically, there's a debate over whether it was founded in Westminster or in Colorado Springs.
David Nolan: Technically, it was founded in Colorado Springs. The initial planning meetings, the first couple of meetings, at which we discussed forming the party -- scratched our heads and decided we needed to find out if there was any support for the idea -- those occurred at my home, in Westminster, where I was living at the time.
Interestingly enough, the city council in Westminster passed a resolution in 1996 to officially commemorate the founding of the Libertarian Party in their city. (I guess they wanted to go on record as having had something important happen there.)
As the summer and fall progressed, we added a couple of people from Colorado Springs to our initial core group, and we started having some of the meetings down there. The meeting at which we actually, officially voted to form the party was in Colorado Springs. It was at the home of a gentleman named Luke Zell. (I believe he is now deceased.) He was our first Life Member -- he gave us $100, which in 1971 was worth 4-5 times what it is today.
A: What was the date of that?
N: December 11. That's the official birth date of the Libertarian Party.
A: What are the events that led up to the founding of the LP?
N: I had been fairly active in the Young Republicans, starting with the Goldwater campaign of 1964, when I was at MIT. I stayed semi-active in the YRs in the years that followed up till 1971.
On August 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon went on television and decreed wage and price controls, which is the first time that had ever been done during peace time in American history. (We were technically in peace time; the police action or military action in Viet Nam was never officially declared as a war. It was totally unconstitutional, of course.)
So we had the first peace-time imposition of wage and price controls, plus taking the U.S. off the last vestiges of the gold standard. We had been off the gold standard since 1933 or '34, in terms of Americans' ability to redeem their dollars for gold, but the dollar was still pegged to gold for international transactions, which naturally put a bit of a brake on the government's ability to inflate. Governments always want to remove any impediments to their inflating the money supply *ad infinitum*. And Nixon basically said, "We're tired of being on the gold standard; we don't want that thing standing in our way, so as of now the U.S. dollar is no longer redeemable in gold, anywhere, anytime, anyhow." And we all know how much inflation we saw in the '70s.
Those two points, which he made in that same speech on August 15, were the impetus for those of us who'd been thinking about it. We'd had a couple of meetings before that. That was either our second or third meeting, which happened to fall on the date of Nixon's speech. Of course, we didn't know when we set our meeting a week or two in advance, that that was going to happen.
We were sitting around in my living room in Westminster on August 15, and who should come on but Richard Nixon. We heard the announcement that he made, and we looked at each other and said, "That settles it. If there was ever any doubt as to whether we need a party that stands for real limited government and individual freedom, then this should settle it for us."
A: In addition to Mr. Zell, who else was around back then?
N: I'll have to scratch my head a little bit. The original group of five was myself; my then-wife Susan (whom I've lost track of, but she dropped completely out of any activity in the Libertarian Party); a gentleman named Hue Futch, who lives up in Bailey, or at least did up until a few years ago, out in the mountains (I guess it's not as far out in the mountains as it was 30 years ago -- he's surrounded by civilization now, which probably doesn't please him as he's kind of a mountain-man type); a college student named Dale Nelson, who disappeared shortly thereafter and has never been heard from again; and a fellow named John James, who was a young architect who lived in Denver. John was our first candidate for U.S. Congress, I believe in 1974. Those were the original five.
John James had a half-brother named Pipp Boyls in Colorado Springs. John contacted Pipp, who was a like minded person -- they were both very much into Ayn Rand and the whole Objectivist movement at the time. Pipp had two more friends down there: Eric Westling, and Luke Zell. We had grown to eight by the time we took the vote and formally decided that we were going to go ahead with the party.
We were going to contact libertarians and free-market-minded people around the country. On August 15, we decided we were going to see if there was anyone else that felt the way we did. So we sent out letters. I had a couple of mailing lists. One was a list of people who had bought bumper stickers and buttons from me over the last several years. (I'd been running ads in the back of libertarian publications, or what there were in those days, little newsletters and so forth.)
I also had several small mailing lists, and a couple of the other people did too, I think. So we sent out some mailings to people around the country who we thought might be reasonable prospects, people who might feel the same way that we did, that the time had come to form a new party.
Our criterion was, if we got 100 positive responses, 100 people saying "count me in," by the end of the year, then we would go ahead and do it. We had meetings every month to review results and talk over new ideas and new plans and feedback that we'd gotten from people around the country, which was all pretty positive.
We met again in September, October, and November. By December, we had over 100 respondents, so we said, "We're going to do it." We voted that evening, December 11, to form the party.
We held a press conference early in January of 1972 to announce this fact to the world. The event got a surprisingly large amount of press coverage, probably more than it deserved, and it probably gave us more encouragement than it should have. We thought, "Wow! The world is ready for this!"
I'm not sure the world *was* ready for that 30 years ago. It may not still be quite ready. But we got a surprising amount of press coverage out of that first press conference in January.
A: Did you know Gale Norton, or was she after your time?
N: No, she wasn't after my time. I didn't leave Colorado until 15 years ago, in 1986, and Gale was active in around 1978 and 1979. In fact, she was a delegate to the 1979 national convention in Los Angeles. Gale happened to become involved because she was close friends with a woman named Mary Louise Hanson (generally called "M.L.") M.L. Hanson had some role in the First National Bank of Denver, and she was the national vice-chair of the party. She was a very gung-ho Libertarian in those days, the late '70s, so she recruited a lot of her businesswomen friends to at least come to some of our events, hear our speakers, and learn about the party.
Gale was one of those. She was a quiet, reserved, studious kind of person. Not really outgoing; pleasant enough by my recollection. She came to a number of the meetings, and I remember having at least a couple of conversations with her. She seemed sincere in her devotion to libertarian ideas, at least in the broad sense.
I understand that after I left Colorado, she was recruited by the Republicans. They sensed that she was a promising young woman, she's bright and so forth. So they ran her for Attorney General, and she served a term or two in that office.
As we all know she's the Secretary of the Interior now, and I hope she can do some good there. I don't know how much good you can do in an appointed position like that, with all the bureaucracy. I'm sure her sentiments or her instincts are to push for changes in the right direction, at least to some degree. I don't think she would push for the kinds of fundamental change that many of us would like to see, in terms of privatizing federally held lands and so forth. But I think she will try to work at least for the right kinds of things on some scale, as Secretary of the Interior.
A: I've heard that in New York in the late '60s and early '70s, there were meetings about the formation of a party.
N: I was not at any such meeting at New York. My understanding is that there were several meetings of libertarians and anarchists and Objectivists, a whole spectrum of people who could generally be called "libertarians" at least in the broad sense. They met a couple of times in New York in that period (1969 and 1970). As far as I know, none of those meetings was specifically for the purpose of thinking about or discussing the formation of a new party. It's entirely possible that someone or more than one person spoke at those events and threw that idea out for consideration.
A: What about the big names, like Murray Rothbard?
N: Rothbard was very active at those meetings. He was a participant in those meetings. There were some fairly lengthy descriptions of those gatherings, as I recollect, of those gatherings, in Rothbard's newsletter that he used to publish, way back in the '60s and '70s, and on I guess into the early '80s.
A: What was Rothbard's relationship with the LP after it was formed?
N: He was not supportive the first year or two. In fact, he ran an article in his newsletter basically saying that this was a silly idea, that the time had not come, and that we'd be wasting our time.
But by 1974, he'd done a complete 180, something Rothbard was well-known for doing over his life on every conceivable issue. Murray Rothbard was a very interesting character, a very bright guy, very colorful, very garrulous. I liked Murray a lot, but he was often more driven by people's personalities than by issues. He got into a lot of battles over his life with a lot of people. He was notorious for having friendships or alliances with various people, and then a year or two or five later having a falling out with them and becoming very bitter and denouncing them in all kinds of terrible terms.
He went from being an opponent of the party, in its earliest days, to being a strong supporter of the party. In fact, he was on the platform committee at every convention for years on end, into the mid- to late-1980s. Then he had a falling out, and he became bitterly opposed to the party, or at least many of its leaders, in the latter years of his life. (He died five or six years ago now.) Very interesting guy. I always got along well with him, but a lot of people didn't.
A: How did the LP end up in Washington, D.C.?
N: After the 1974 convention in Dallas, Texas, Ed Crane, now head of the Cato Institute, was elected chair of the party. One of the points he had run on in his campaign for chair is he did not feel it was appropriate to move the party to Washington, D.C., because that would just make us part of the problem. Once you move to Washington, D.C., he said, you're enmeshed in the system, and we're trying to maintain our independence and our radical stance and our ability to critique the political system without being corrupted by it.
His opponent, a young fellow named Eric Scott Royce, who lived in the Washington, D.C. area, had campaigned on a platform consisting in part of a proposal that the party should be moved there. I think that was partly because that was where he felt a national party should be headquartered, and partly because he lived there.
Crane won, by a pretty large margin. The party's headquarters was moved from Denver to San Francisco, which is where Crane lived. They rented an office out there. After about a year, in about 1975 or '76, Crane did an about-face and said the party should be moved to Washington, D.C.
The party was in Washington, D.C. for two to four years. After another election, the headquarters was moved to Houston, Texas for a few years. Then it was moved back. It probably is the right place for the headquarters to be at this point. I have no doubt that's where it's going to stay.
A: You went to California in '86?
N: I left Colorado just about 15 years ago in September or October of 1986. I spent a little over a year in the Atlanta, Georgia area. I moved to California at the beginning of 1988.
A: Were you active in the LP throughout that time?
N: Off and on. I have taken various brief vacations, but I've always been at least peripherally involved, in terms of going to national conventions. This is an historical fact that may be of mild interest to somebody. As far as I know, I'm one of only two people who has been to every national convention since the very first one. The other person is Ed Clark, who was our presidential candidate in 1980. Ed and I are the only two left who have been to every single one of the national conventions, and both of us keep joking we can't miss one until the other one does.
A: Let's move out of the history and into expectations. What have been the LP's biggest successes, in your opinion?
N: That's a good question. The LP obviously has not been successful in the political arena at the presidential level. I think people are mesmerized by the glamour of the presidential race, and they think we can get our ideas into the national political arena by having a candidate who will speak forthrightly and eloquently and get great media coverage. By and large it has not been particularly successful, because to participate at the presidential level you've got have a lot more name recognition, or a lot more money, or a lot larger support base. You need at least two of those three things. We've never really been competitive at that level. So that's not the proper gauge to use in measuring our success.
I think our successes have been in several areas. First, in building by far the nation's (and probably the world's) largest network of freedom-minded individuals who have been able to collaborate with each other and inform each other on a whole range of issues. This has allowed people to work on particular issues, to form coalitions and committees and action groups on all kinds of issues, ranging from Second Amendment rights, to fighting censorship, to trying to repeal the drug war (which we haven't done yet). We've created a network of freedom-minded individuals who have been able to work with varying degrees of success on a lot of issues. I think that's very important. If it weren't for the Libertarian Party, I don't see any way that network would have come into existence.
We have certainly popularized the word "libertarian" and what it means to the American people. We have helped bring about the change that I predicted would come when I wrote my article on political systems 30 years ago. The debate has largely shifted from the old left-right debate. It's still there, but it's fading. It's turned to a much more fundamental debate which I would call the "libertarian vs. authoritarian" debate, which is what most of the public dialogue in the country is about now. It's not always labeled as such, but that's what it has become, because the liberal and conservative positions have become more and more indistinguishable. The Republicans are basically just out there passing more laws, and grabbing more money, spending it on their projects and giving it to their friends. There really is not significant difference, in my estimation, between Republicans and Democrats.
We are the only credible alternative. We are seeing a realignment of the political spectrum, which would be typified by us on one end, the Greens on the other, and the Republicans and Democrats "mushing together" more and more into a big lump in the middle. We are helping to redefine the political spectrum, and hold up the standard at one end. If we weren't there, there'd be nobody else holding up the pro-freedom position.
Those two things -- building the network, and helping redefine the political system and make sure that the pro-freedom, pro-individual rights position is accurately and articulately represented -- I think are our two major contributions.
When you get down to the nuts-and-bolts level, libertarians have been very instrumental (not always working as the Libertarian Party; again, this is the importance of network-building) in doing things like opposing local tax increases and bond issues. In Denver, you fought things like light rail and the stadium, with varying degrees of success.
Richard Rider in San Diego has been very successful. All the media come to him immediately. He's "the man" as far as leading the battle against the assault on the taxpayers' pocketbook. Rider, and people he has organized over the last decade, have saved billions of dollars in the city of San Diego. (San Diego has certainly the largest and best-organized city or county Libertarian Party in America. If the San Diego LP split off from California and became a separate state party, it would be one of the ten largest.)
We've been much more successful at the city and county level, obviously, in terms of leading or opposing initiatives, running candidates and getting them onto city councils and into public offices. We've had a fair amount of success, in terms of vote totals and affecting the debate, at the Congressional level. When you get above that, our efforts are less and less successful as we move up the ladder of partisan politics.
A: What were your expectations for the LP back in 1971, and how has the party's evolution diverged from what you thought would happen?
N: I suppose like a lot of very optimistic young people -- and I was 28 at the time -- we had hopes (maybe expectations is too strong a word, but we certainly had hopes) that we were going to become a major party. Maybe not one of *the* major parties, maybe not replacing the Republican or Democratic party, but becoming a major party in the sense of having the balance of power, and being able to strongly influence the political debate, and act as a swing vote. Maybe by 1984 or 1988. Of course, that didn't quite happen.
A: I thought I'd get your comments on various theories about what might happen now. First, how likely do you think it is that the LP will become a major political party, as you described, or even replace one of the major two parties?
N: That's a good question, and since my crystal ball hasn't been real accurate in the past, I hate to go very far out on a limb. But let me give you a couple thoughts on that general topic.
You probably read or heard that I've been espousing the theory that political change moves in a cyclical pattern. In the United States, there seems to be a fairly strong political cycle of about 72 years. That is due to culminate in 2004. I don't believe it's like clockwork. It could be 2008. I would still bet on 2004 as being the most likely year for there to be a major realignment of the political system in this country.
By "major realignment," I mean that the die will be cast, pretty much determining the general nature of our political system, and therefore our social system to a large degree, for the next 72-year cycle. There are times of great change and great opportunity, and there are times where things just go along the way they've been going, and society settles into a new equilibrium.
I think we are fast approaching a time of change. At that juncture, now a little over three years away in terms of the election, I think it's very likely that the people of the United States are going to have to choose between a lot more freedom and a lot less freedom. I think the system we have now, the mixed system, is unstable and falling apart. Most people are aware that it's not working very well and are therefore looking (at least on an unconscious level) for at least some kind of change. The problem is that most people don't really know what kind of change they want, and a lot of them who do don't want the kind of change that we want. But I still think we're in one of those periods of major change and decision-making, a cross-roads.
Therefore, the question becomes which way are we going to go, and what is the mechanism whereby we are going to choose the direction that we take. I sense the LP can and will play a major role in that decision.
How is change going to happen, and which direction is more likely? I have to say I think the odds are still against us. We're still fighting an uphill battle. I don't like to have to say this, but I think the odds are more likely that America will slide into a kinder, gentler fascism -- by which I mean kinder and gentler than Mussolini's, but not much. I think it's more likely, by greater than fifty-fifty, perhaps as high as two-to-one, that we will go in the wrong direction, because there is so much force behind the move in that direction.
[Editor's note: I asked Mr. Nolan whether his views on the odds have changed since September 11, and he stated that he now thinks they're worse... but he is more convinced than ever that the year 2004 will mark a major turning point in American political history.]
There are so many powerful, organized, entrenched special interests that are collaborating and reinforcing one another: the two major parties, the media, the unions, the public school system, etc. There are a lot of forces arrayed against us that have a vested interest in maintaining and expanding the statist system we now live under, and making it worse, in the sense that we're all going to be carrying national I.D. cards...
Only recently have I had to show a driver's license or an I.D. when checking into a hotel. I never had to do that before. You didn't even have to show one to get on an airplane ten years ago. Now you have to show some kind of "government issued" I.D. to check into some hotel. I don't know if that's a result of state law or if it's just part of the national paranoia that's creeping up. We are living more and more in a surveillance state.
We are living more and more in a system where people are no longer innocent until proven guilty. That's still the presumption on paper, but in reality we operate in a system whereby you are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. This is the case whether you are accused of violating the drug laws, not paying what the government thinks you ought to be paying them in terms of taxes, etc.
More and more we are living in a state where it is presumed that the government controls everything, and you have to get the government's permission to do anything. I see that trend as having accelerated, particularly in California, in the last decade. The question is, can we halt that and turn it around -- restore a greater degree of privacy, make sure we have the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, repeal these ridiculous drug laws. Any form of criminal possession laws of course are tailor-made for a police state, because all they have to do is plant the evidence on you. There are a lot of very ominous trends.
On the other hand, there are some good trends, one of which is the fact that the Libertarian Party exists, and it's growing (not in a completely linear fashion; I understand national membership is down slightly this year, as it is usually after the presidential elections). We are starting to attract more and more attention. We have more credibility. We have more members. We get more coverage. We get more people elected to office. We're being taken seriously.
If we did not exist, I think the battle would be hopeless. That harks back to the question you asked earlier about greatest successes. Our greatest success is that we have created the only viable mechanism now existing to offer a reasonable hope of stopping the imposition of a very authoritarian system in this country that might last for generations.
We are the last, best hope for freedom in America. I sincerely believe that. If we did not exist, I can't see anybody else around who would be likely to fulfill that role, do you?
There are people who are good on certain issues: people fighting to end the drug war, people fighting the attempts to take away our guns, and people fighting for privacy, and so on. But they're all one-issue groups, and they don't collaborate with each other. In fact, they're somewhat suspicious of each other in some cases.
Your liberal ACLU types, who are good on things like censorship, tend to be very hostile to Second Amendment types, even though they're supposedly there to defend the Bill of Rights. Their position is, "Well, we defend nine out of ten articles, that's pretty good, isn't it?" They defend every item in the Bill of Rights, except the Second Amendment. And when you ask them about it, and I have, they say, "The Second Amendment confers a collective right. It's a right that says the states have a right to organize militias, and it doesn't pertain to individuals." That's why they're very bad on defending one of the key provisions of the Bill of Rights, which has always mystified me. However, if you know the origins of the ACLU, way back in the '20s, it was originally started by communists and socialists, specifically to defend communists and socialists who were being, perhaps wrongly, harassed by the government for speaking out and advocating leftist political activities.
It's good that we have the ACLU, their motives notwithstanding, but their heart has never really been in defending the rights of the individual to call for less government. That's not really where they're at. Their notion of civil liberties is skewed to the left. That's not to slam them or say they're a bad organization; on balance, they're a good organization, and more of an ally than an adversary. However, that's why the ACLU, by itself, is never going to be a significant force for liberty in the broad sense in America.
The same is true of groups like the NRA. The NRA is pretty good, on its one narrow issue -- but they've gotten worse and worse over the years, which is why we now have Gun Owners of America, and the Citizens' Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, and JPFO, and all these other groups that are doing what the NRA should be doing. Just as we have the LP doing what the Republican Party should be doing. The NRA, which is the largest, is good on gun rights, most of the time, but I've seen editorials in their magazine saying we need to prosecute the drug war more ferociously, because those nasty, evil druggies are destroying America.
They don't get it, a lot of them. They don't see that it's all one package. If you give government, if you give federal agents, the power and legitimacy to bash down people's doors to look for drugs, what's to stop them from bashing down people's doors to look for guns? They're not getting it. Now, some of them individually do, but the organization is totally in the pocket of the Republican Party, and has been maybe forever. Just as the ACLU is almost a front-group for liberal Democrats, the NRA is in many ways a front-group for conservative Republicans. The old joke is that the NRA stands for "National Republican Auxiliary." There's a lot of truth to that.
The LP is the only organization in the political arena that is consistently supporting the idea of individual rights; limited government (extremely limited government), strict, absolute interpretation of the Bill of Rights, on every point; repealing taxes; ending the drug war; completely defending our right to keep and bear arms, no ifs, ands, or buts. None of this stuff like, well maybe there should be background checks and finger prints and so on. No, we have a right to own the means of self-defense, period. Sure, for convicted felons -- the right is presumed and you can lose it if you do something felonious. But we reject the position that you only have the right to the extent the government grants it.
A: Let's be optimistic, and say the LP is going to be successful. Is it more likely that it becomes a major political party in its own right, or that the other parties start losing so much support that they adopt many of our ideas? For instance, many Libertarians draw a parallel to what happened with the Socialist Party.
N: That's an interesting question. It could go either way. That's been a question we've faced from the earliest days. Some people maintained from the beginning that, as soon as we began to be a significant presence on the political scene and starting achieving an impact on elections, that the Republicans would scurry back to the pro-freedom side of the fence and become a lot more consistent.
I would like to believe that, but the evidence has been to the contrary. Over the last 30 years, the Republicans have gotten steadily worse. Bush and the Republican Party, as far as I can see, offer no reasonable hope. The likelihood that they will steal our ideas is one that you have mixed feelings about. There's a surreptitious hope that they adopt some of our ideas and put them into practice. Even if we didn't get credit for them, they would be changes for the good, and we'd like to see them in our lifetime.
I haven't seen much evidence that the Republicans are likely to do that. The excuse the Bush administration has been giving is the difficulty of getting things through Congress, especially since we now have a Democratically controlled Senate. However, the Bush administration had an opportunity to do something very significant that required no approval or participation from Congress, and that was to kill the medical reporting requirements that Clinton put through in the waning days of his presidency by declaration. At some date in the fairly near future, all your medical records become essentially the property of the government. The federal government will have access to everybody's medical records all the time. They are effectively putting in a significant chunk of the apparatus that is necessary to nationalize health care, literally the power of life and death over people, eventually. They just decreed that. It was never passed as a law.
All Bush had to do was to tell the Secretary of Health and Human Services to kill it. There were tens of thousands of people who sent in letters and petitions urging them to kill it, and they let it stand. Now tell me this is the action or the behavior of a pro-freedom, individual-rights President. Here was a case where he didn't have to fight Congress, he didn't have to do anything except reverse an administrative decree by the previous President, who was a Democrat, and he did not. That to me is the clearest evidence there is no real functional difference between the Republicans and Democrats.
As a lot of people have pointed out, there was a greater break in terms of policy between Reagan and Bush the First than there was between Bush and Clinton. There was at least some attempt to scale back government and rein in it under Reagan -- not nearly as much as we would liked to have seen, but there were a few faltering steps in that direction. You can look at the eight years of Reagan as an anomaly in modern political history. You can speak of the Reagan years, and then you have to talk about the Bush-Clinton-Bush years, the Bush sandwich with that ham Clinton in the middle. There is no fundamental difference. Bush is not going to do anything remotely libertarian as President, because when he's had opportunities to do so, he hasn't.
For the great majority of elected Republicans, their hot-button issues are the social-conservative issues. They're not that concerned about taxes. In fact, Republicans were busy piling on, adding their favorite pork-barrel projects to the last appropriations bill. With the exception of Ron Paul, and perhaps one or two others, they're just a different breed of porkers than the Democrats -- socially conservative ones whose form of political correctness is different than that of the Democrats.
I can't see any reasonable prospect that either of the major parties is going to co-opt our ideas. If we had been getting 10% or 15% of the vote in national elections, as some of us had hoped way back when we started, you can bet that they would be. That would be a huge swing vote that they would need to capture. Even in the Congressional elections, if we were regularly getting double-digit figures, we would be a political force to be reckoned with in the immediate sense. They would be saying, "There's that huge vote block up for grabs." The great majority of Presidential elections are settled by less than 10%. So 10%, or better yet 15%, would make you the balance of power. You don't have to be a majority, you don't even have to be close to a majority, to have tremendous political influence, to have the balance of power and be able to call the shots in a lot of areas.
We haven't achieved that level of influence. The question becomes, if we can't do that, can we become a major political party? You'd think that would be one of the stops on the way to becoming a major party. However, following the theory of catastrophic change, sudden and unpredicted change, where pressures build up within a system, whether it's a physical system, or an economic system or a political system, you get sudden change as you did in the Soviet Union in 1989.
I think it is possible that, under the right circumstances, a charismatic and well-known candidate could be elected President as a Libertarian in 2004 or 2008, or at the very least throw the political system into realignment, and we could assume that balance-of-power role.
A: You've written favorably about the idea of using the drug war as our lead issue. There's a potential problem with that. People who are attracted to the LP because of that issue may not be sympathetic with other issues. Do think it's likely that we win them over on other issues?
N: That's a good point. That's always a problem with emphasizing any one particular issue too much. Emphasizing the drug war certainly has that problem, as does any other issue, whether it's guns or taxes or education. No matter what issue you pick as your lead issue, you're going to have people who are repelled as well as people who are attracted.
The reason I think the drug war is so important and needs to be our primary issue is because it impacts everything else. The war on drugs is the battering ram of the state. It's the excuse that's being used to look into people's bank accounts because they "might be hiding drug money," to take away people's guns because of "all that drug-caused violence." The whole drug issue has impacted every other issue, whether it's spending, financial privacy, censorship, or mandatory minimum sentences. It's the most insidious issue.
It certainly shouldn't be our only issue. I think it needs to be always presented in the context, "The government is too large, too powerful, too expensive, and too dangerous." You can't defend our rights to privacy, our rights to keep and bear arms, etc., as long as this insidious force is in effect.
A: I wanted to ask you about your idea to run more people for Congress. Why do you think that would be more effective?
N: We received somewhere between seven and nine times as many votes per Congressional district at the Congressional level as we did at the Presidential level. We got 1.7 million votes for Congress, even though we only covered 60% of the country. If you project that out across the whole country, you'd see if we had run Congressional candidates in every district we would have gotten about three million votes. That's a dubious projection, of course. It could be either high or low. You could argue we wouldn't have gotten three million, because we'd already covered most of the districts where we have most of our support. Those are the areas where we were able to find candidates and get the necessary signatures or whatever and get on the ballot. That is certainly a reasonable argument.
The counter-argument is the synergy argument. If we'd been on the ballot in every district, we would have had nation-wide reinforcement. We would have been able to run (which I think we should have done anyway) national television spots saying vote Libertarian for Congress. We might have gotten more than three million votes. It would have increased our credibility, our visibility, and our fundraising. It would have made it more plausible to run national TV spots. We might have gotten four or five million votes.
You're always on thin ice when you make big projections like that. But certainly the three million number is not ludicrous. So contrast that with the number of votes that Harry Browne got, a little under 400,000, and you're looking at about seven-to-one. If you look at results per dollar, it becomes something more like 25-to-1.
The Harry Browne campaign and the Libertarian Party spent something like $3 million, to get around 390,000 votes -- about $7-$8 per vote. Contrast that with the 1.7 million votes we got at the Congressional level. I don't have precise figures because you don't even have to file with the FEC unless you raise and spend $5,000. We had 255 or 256 Congressional candidates, and I would be very surprised if they spent even $1 million. As far as I know, only about a dozen raised and spent more than $5,000 (I was one of those). The great majority of them ran line-holder type candidacies. They got on the ballot, they went to interviews on local TV and radio stations, they went to local forums and answered questionnaires, and did what they could, but I would suspect that the great majority of them spent less than $1,000. I would suspect that all together our candidates spent about half a million dollars. They got 1.7 million votes, which works out to about 30 cents per vote.
Congressional candidates are taken far more seriously than Presidential candidates, for a couple of very good reasons. First, although it's unlikely that our Congressional candidates are going to win, it cannot be categorically ruled out. A newspaper editor or TV reporter is not going to start rolling on the floor laughing when the candidate says he or she could win, given enough support and coverage and dollars.
We can raise a proportionately greater percentage of money in a Congressional race. A good candidate with a good campaign team who makes a serious effort can raise $10,000. That's not a lot of money, but concentrated in one Congressional district, and allocated strategically, it can create a significantly greater presence in the race, enough so that our candidate can at least be the balance of power. Witness all the Republican hand-wringing over our Senate candidate in Washington who helped to defeat Senator Gorton. We can be a player. Our candidates can capture the swing-vote; they can be the deciding factor.
Also, in some cases our Congressional candidates are people who have already gotten some kind of recognition and visibility and credibility in the area where they're running. They're a successful businessman, or they've run for a local office. You can find a candidate who has a greater degree of recognition among the constituency than any of our Presidential candidates have ever had.
In Congressional races, we have greater name recognition, greater credibility, greater ease of getting into debates and forums, the ability to raise a greater proportionate amount of dollars. That all helps explain the greater bang for the buck.
More importantly, the Congressional level is where national issues and local activism intersect. You can address national issues in a relatively local race. Running for water commissioner is all very good, but all you get to do is talk about water. You can't really talk about the war on drugs and why we should not be in Macedonia. You can certainly do that at the Congressional level. It's on the national issues where the libertarian position can be most clearly delineated.