by Thomas L. Knapp
If I had to sum up the history of the Libertarian Party — or, for that matter, the libertarian movement — in one sentence, it would read as follows:
“It’s not as simple as that.”
Apropos of the subject, several writers (Tim West here) have recently been addressing issues of ideological purity versus realpolitik versus plain good manners, versus … well, you know. It always seems to come down to a couple of hypothetical groups, which I’ll refer to (before exploding the notion that they actually exist) by the labels “The Girondin” and “Archimedes” give them in a recent thread on a Yahoo! mailing list: “The Old Guard” and “The LiberCops.”, Stephen VanDyke and “The Girondin”
The perception seems to exist that some visible line in the sand exists to separate the LP into two groups — “purists” versus “pragmatists,” “Old Guard” versus “LiberCops” — of homogenous composition and unanimous opinion.
It’s not as simple as that.
What’s now referred to as “The Old Guard” — a group often called to the carpet on charges of ideological impurity — began to take shape at the LP’s 1983 convention when their sometimes putative leader, David Bergland, was nominated for president … on a “purist” ticket versus the “pragmatist” program of Earl Ravenal and “the Kochtopus” (look it up — this is a blog piece, not an encyclopedia).
Many who are now referred to as “LiberCops” have as rightful a claim as any to “Old Guard” credentials. Novelist L. Neil Smith — cited by many as the ultimate “purist” — joined the LP in the early 1970s, at or shortly after its creation, served on various committees through the 1970s, and sought election to the state legislature on the LP ticket in 1978 — 14 years before Harry Browne, lately cited as an “Old Guard” titan, joined the LP and 16 years before he represented the LP on its presidential ballot line.
And let’s look at Browne himself: Cited as an “Old Guardist” worth of emulation by those who decry the “LiberCops,” he’s been a party member since 1994 — shortly before I joined … and he’s as “purist” as anyone could ask for. Really. I defy anyone to name a government institution, government program or law which Browne has publicly supported in concept or, other than with extreme reluctance and as an “interim measure,” in practice.
There is, of course, a divide over alleged (and, in some cases, proven or admitted) corruption and/or deceit in the discharge of party duties. So far as I can tell, there is no uniformity of ideological or political approach among those against whom such allegations have been leveled. It’s not my purpose to address that divide here — we all know the difference between right and wrong, and we all know that defending wrong is, well, indefensible. There’s certainly a case to be made against those who continue to defend, even advocate, known wrongs long after their exposure, and possibly a case to be made against those who continue to use those known wrongs as weapons long after they’ve been hashed out. There is not, however, any way to divide those two groups along “purist” versus “pragmatist” or “Old Guard” versus “LiberCop” lines — “the honest” versus “the corrupt” is a separate conflict entirely, and one we will, like the poor, always have with us.
The ideological divides we’re discussing simply don’t exist; or, rather, they are much more complex and shifting than the terms frequently used in intra-party debate can account for. As I’ve studied these divides over the years, I’ve personally classified LP activists into three overlapping groups: The Mountain, The Moles and the Movers.
The Mountain (a nod to the vocabulary taken up by “The Girondin”) is the party/movement’s Jacobin core: Ideological purists who regard it as their mission to secure the party’s continuing adherence to its core principles.
The Moles are those who believe that the best course for the movement — and perhaps for the party itself — is to fold itself into, or change itself to more closely resemble, the “major” parties. This may take the form of infiltration, of ideological deviation, or simply of modified presentation.
The Movers are those who believe — and act on — the notion that the party and/or movement must take a realistic approach to building a political organization, electing individuals to public office, and affecting public policy.
None of these three groups are mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to be a de facto member of all three. And, as a matter of fact, I am … and I believe that one must be in order to accomplish anything. The LP’s problems arise when members of one of the aforementioned groups insist that their group’s central mission — and only that central mission — constitutes the Holy Grail of LP success.
Ideology isn’t negotiable. There are, of course, reasonable differences over what it means to be “libertarian” — but it must mean something, and a Libertarian Party whose platform or program ceases to correspond to that meaning ceases to be a libertarian party … at which point, it is no more useful to libertarians than any other party, and probably less, given its assets and accomplishments.
Nor is it debatable that the LP and the libertarian movement have things to learn from the “major” parties and possibly uses to put those parties to. Last time I looked, the “major” parties had had things pretty much their way for the better part of 200 years. As per above, I don’t see ideological deviation as a productive path to follow … but infiltration is a possibility, and learning lessons from how they present themselves is a must.
And neither of the two foregoing items are of any use — if the LP is going to function as a political party — without the will, the wisdom and the work it takes to win elections.
The future of the LP — if it is to have one — subsists in recognizing that ideological principle, astute observation and emulation of what our opponents do that works, and the willingness to do real politics are not only not incompatible, but complementary, necessary elements of success.