Mountains, Moles and Movers

Tom Knapp is the self-described Libertarian-Democratic Commentator & “House Pinko” for the Free Market News Network. He blogs at [email protected], and is the publisher of Rational Review. He’s also my friend, and I asked him to contribute an article. Thanks, Tom.

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, Stephen VanDyke here and “The Girondin” 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.”

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.

Tom Knapp is the self-described Libertarian-Democratic Commentator & “House Pinko” for the Free Market News Network. He blogs at [email protected], and is the publisher of Rational Review.

17 Comments
  1. 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.

    Yes, but we don’t need to spell out every last facet of principle in our platform or else we cripple our candidates if they ever mount a respectable campaign. A platform spelling out our general principles (like a sentence saying “The Libertarian Party stands for more individual freedom for everyone” or something) and then what we plan to enact over the next four years if elected would be sufficient, allowing us to win elections without abandoning principle.

  2. Tom,

    I think it was on a comment at LFS (later expounded upon at an article on L. Neil Smith’s site which google can’t find today) where I think you best identified the schism within the libertarian movement.

    The true nature of the battle seems to be between the ideological wing and the political wing of the party (and movement).

  3. If the people involved in the LP truly cared about liberty first and foremost, we wouldn’t see this entropic waste of energy. People would work together while they could, and go their own way when they couldn’t. Instead, it seems that jockeying for power takes up most of their time. It’s saddening.

  4. Nice overview. The one historical addition I’d add, from your 1983 reference, is that I – already having established myself as a “purist,” “space cadet” and (to use the image here) “Mountaineer” since before the LP even existed, and many times after it did – was among the ones who arrived in NYC to find NOBODY was running for the nomination, and then embracing (for the first and only time) the alleged “Mole” candidate (Earl Ravenal, in this case). I hung on until the mud got too deep, and then switched to supporting Mary Ruwart in her peacemaking attempt (after all, it had worked for Alicia Clark in the ’81 three-way battle for chair?), until she dropped out and I ended up with NOTA …

    Now, 20+ years later, I still find myself arguing with other libertarians about these same issues, and as often from the “pragmatist” angle as the “purist” one.

    As you say, it’s not as simple as that …

  5. Steve,

    Being a youngster — I was in high school in 1983 — I’ve had to rely on eyewitness accounts from others (including especially yourself) in writing about that convention. The only real conclusion I’ve reached about it is that it was purely demonstrative of the “overlapping divisions” I’m talking about.

    Libertarians are so fond of shoving things into nice, segregated, never-the-twain-shall-meet categories that they tend to miss the fact that multiple variables — including one that I didn’t mention, that being personal alliances/affinities/aversions — affect everything, including the internal movement situation. It offends the libertarian sensibility to suspect that someone voted for or against a candidate “because I did/didn’t LIKE him” instead of on the basis of a Pythagorean proof of that candidate’s fitness/unfitness versus indisputable data.

    Regards,
    Tom

  6. Tom I musted have missed it somehweres, but is there
    any mention of the “Big Fish in a Little Pond ” people?
    Those who have to be in charge because the rest of us are just too friggin stupid to get anything done without them.
    I’ve seem to have run into a few of these types.
    M.H.W.

  7. To carry Knapp’s argument forward, I’ll add:

    Some people liked Russo. Some liked Nolan.

    Some people hated Russo. Some hated Nolan.

    Russo won the first two rounds.

    Everybody liked Badnarik.

    He won the third round.

    To be sure, a good debate and his message helped, but a very major factor, even at a Libertarian event, was how people felt about the candidate.

  8. Michael,

    Yes, the Big Fish/Little Ponders do exist. I don’t regard them as a grouping, though, any more than I do “people who just don’t like Candidate X” and such. Not to minimize the effect — it certainly exists, it certainly causes problems.

    And yes, Steve, you’re right — everyone liked Badnarik, regardless of whether they thought he was the best candidate or not. Nolan and Russo, on the other hand, people were polarized on. A lot of people liked one of them, and a lot of people hated one of them, so crossover was minimized.

    Regards,
    Tom

  9. Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude. -Fredrick Douglass.

    Libertarians until we are major players in the game need to pick the battles that we can sway the public opinion on. Remember all politics is local, the real socialists are in our own backyards.

    How many of you know how to effectively give libertarian solutions to local issues?

    How many know how to read precinct maps and distribute basic libertarian literature to your neighbors during election season?

    How many of you write letters to the editor?

    Many of the out of touch anarchists in the LP make the real movers and shakers in the party look real bad. This is one of the main reason why the LP fails to gain much and no one takes us seriously.

    The Republicans and Democrats know how to move the masses, we should take lessons from them!

    BTW, Russo will always be numero uno in my heart.

  10. I have attended conventions since 1998. The notion that the major competition between Presidential candidates is over platform stands is simply untrue. The candidates had to struggle to find disagreements on those topics.

    The 1998 and 2002 conventions focussed on competitions for National Chair, etc. Opinions on content of the party platform had absolutely nothing to do with those contests.

    Once upon a time, many years ago, such issues may have been divisive but this has not recently been the case.

    I am left with the impression that some of the people claiming that purist/pragmatist disputes had anything at all to do with the 1998, 2000, 200, or 2004 national chair/LNC races are making their claims up in order to cloud the actual disagreements.

  11. Chris,
    >Many of the out of touch anarchists in the LP make the real movers and shakers in the party look real bad. This is one of the main reason why the LP fails
    MG: This is certainly not my experience. The ‘anarchists’–advocates of voluntary, non-governmental alternatives–are generally the ones making things happen and being taken seriously. Unfortunately, what they accomplish is rarely on LP sites thanks to ‘pragmatists’ who run much party machinery, and refuse to even set goals. They then say nothing is done so we must switch everthing around, making long range action difficult.

    Your local angle is key. Our affiliate (http://www.LPPinellas.org ) district resource people present the platform in community workshops,ask neighbors what is doable. As a result we have politicians discussing ‘anarchy policy tools,’record pledged members and people in office,and ‘radical’agendas endorsed by community coalitions, including people working on postal privatization with the union.

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