Libertarian National Convention 2016
At first I thought the Libertarian Party’s convention had attracted a disappointing turnout. Then I found the smoking section.
The party’s 907-strong national delegation is perhaps one of the few American communities that still has a cigarette-puffing majority, their deep inhales as much a badge of honour as the star-spangled porcupine pins on their lapels.
It is hard to imagine a more aesthetically diverse cross-section of people within the one political movement. Southern gents in linen suits and colourful bow-ties hobnob with mohawked anarchists, Second Amendment-worshipping cowboys and bespectacled ‘hacktivists’ – united only in their belief that government causes, rather than solves, most problems, and their conviction that participatory democracy matters.
Like any political convention, the exhibit hall is made of up an endless array of factions and sub-factions, institutes and causes, with names like “Advocates for Self-Government” and “Hemp Coalition”. There is even a booth exclaiming “Muslims for Liberty”, with a pleasant young student handing out copies of the Quran – a document not usually associated with free market libertarianism.
And then there are the apparatchiks – or “faceless men” as we call them back home – a frenzied blur of laptops and grey suits, shouting things about head counts and conference rooms in an over-caffeinated manner.
Because of course, this is not just a meeting of likeminded philosophical comrades but a real democratic exercise to elect the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees, among other official party roles. And this year the normally fairly underground event is attracting a lot more attention off the back of a nationally televised debate, hence the arrival of the international press (represented by yours truly).
Unlike the two major parties, democracy is held is such esteem here that the nominee doesn’t get to pick his or her own VP candidate. Instead, the two names on the ticket are voted on separately, meaning the presidential candidate could end up with a rival’s running mate if that’s what the delegates choose – leading to a very appropriate form of chaos.
On this opening day of the convention, mustering votes is clearly therefore the focus. State delegations congregate in corridors and poolside caucuses to argue for their candidate and tally up the votes.
This event didn’t need any extra colour or movement, but in some great comedy of errors, MegaCon – a giant nerd convention and competitor to the famous Comic-Con – is being held right next door.
And so among the suits and ties, beards and ponytails, marijuana leaf flags and Statue of Liberty headwear weave face-painted avatars, dwarves, elves and aliens.
There is even some overlap between the two events, with a very convincing Professor Snape from Harry Potter spotted wearing a Minnesota delegate’s badge.
Just to top it all off, Vermin Supreme – perennial presidential candidate, performance artist and eccentric cult figure – has left the Democratic party and is throwing his hat (i.e. gumboot) into the ring for the Libertarian nomination.
American politics is rarely boring, and here in the halls where democracy actually happens, it is promising to be anything but.
A liberty-lovin’ lady offers her two cents.
Me and my new mate, Vermin Supreme (yes, that is a gumboot on his head).
The caucusing no doubt went on late into the night, over beers, whisky and whatever other substance they choose to put into their own bodies goddamit!
But the second day of the convention has turned from politics to policy and philosophy, a steady stream of sessions explaining how the theories of the libertarian movement’s intellectual icons – Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and so on – can be turned into sound public policy and a winning formula (or at least one that cracks more than a million votes).
From benefits to ballot access, currency manipulation to campaign strategy, the morning’s panels and speeches were surprisingly substantive for an event perceived to be a bunch of whackjobs smoking blunts and shooting semi-automatics.
That perception was also a topic of fervent conversation. Many within the party, especially those supporting the candidacy of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and his preferred running mate, former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, are hoping to successfully pitch themselves as a sensible middle ground between the Republicans and Democrats. With the likely nominees of the major parties facing historically high unfavourable ratings, the bid to expand electoral appeal makes sense. As Johnson himself puts it: “the goal is to move party meetings from the treehouse to the auditorium”.
The party’s purists, however, care less about electoral appeal than ideological principles, warning that this angsty, 45-year old party – which started as a protest of the politics of Richard Nixon – is at risk of appearing like “Republican lite”.
Flyers distributed to delegates warn that the Johnson-Weld ticket would sell the party’s true believers up the river, and that one senior adviser even once displayed a “Romney 2012” bumper sticker. The so-called libertarian wing of the Libertarian Party rails against Johnson’s support for a consumption tax instead of income and corporate taxes, among a number of practical compromises learnt from real experience governing . But to them, all taxation is theft and compromise is treason.
In a rallying speech with more than a little subtle subtext about the presidential candidates, Tom Woods, an author and economist, called on delegates to stop describing themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” but instead as “libertarian”, its own distinct philosophical tradition that doesn’t borrow from either of the major parties. He urged them to shun the stereotype of their party as being for pot-smoking, more tolerant Republicans.
Given the importance of product differentiation in free market economics, it was a message well received.
But it wasn’t all business. John McAfee, the infamous cybersecurity pioneer and “techno-libertarian”, threw a Burning Man-inspired party with electronic music DJs, acrobats, performers and an overall dystopian feel. I’m not sure how many delegates it swayed, but his band of pierced and dreadlocked millennial volunteers seemed pleased.
And for those with more traditional tastes, the hotel’s bars and eateries swarmed with jovial libertarians, swapping battle stories of days, months, years or decades of service to the cause of liberty and upending the two-party system.
A particularly creepy John McAfee fan.
The Johnson, McAfee and Petersen campaigns collide during an intense break between votes.
Sometime well after the scheduled kick-off time of 9.45am, the delegates began voting for their presidential nominee – an hours-long process of excitable scribbling, shuffling and shouting. Each state delegation chair then takes to the microphone to announce the results one by one, adding in some obligatory geographic humour such as “we are from New Jersey, and we apologise for that” or “I represent the state of Nevada, home of gambling and prostitution, and the freest in the land”.
Despite a slight hiccough, whereby he fell short of an outright victory on the first ballot by just five votes, Governor Johnson eventually sailed safely into the nomination (as expected) despite a strong performance by his rivals in the candidates’ final debate last night.
The vice-presidential nomination process, however, was a little bumpier.
The division over Weld has only escalated overnight, morphing less into a rational discussion of the VP candidate’s specific pros and cons and more an ideological battle between the party’s moderates and its activist (and anarchist) base.
On face value, Weld brings some very strong positives to the campaign. As a former Republican governor of a Democratic state, with a track record of standing up for gay and lesbian rights before it was cool as well as cutting taxes more than 21 times, he could appeal to disaffected voters from the left and right. He brings significant connections, cache and cash to the race. In the days since his name was floated as a VP candidate, he has had more mainstream media appearances than any Libertarian in history.
But for many of the delegates, 14 days as member of the party is simply not enough. Despite his pledge to stay with the party for life, his admission that he only read the party’s platform for the first time in the last week garnered boos. Moreover, as governor of left-leaning Massachussets, his record on gun rights is not quite up to scratch for these freedom-loving folks.
From an originally diverse group of VP challengers, the “Never Weld” crowd eventually coalesced around Larry Sharpe, a mixed-race, self-made businessman and motivational speaker from New York.
But ultimately the last ditch effort was not enough and Johnson’s pleas were the more convincing. Governor Weld was elected as the party’s VP nominee by a slim margin of less than 1 per cent on the second ballot, after a rowdy and no doubt nerve-wracking few hours.
In the moments since, Trump has already taken aim at his now-official Libertarian opponents, which caused a riotous cheer here on the convention floor when announced from the podium.
Libertarians believe that humans are, on the whole, inherently good, and that therefore government intervention and control is unnecessary to solve social challenges, which can be addressed through voluntary exchange and action for mutual gain.
Up against two of the most unpopular politicians in history, and armed with two candidates with executive experience in very different states, this minor party heads into the general election even more optimistic than usual.
With Gov. Bill Weld, Libertarian VP nominee
LP chair Nick Sarwark faces the press.
Governor Gary Johnson officially announced as presidential nominee.