Last week at the Tampa RNC, party insiders employed parliamentary tricks to block Rep. Ron Paul delegates from casting their votes. States such as Maine and Colorado came up short as libertarians got a lesson in hardball politics. Party conventions have morphed into cynical spectacles since Ronald Reagan fought on the floor of the 1976 convention, so nobody should be surprised. Still, without their own Reagan, libertarians will remain vulnerable to the hammer of mainstream politics.
The Libertarian Party and libertarians in general are like alternative energy, the perennial next big thing that never materializes. Much as the conservatives had Buckley, the libertarian cause is full of intellectuals forming the canons of individualism. Libertarians embrace smart writers like Veronique de Rugy and Nick Gillespie, but mass appeal comes from the TV screen, not a pen. While social media has leveled the playing field once dominated by the Old Time Media, the most successful politicians remain telegenic prompter readers who speak to the heart more than the mind.
Consider the sad case of Sen. Hillary Clinton. While being a joyless technocrat is not a sin, it proved to be her political downfall. A stereotypical Wellesley 1960’s radical, Clinton has a centrally planned vision for the US where good government is the core problem solver. She is contemptuous of any traditional value, and thinks the family unit is subordinate to the role of ‘the village.’ While her vision is broad, she is a small thinker who crafts many policies to advance her leftist agenda. Enter Barak Obama, then also a junior Senator. He, too, was a college radical, contemptuous of the established order and also raised by communists. Unlike Clinton, he had no ideas or policies, just Marxist principles. With no experience in work and little experience in government, Obama spoke to the heart and easily beat the seasoned Clinton. Clinton had the entire Democrat machine at her disposal, and her husband was the best fundraiser ever. Despite such an advantage, voters chose soaring platitudes over experience and substance.
In practice Obama and Clinton are the same politician. Both support socialized single payer health care and higher marginal taxes. Both support expanded social welfare programs and wrinkle their noses at traditionalism. Only a policy snob would notice a difference in that Clinton is more academic, dry, and clear-cut.
Similar to Obama, Reagan spoke to the hearts of voters. His “Morning in America” campaign made misty voters dream again. Reagan was surrounded by conservative technocrats who shaped his policies, but his gift was in speaking to the hearts of regular people. Reagan’s version of hope yielded two of the biggest landslides in US history.
Obama’s and Reagan’s lesson for libertarians is to stop arguing policy to people who will not listen. Every great person talks to those who would listen in a way they will understand. Pundits call it ‘dog whistle’ politics, but the winning strategy is to bury policy deep in the rhetoric of the heart. Some examples of good politics:
- Instead of promising to cut welfare, promise to cut corporate welfare (which is by far the bigger problem)
- Instead of promising to cut military spending, promise to focus on defense before offense
- As Paul Ryan says, instead of cutting middle class entitlements, promise to save them
- Instead of legalizing drugs, promise to keep them out of children’s reach through regulatory enforcement
- Instead of de-regulating industry, point out that laws like the minimum wage only hurt the poor
All these tactics of politics 101 are meaningless without a charismatic standard bearer for the libertarian movement. To advance the cause of individualism, libertarians must stop being purists and get in the mud. Until then, the movement will remain associated with quacks and fringe intellectuals, and no great communicator will touch it.