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The Media Remembers David Nolan

There has been a significant amount of attention to the passing of Libertarian Party founder David Nolan.

The New York Times published a lengthy article, writing that

Though it is often said the Libertarian Party was born in Mr. Nolan’s living room in Westminster, Colo., on Dec. 11, 1971, in fact it began on that date at the home of another incipient Libertarian in Colorado Springs. But the emotional surge that led eight people that day to proclaim a new national political party had begun in Mr. Nolan’s living room months earlier.

On Aug. 15, 1971, Mr. Nolan and four associates were meeting in his home when President Nixon appeared on television to announce wage and price controls, a step the libertarians considered unconstitutional in peacetime. They also strongly criticized Nixon’s announcement in the same speech that he was taking the United States off the gold standard.

They carried their anger, plus their belief that the Vietnam War was both ill-considered and illegal, to the meeting in nearby Colorado Springs where the Libertarian Party was formed. The next summer, the party convened to nominate a presidential ticket that wound up receiving one electoral vote.

That vote, for the presidential candidate John Hospers and the vice-presidential candidate, Theodora Nathan, was the first electoral vote ever recorded for a woman in a presidential election.

David Weigel, now operating out of Slate, also had some nice words to contribute.

I met Nolan in 2008, while covering the Libertarian Party convention for Reason — in Denver, again — and liked him instantly. He was a center of calm in the middle of an rough and media-grabbing battle for the heart of the party. He calmed the occasional (okay, frequent) sense that the nomination of one candidate or another would destroy the LP by praising all of the candidates and telling the losers to suck it up. He did not seem like a man who was retiring from politics, so I wasn’t surprised to see him make one last hopeless run for office as a Libertarian, campaigning against John McCain in this year’s U.S. Senate race.

It’s unusually difficult to say what Nolan’s legacy will be. He leaves behind a small “l” libertarian movement that is more powerful, with greater control over the levers of the GOP and more footing in popular culture, than at any time in living memory. (Witness the current, libertarian-driven backlash against the TSA if you want proof.) He also leaves behind a Libertarian Party that, like almost every third party in American history, struggles for relevance and has its best ideas co-opted by major party politicians who go on to disappoint their supporters. But if the measure of an activist’s success is bringing attention to his ideas, and bringing them from the fringe of respectability to the center, David Nolan was a success. After all, in 1971, the “crazy” guy was the one who thought price controls were a bad idea.

Senior editor of Reason Brian Doherty, who had previously written about Nolan in his book Radicals for Capitalism, doesn’t fail to deliver for Nolan.

In the Internet age, the LP is a less important entry point for the young looking for places where their peculiar interests in liberty intersect the real world. While Nolan stressed to me the founding gang of the LP were mostly in their 20s, it’s hard to find many under 35 at most LP events these days. With groups like Campaign for Liberty and any number of online places to virtually congregate and spread ideas, and with Tea Partyism as a possible spur to more genuinely small-government politicians in the Republican Party, the LPs importance may shrink in the future. Nolan himself became a devotee of the Free State Project approach recently.

An anecdote Nolan told me about his college days was exemplary of his lifelong effort to push liberty ideas anywhere he could. He told me how he and his comrades controlled a Students for Goldwater Group, a Young Republicans group, and a Young Americans for Freedom group at MIT. Since the campus rules allowed one student group to run a booth out at the campus’s central crossroads for two weeks straight,, they’d run two weeks of one, two weeks of the next, and two weeks of the third—all pushing the same pro-liberty message he was inspired to by the likes of Heinlein and Rand.

Nolan created an ongoing operation to explain, in a context the greatest number of Americans are prepared to listen and understand, electoral politics,  the basics of a libertarianism clearly distinct, party labels and all, from the two-party political and mental duopoly of America. He thus contributed greatly to the forging of understanding, connection (as well, as any LPer or former LPer will also recognize, for anger, feuding, and splits, but that’s the nature of the beast and not Nolan’s fault), and inspiration among libertarians. (He credited the interpersonal connections and spreading of information that the LP facilitated, which often ended up coming to fruition outside the LP itself, as the LP’s greatest contribution in his interview with me.) Nolan was important in creating an actual lively Third Way in American politics, a Third Way that is far healthier in numbers and brainpower than before he came along. The LP did not elect libertarian politicians, as Nolan always understood it likely wouldn’t; it was still a vital part of the set of organizations and approaches that are both allies and sometimes rivals in the ever-livelier free market of ideological and educational action to change minds for liberty.

Of course the Libertarian Party itself also noted their founder’s death, collecting statements from a variety of Libertarian figures here.

Other outlets reporting on Nolan’s passing include the OC Register, numerous Tucson press outlets, and Uncovered Politics.

IPR has also followed this story closely. You can share memories of David Nolan and participate in the discussion here and here. Discussion of Nolan’s last resolution at the LNC can be found here.

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