Thomas Sipos: What Motivates Libertarians?

Thomas Sipos at Libertarian Peacenik:

If Libertarian Party members were categorized by motive, they would fall into one of four groups: Ideologues, Socializers, Party Cultists, and Opportunists.

A person may have more than one motive for participating in the LP, but usually one motive is primary or dominant.

1. Ideologues

These people are in it for the ideology. They join because they want to advance libertarian principles — usually in a relatively pure form.

Purists (who advocate 100% uncompromising libertarian principles) are rare. I’ve yet to meet a libertarian who claims to be a Purist. The Purity Police itself is an urban legend.

Ideologues are more likely to be Radicals than Reformers, though I’m sure some Reformers are Ideologues.

With rare exceptions, everyone in the LP wants to be seen as Principled but nobody wants to be called an Ideologue. If you approve of a party member’s views, he is Principled. If you disapprove, he is an Ideologue. Go figure.

The best and the brightest in the LP tend to be Ideologues. They are the LP’s conscience.

2. Socializers

Socializers are primarily in it for the supper clubs and conventions. For them, the LP is a chance to commiserate and gripe with like-minded folk. If the LP succeeds in reshaping society, great. If not, it’s no big deal. They still enjoyed the good food and good conversation.

All third parties attract Socializers, but the LP perhaps more than most. This is because the LP is aggressive in organizing supper clubs. Even non-LP libertarians organize supper clubs. It’s what we do.

Sometimes it seems that supper clubs are the only activism that many libertarians engage in.

Former Los Angeles County LP Chair, David Larkin, once complained to me about this obsession with supper clubs. David said, “It’s as if some libertarians think, if I can just organize the perfect supper club, we’ll finally have a libertarian America.”

Socializers include both Radicals and Reformers, though they can be hard to tell apart. Socializers gripe, but don’t engage in much active in-fighting (or active anything). At most they’ll vote at conventions.

Socializers are not skilled at purges or party skullduggery. They’re usually too lazy or uninterested to even try.

3. Party Cultists

These people are weird. And troublesome, and destructive. For them, the LP is a source of personal validation and self-esteem. They treasure their party titles, with their concomitant illusions of power and success. They also tend to be control freaks.

Some libertarian women have suggested to me that the LP attracts middle class men who haven’t risen as high as they’d like to in the real world. And so they seek to compensate by amassing LP titles.

It may be that the Party Cultist is a lopsidedly male phenomenon, though I can think of one female example.

Party Cultists treasure the fantasy that the LP is a real political party — just like the two majors. They must feel a sensual thrill whenever they enter the national convention hall, which looks just like those of real political parties, C-SPAN cameras and all.

Party Cultists and Socializers both love conventions. The difference is that Socializers don’t much care who wins the party titles, so long as the hospitality suites are well-stocked with good food and good conversation. By contrast, Party Cultists care a great deal about who wins the titles and factional wars.

Unlike Socializers, Party Cultists thrive on political skullduggery. For them the LP is virtual politics. Fantasy Football or Second Life for political geeks and wannabe wonks. Roberts Rules of Order is the Dungeon Master’s Guide; mastering it is essential in forming alliances and out-maneuvering your opponents until you control the Realm.

If you can’t win real elections, then winning the game is the next best thing.

Naturally, all Party Cultists claim to be Principled. Being seen as Principled is important to one’s advancement up the LP ranks.

4. Opportunists

An Opportunist may wish to accumulate party titles, but it’s not for personal validation. Opportunists regard advancement within the LP as a means to an end; a chance to broaden the market (both inside and outside the LP) for their books and tapes and media careers.

Yes, Wayne Allyn Root is a classic Opportunist. There have been others, but Root’s the most successful (and shameless) one in my memory.

Just as Ideologues are more likely to include Radicals, Party Cultists and Opportunists are more likely to attract Reformers. This is because the Reform faction wants to dilute LP principles so as to broaden the LP’s respectability and appeal — a goal shared by both Party Cultists and Opportunists.

Party Cultists are in it for the self-esteem and validation; they crave respect from the media, political establishment, and Middle America. Being Chair of one’s County LP is so much more impressive at the office water cooler if your co-workers hear about the LP’s importance in the news every day.

Likewise, as the LP gains in popularity and respect, Opportunists will attract more media attention and customers.

A small, extreme, vocal LP can stir debate and advance issues, but at the price of political marginalization. That’s fine for Ideologues, who are interested in advancing ideas rather than political respectability.

But Party Cultists and Opportunists share a vested interest in diluting principles to make the LP appear less scary or extreme. Party titles become more respectable, and business opportunities improve, if the LP looks safely middle class.

13 thoughts on “Thomas Sipos: What Motivates Libertarians?

  1. Jason Gatties

    You forgot a group. Not sure what to call it, but it’s a group of people who are obsessed with labeling libertarians into various groups.

  2. Mullet Over

    “You forgot a group. Not sure what to call it, but it’s a group of people who are obsessed with labeling libertarians into various groups”

    Hmmmm……taxidermists? tax attorneys? taxi drivers? economists?

    I got it….taxonomists!

    BTW I have always thought there were three kinds of libertarians; those that can count and those that can’t.

  3. RedPhillips

    I suspect there is some truth to these catagories. We will be able to measure how close to the truth by how vociferous the howls of outrage.

    I might add a catagory called gadflies. Our buddy George Phillies would fall into this group. They join a relatively inconsequential organization (no ofense intended, I’m just trying to illustrate the psychology) and then carp and nitpick as if the stakes are enourmous.

    And I would add the fringe phobics, which has significant overlap with the gadflies. They join a by definition fringe organization (again no ofense intended, I’m just trying to illustrate the psychology) and then spend all their energy trying to prove it and most importantly they are not really fringe by attempting to belittle and /or purge those more fringe than they.


    Don’t these groups exist in Rotary, church, VFW, high school extracuriculars, etc. etc.?
    Is Sipos suggesting a solution or just trying to show us how observant he is?

  5. JT

    ATBAFT: “Is Sipos suggesting a solution or just trying to show us how observant he is?”

    I think the latter, but his classification is interesting. There’s no “solution.” Ideological volunteer organizations will always attract people in all the motivational categories he mentions. That’s the nature of the beast.

  6. Michael H. Wilson

    I know that, but they don’t which tells us something about their thinking skills And I have heard more than one say that is why they got involved. It is good for a laugh once in awhile.

  7. Tom Blanton

    There seems to be more than a few men in the LP who are attracted to men with very white teeth.

    Personally, I prefer women who wear lipstick on their teeth, but not so much as to give them my money.

    It seems like Sipos doesn’t get the supper club thing. One day, all political decisions may be made through a system of supper clubs and when that day comes, the Libertarian Party will rule the world.

  8. Lavra

    @9 and from the other perspective, what’s the saying? odds are good, but the goods are odd?

    (and i kid. there are lots of dashing male LPers with white teeth.)

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