The Libertarian party probably rejected any claim to normalcy from the get-go by holding its convention in a casino. The Republicans and Democrats hold their conventions in Tampa and Charlotte in a few months, but America’s third largest political party held its nominating convention from May 2-6 at the Red Rock Resort on the edge of Las Vegas. Delegates selected former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as their presidential candidate. News of Johnson’s nomination garnered a few obligatory headlines but was mostly met with a collective shrug by the political media. The lack of interest in the Libertarian party is a bit mystifying, given that voters routinely express dissatisfaction with both major parties. Well, that and the fact that the Libertarian convention was something of a freak show that descended into near anarchy.
After traversing acres of slot machines to get to the convention’s registration desk, I found myself gawking at a woman in a skintight white dress whose preposterous top story and precarious heels made her stand out even in Las Vegas. It turned out to be Kristin Davis, the Manhattan Madam who ran the escort service that ensnared former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Davis ran for governor of New York in 2010, though she failed to get the Libertarian nomination and ran instead as the candidate of the Anti-Prohibition party. Also in attendance was Norma Jean Almodovar, who quickly used up her 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s when she went public with her story about leaving the LAPD to become a high-priced Beverly Hills call girl, a career she declared was “far more honest.” After a short jail sentence related to her new line of work, Almodovar ran for lieutenant governor of California on the Libertarian ticket, hoping to pardon herself if elected, and garnered 100,000 votes. Waiting in line at the obligatory casino buffet, I saw a man walk by in a white wig, stockings, miniskirt, and bustier. After arching an eyebrow at the sight, Mike Riggs, an associate editor at Reason, the libertarian political magazine, simply looked at me and said, “You don’t know who that is? That’s Starchild.” Starchild, it turns out, is a well-known San Francisco sex worker. If whoring in politics is inevitable, libertarians are at least admirably transparent about it.
True, among the hundreds gathered for the convention, these are just difficult to ignore outliers. But many of the attendees wear their nonconformity like a uniform, as befits a party devoted to personal freedom. There probably hasn’t been such an assemblage of gray-haired men in ponytails since the Grateful Dead stopped touring. And even the outwardly staid tend to be firebrands on the inside. Brendan Kelly, who’s running for Congress on the Libertarian ticket in New Hampshire, has been married for over 50 years and is a grandfather of six. He’s amiable and clearly has the respect of his local community because he’s been elected a selectman twice. At a hotel bar, he insists on telling me that when people hear he’s a candidate, the first thing they ask him is, “Are you going to bring articles of impeachment against people in Washington for not upholding the Constitution?” a question he’s delighted to answer in the affirmative. In an era where Congress’s approval rating dips into single digits, this impeach-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out attitude isn’t necessarily a radical proposition among voters, but the candidates themselves are seldom this bracing.
There’s much, much more to read in the original article. And then there’s this:
And that’s when the convention turned into a total goat rodeo.
To explain how ugly things subsequently got would be to punish readers with a tedious blow-by-blow featuring arcane parliamentary procedure. So here’s the condensed version: On the first ballot to vote for who would be the chairman of the Libertarian party, “none of the above” won the support of more than 50 percent of the delegates. For a political party that exists largely because its members are convinced the major parties constitute the evil of two lessers, the ensuing uproar was so ironic as to suggest the convention was an elaborate bit of performance art.
According to party rules, if “none of the above” won more votes than the two candidates on the first ballot, those names would be dropped and nominations would be taken from the party floor. It took two days and countless votes to resolve the party leadership question. Organizers had to go to the casino and ask to extend their stay in the ballroom long enough to resolve the matter. Near as anyone can tell, the “none of the above” vote was a coup staged by the radical grassroots—it was an organized campaign, replete with preprinted signs reading “Re-Elect No One.” From that point on, there was much infighting and contesting of every bit of procedure, as relayed by the increasing and comic frustration of Bill Redpath, the Libertarian party’s able and respected treasurer and the hapless fellow stuck with trying to apply the party’s rulebook. At various points his only recourse for maintaining order was hectoring delegates from the dais: “Quit being a pain in the ass. . . . It’s not a motion to revote, for Pete’s sake. . . . It may not be appropriate, but it’s legal. . . . I’m going to self-combust.”
The pivotal moment came when Lee Wrights addressed the tensions among “my family” and assumed the role of peacemaker. “I have said, over and over again, I am not at war. I’ll tell you something else, folks: We cannot even start thinking about stopping the wars outside this convention hall until we stop the wars inside these walls.” After six rounds of contentious balloting with different names being added and dropped, a candidate from the “purist wing of the party, Geoff Neale, won out, defeating two candidates from the more electorally focused wing of the party,” as Reason diplomatically summarized the result. The party -delegates then replaced every sitting member of the national committee. Starchild was elected to an at-large position. And notably, Wrights, who is close to Neale and is thought to have played a significant role in instigating the insurrection, was elected vice-chair of the party. For a guy who’s not at war, he’s a pretty good Clausewitz.
So, yes, the Libertarian party turned into a freak show. No doubt many libertarians might balk at such a description, but this is more or less what prominent members of the party themselves were saying by the end of the convention. Mark Rutherford, the vice-chair of the party coming into the convention, bemoaned the result. “I think the whole NOTA [none of the above] thing that happened in the chair’s race, and Starchild being elected, still shows that there are sizable elements of people that are not mature enough to make tough decisions and sometimes accept that things aren’t going to be the way they ought to be,” he fumed to Reason’s Quinn.
And on some level, to call it a freak show shouldn’t be passing judgment on libertarians. Electoral coalitions inevitably include those on the fringe, and the closer you get to a genuine grassroots movement the more fringy it becomes. We boast of our rugged individualism as Americans, but when confronted with manifestations of this virtue in a political context, the so-called establishment is quick to claim it’s discrediting. In one of the more noxious bits of Beltway wisdom to circulate in recent years—and that’s saying something—Politico editor John F. Harris and Time’s Mark Halperin wrote a book popularizing the term “freak show” to describe “a political culture that provides incentives for candidates, activists, interest groups, and the news media to emphasize ideological extremism.” Of course, it’s awfully convenient that what gets labeled “extremism” is largely determined by a political elite that includes the likes of John F. Harris and Mark Halperin. That elite also includes many entrenched interests who would be horrified to wake up one day and find Americans have elected the kind of freaks who take extreme measures to deal with $15 trillion in national debt and rein in a federal bureaucracy that seems to think it’s constitutionally empowered to force us all to eat broccoli.
Considering the alternative, the disorganized nature of the Libertarian party isn’t the worst thing imaginable. Following the machinations of the two major parties is increasingly a bread-and-circuses beat. Maybe the crowd gets rowdy and even expresses disapproval, but in the end there’s little doubt that there’s a group of party bosses and moneyed interests in the colosseum skybox whose Siskel-and-Ebert routine determines the fate of the combatants in the political arena. Most of the tensions at the Libertarian party were because the Libertarian party is at its core still concerned with being “small-d” democratic. They were going to vote and vote until the outcome was agreed upon by their delegates according to their rules. Compare that with how the Democratic party recently declared ahead of its Arkansas primary that any delegates won by John Wolfe—a grassroots candidate running against Obama who won over 40 percent of the vote—would not be counted.
If D.C.’s lords of conventional wisdom would dismiss the Libertarian party as extremist and irrelevant, Republicans and Democrats do so at their peril. Libertarians are unlikely to win a presidential election anytime soon, but they may decide it: According to Public Policy Polling, Gary Johnson is polling at 7 percent and 15 percent in the crucial swing states of New Hampshire and New Mexico, respectively. Now that Ron Paul is finally done with his GOP campaign, Johnson could conceivably rise in the polls if he can convince Paul’s supporters he’s the next-best thing.
Still, Johnson no doubt wishes party activists were more concerned with organizing to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states—a hurdle libertarian candidates often fail to clear—than, say, sitting around in a casino discussing the technical challenges of getting gas stations to offer variable price points that take into account the real-time fluctuations in commodity values used to back private currencies. If Johnson is serious about expanding the electoral appeal of the Libertarian party, at some point he’s going to have to contend with the purists in his own party. That may prove exasperating to Johnson and all of the “small-l” libertarians fretting that infighting is squandering their chance to be taken as a serious alternative at the ballot box.
Until that’s sorted out, you have to give the Libertarian party this—they don’t just believe in freedom, they live it. Maybe cross-dressing prostitutes and arguments over competing currencies should take a backseat for now, but it’s their party and they’ll do what they want to.