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Stewart Flood: Robert’s, the Political Weapon of Mass Destruction

Let me take you back to the day I was first introduced to the weapon of political destruction, Robert’s Rules of Order.

Some 30 years ago,  back when I was foolishly trying to affect change within the GOP, I attended one of my first county conventions. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was in the early 1990s. I had been active in politics for a few years, but I had not gotten involved in the actual party infrastructure until recently.

ions. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but it was in the early 1990s. I had been active in politics for a few years, but I had not gotten involved in the actual party infrastructure until recently.

The convention, attended by many hundreds of delegates, was a one-day event. It was about the size of an off-presidential year Libertarian national convention. Somehow I ended up sitting in one of the front rows, off to the side near the exit.

I had not really had much interaction with formal rules, so I was quite interested in the little cheat sheet that was handed out at the door. The convention progressed, with nominations and seconds, followed by elections and votes with seemingly endless debate of stupid things. Election of a temporary this and that, followed by a permanent this and that.  I understand it now, but back then, the process required under South Carolina Election Law seemed very strange.  Eventually, it started to wind down, until they got to “resolutions.”

Anyone who has attended a Libertarian Party convention knows about resolutions. That is the part of the convention where people stand up and spew out sometimes sane and sometimes insane things to vote on as resolutions. Sometimes they pass, but they are frequently shouted down.

As I was sitting in the room, I began to notice that a lot of people appeared to have left. Then it happened. The convention chair, a prominent local politician, who years later became Lieutenant Governor, and with whom I once had a very heated debate over the merits of mustard-based vs vinegar-based barbeque sauce, was gleefully taking a resolution from the floor. It was in support of the Confederate flag and secession. Where the bleep was I sitting? What was this stuff?  I mentioned to the person sitting next to me that the room seemed to not have enough people in it. He suggested that I call for a quorum check. I raised my hand. The chair kept going, so the person next to me nudged me and said to shout it out, which I promptly did: quorum call!

Everything stopped.  Looking stern and solemn, the chair checked the room. He quickly determined that there was not a quorum present and the convention promptly adjourned.

This was my first experience in the use of Robert’s as a weapon of political destruction.  I received a few upset looks and comments while leaving from some of the supporters of the resolution, but a few others looked relieved that some kid (I was in my early 30s) had done something they were afraid to do.

Robert’s is complex. It is huge. But it can be used to defend yourself in a knife attack and might stop a slow bullet if you have it in your jacket pocket covering your heart. Of course, it better be a really loose-fitting jacket to be able to hold that book.  Other than that, it is primarily a tool of obstruction.

Robert’s can be used to run effective meetings and conventions. But it can also be used at those events to obstruct and interfere with the process.  I have seen it used at LNC meetings to delay and obstruct motions or prevent people from speaking by causing delays until time expires and not everyone gets to speak.  Endless dilatory amendments that have to be discussed before they can be voted down.  People losing track of what the actual motion is because it has been amended so many times. Secretaries frustrated by trying to track who has spoken and what the motion currently is being voted on.  But I have also used it and seen others use it to run effective and efficient meetings.

It is also used quite frequently at the microphone at national conventions to waste everyone’s time.  We all know who these people are.

Another former Libertarian Party member recently commented that he and others in his state party were prevented from actually accomplishing anything through the use of Robert’s. When I called it a weapon of mass destruction, he likened it more to a weapon of pipe obstruction.  He said it packs the pipe with bull [deleted] so nothing can move through the pipe.

Obviously, I am not alone in my opinion of Robert’s.

Something better needs to be used. Rules of Order are needed, otherwise you simply have chaos. But they need to be simpler and easier to manage and understand. I understand Robert’s. I studied enough to be able to pass the test.  It was recommended a number of times that I take it. I somehow avoided it and I’m glad that I did.

In my opinion, and in the opinion of quite a number of others, a Classical Liberal party needs to find something better to use. Better rules of order, and better ByLaws.

In my last commentary, I mentioned the embarrassment of South Carolina being the home of people like Strom Thurmond, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott.  I have just learned it was also the birthplace of Henry Martyn Robert.  Yup.  The guy who wrote Robert’s.  Can it get worse?

Stewart Flood also writes opinion pieces for Third Party Watch. Views expressed in reader submissions do not necessarily reflect those of Outsider Media Foundation, Independent Political Report, or editorial team members.

Forming a New Party: A new national party has to be built correctly. You covered many of the major issues. But hot button is ballot access. So this has to be a clean break.  https://thirdpartywatch.com/2023/05/26/forming-a-new-party/

Political Purity:  the root cause of the problem:  the Libertarian Party’s tent has become a five ring circus.

Too Many Rings: The Libertarian Party’s tent is just like the Republicans’ and Democrats’ tents:  a circus big top with too many rings.  https://thirdpartywatch.com/2023/05/30/stewart-flood-writes-tent-city/

The Libertarian Party has its own Hoover, and they have sent in the troops.  Guns have been replaced by lawyers and lawsuits, but the effect is the same.

12 Comments

  1. Stewart Flood June 11, 2023

    I completely disagree. The few that manage to hog the microphone, as well as in many cases get themselves, appointed to things like platform and bylaw committees in advance. They control it. They control the entire agenda. Does the body write the agenda, or simply approve it mostly unchanged?

    The vast majority of delegates at any political convention just sit and watch, voting when permitted.

    I used examples from Republican and Libertarian conventions I have attended. What I said holds true for just about every party. To their credit, at least the Libertarian party still has a platform. The Democrats and Republicans no longer allow their delegates to influence their platforms. And before someone comments that the Republican party no longer has a platform, I consider the lack of a platform to actually be a platform: of chaos!

  2. Fred June 10, 2023

    Robert’s works great for conventions. It gives the body the chance to set the agenda rather than a select few.

  3. Stewart Flood June 9, 2023

    Excellent idea. Why has no one ever created that within the LP?

    Probably because there are delegates who want the system to remain broken and would prevent any attempt to fix things.

    It has to be fixed in the initial document and cover every section of the ByLaws that must be unalterable.

  4. Nicholas Sarwark June 9, 2023

    It would be wise to create special convention rules of order that definitively supersede the parts of Roberts’ that are most often abused by convention attendees and a bylaw that expressly prohibits changes to those rules of order from taking effect during the convention in which they are changed.

  5. Root's Teeth Are Awesome June 9, 2023

    I have seen it used at LNC meetings to delay and obstruct motions or prevent people from speaking by causing delays until time expires and not everyone gets to speak.

    I’ve seen it too. At the 2005 California LP convention, a popular platform change (I forget what it was) was on the agenda. It was bound to pass. But a small clique who opposed it kept asking silly questions and making inane objections to every other item that came before it, so we ran out of time before voting on the popular agenda item.

  6. Stewart Flood June 8, 2023

    I think several people are confused over what I was writing about. I understand that Robert’s is so ingrained in the libertarian party that attempting to change to anything, whether it is a good or bad idea, would be virtually impossible.

    And on the issue of parliamentarians, we have all seen them give some horrible advice at national conventions. Advice that made no sense, violated the ByLaws, but they gave it.

    There is no perfect answer. I am suggesting in my analysis that a new classical liberal party would be best served to consider alternatives and find something else that can work.

  7. Jack June 8, 2023

    Disagree. Robert’s is vital and very valuable.

  8. Ryan June 8, 2023

    “If there is one thing to be said about how the LP uses RROR, it’s the absurd notion that some have that RROR supersedes an organization’s rules and bylaws.”

    Well that point of view has certainly maximized one particular national party member’s power.

    I agree the “where silent, revert to Robert’s” rule is a giant can of worms. The two manuals I mention below used in legislatures know not to refer to something their own rules can’t control.

    I think Mason’s Manual (used by state legislatures) or Jefferson’s Manual (U.S. House Rules more or less) would be more befitting a political organization that meets irregularly. The Republican National Convention operates on U.S. House Rules, although both major parties have ceased intentionally having anything meaningful done at their Conventions, while for Libertarians and other minor parties it’s the political event of the year. When these other manuals were raised on the LNC Business page on Facebook, one drawback mentioned is there are much fewer parliamentarians on offer versed in these.

  9. George Phillies Post author | June 7, 2023

    Shawn, Excellent points. Note Francis & Francis, Democratic Rules of Order, available on Amazon for not much. Short, large type,easy to understand, not hard to follow.

  10. Shawn Levasseur June 7, 2023

    I say that it’s not the fault of Robert’s Rules. That any set of rules is open to this. It’s all about the nature of the individuals running and participating in the meetings.

    I dare say switching to something else is even more perilous, as any other system would be obscure and hard to acquire. RROR is at the very least available in every bookstore, along with guides for newcomers.

    I think that “normal, everyday meetings” work better because their authority and scope are limited. National and state conventions are more contentious as they are the highest level of authority for their organizations, and have fewer constraints on what they can do.

    Given that level of power, the fact that members only have a voice if they can attend conventions has been a key weakness that was exploited in the MC takeover. Few state parties (probably none) have any means of making their conventions representative of the broader membership. And the national convention delegate seats are plentiful enough that there was rarely any competition for them (and even then they were chosen by those unrepresentative state conventions)

    Now for the most part this was done to encourage participation and openness. But it bit us in the ass. That has little to do with RROR, but how we chose to organize in our bylaws.

    If there is one thing to be said about how the LP uses RROR, it’s the absurd notion that some have that RROR supersedes an organization’s rules and bylaws.

  11. SocraticGadfly June 7, 2023

    From college student council days? “Call the question,” as a privileged motion, is another good one.

  12. Charles Hall June 7, 2023

    As far as getting worse from South Carolina? Oh where to start. Two of the worst presidents have ties to the state in Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson. Oh don’t forget Junior Senator Fritz Hollings quote from 1992 about the a-bomb: “Made in the USA, tested in Japan.” So yes Robert ranks a bit down the list. Of course we also hold the record for the longest filibuster in history with Storm Thurmond. Ooh and my favorite! The Sumner affair! Texans love to say don’t mess with Texas but in realty it’s don’t mess with SC! Sen Sumner (R-MA) learned what a good caning was after he insulted Sen Bulter (D-SC). Rep Brooks (D-SC) took exception by pulling the original January 6th! He stormed in to the Senate chamber and proceeded to whip Sumner with his cane! So yes South Carolina has a whole bottom ten of national politicians that Robert will never make.

    My first exposure to Robert’s came as a speech and debate competitor. We weaponized it there. A lot less dilatory but it was still a weapon. We used to piss off tournament directors by simply suspending the rules and extending the time for debate or suspending the rules so we could watch the UNC vs Duke basketball game in the room while we were debating (we did put the tv on mute.). Ahh those were the fun times.

    What I have learned being at multiple meetings that use Robert’s was that it was design for civil discourse instead of a kindergarten king of the jungle gym meeting. It has become a weapon of a bully in politics instead of providing order to meetings. Political conventions resemble that King of the Jungle Gym a lot more than the normal everyday meeting where Robert’s works great.

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