Below are the remarks I delivered to the Republican Liberty Caucus of Minnesota’s State Convention on March 14th.
As libertarian-conservatives, we understand the value of market incentives. We know that companies respond to consumer demand, and measure their success through profits. There are markets in everything, including politics (despite the bias elected officials seem to have against us lowly citizens cooperating with one-another absent their intervention).
To politicians, everything is ultimately a numbers game. They respond to people who have the power to keep them IN power. That’s their profit motive. If you want to be influential, you need the ability to give or take away votes. Grassroots activists actually have a lot of clout in this area, if we organize correctly. It’s important to know our enemies and allies, and to treat both accordingly.
Sometimes, this is hard. When do you determine that a politician has sold you out? We all draw our lines in the sand, but I’d humbly suggest that a record in which you agree with the vast majority of votes should be elevated above rhetoric meant to appeal to the voters who, unfortunately don’t always think like we do. It’s amazing to me how often I see libertarians forget that we’re still, politically speaking, in the minority. Winning requires baby steps in the right direction.
Now of course, I’m not suggesting that you should never criticize a libertarian leaning politician when he or she makes a mistake. Accountability is important. But if you want your opinion to be taken seriously, you need to demonstrate a high level of commitment to staying politically engaged. Why else would a politician listen to you?
Spouting off and declaring, “I WON’T VOTE!” is precisely how to get a politician who isn’t principled but might vote in our favor with enough pressure to happily write you off. It’s also a surefire way to alienate our elected allies and force them into taking less than ideal positions. After all, they have elections to win. Remember: Markets in everything.
If you aren’t engaged in the political marketplace, if you aren’t a consumer willing to buy the message of liberty by transacting with your vote, if you don’t provide that demand, don’t be shocked when the result is a short supply of politicians you’d consider voting for. Why would a liberty-minded individual run for office if the people who make up his or her base are quick to abandon ship when the storms of political reality inevitably blow in?
When considering how we can have impact in a system that clearly IS stacked against us, what we would do well to remember is that political parties are ultimately empty vessels. They belong to those committed enough to stay engaged, and savvy enough to be inclusive, yet firm in their principles.
Think about how much political parties change over time. We all know the Republican and Democratic parties have been vastly different throughout their histories. The GOP started as a party of emancipation, fighting against the evils of slavery, and seeking equality under the law. We’ve had such a variety of Republican presidents and elected officials in our history. Even from a more recent perspective, Eisenhower, Nixon, and both Bushes are actually all very different people. Perhaps from the outlook of those at this convention, it’s the principles of the Goldwater era that likely align most with ours. Think fiscal conservatism and social tolerance. Goldwater was known for saying things like, “The only thing that matters is if you can shoot straight” in reference to openly gay people serving in the military.
It’s only fairly recently in the history of the party that the “moral majority” types have had the say they do. The Christian Right takeover of the GOP’s apparatus didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took a lot of hard work. The type of work that isn’t necessarily fun, but is required to own a political party. In fact, down in Houston, Texas where I live, a little over a year ago our Young Republicans group hosted a debate between a Santorum-Huckabee type of pastor and the national President of the moderate Log Cabin Republicans, known for their support of marriage equality. The room was filled with mostly young, libertarian leaning Republicans (who, for the record, are the vast majority of young Republicans these days, even if they don’t come directly from the liberty movement). So this pastor told us, something to the effect of, “If you want the GOP, come take it. Those of us who came to power in the late Reagan, early Bush years, worked to build our influence in the party. If you disagree with me and those who think like I do, vote us out of local GOP positions. By all means, I invite you to try.”
Well, challenge accepted, pastor. Those of us who believe in liberty rather than government force CAN own the GOP with a bit of hard work; especially because the political tide is on our side generationally, and establishment types often go where the wind blows, because, guess what, they want to win. Everyone involved in the GOP knows that undoubtedly, in its current state, the party has an image problem. Poll after poll, and “autopsy report” after “autopsy report” prove this.
We all know this anecdotally too, especially those of you here in Minnesota who are used to working in a blue state environment. I’m sure, more than once, you’ve gotten, “HOW CAN YOU BE A REPUBLICAN?” the assumption being that to be involved in the GOP, you must be some nefarious Rick Santorum type, bent on regulating people’s actions in their bedrooms. I’m also sure, like me, you’ve personally sat down with people and broken through that cliché. I’m sure you’ve demonstrated that you are in fact socially tolerant, but simply opposed to the government regulating all aspects of our lives.
In fact, I recently sat down with someone who harbored, for lack of a better term, a very close-minded view of Republicans. Because of her age, which correlates directly with the Christian Right’s takeover of the GOP, her assumption was that to be a Republican, you must care only about gay marriage and waging various wars on women. She couldn’t wrap her mind around how someone like me could be a Republican. I explained to her that I’m fighting for MY vision of the party’s future, and that believe it or not, it’s shared by not only the Republicans of my generation, but many Millennials who don’t even realize they’re libertarians. This person was surprised, but happy to hear this, saying she does hope that my type of Republican takes over the party. I’m optimistic that it’s inevitable, and only a matter of time. But the mechanics of such a takeover require the hard work of people like those of us in this room.
And speaking of generational change, polls of Millennials show that we are in fact, libertarian leaning. Many media outlets are confounded by this. “Young people don’t fit into any of our boxes!” they exclaim, exasperated by the notion that people might just support freedom in all arenas when it comes down to it. A fascinating poll by the Reason Foundation conducted last year shows that to the extent young people identify as liberal, it’s in social, not economic terms. The poll also finds an erosion of support for an unlimited welfare state when the costs associated with it are demonstrated.
This is an entire generation of people disillusioned with large institutions generally, as other polling from Pew and the Harvard Institute of Politics shows. We aren’t particularly interested in one party or the other, and a more politically independent than older generations. Younger Millennials especially, don’t have any emotional ties to the election of Barack Obama that would keep them voting straight ticket Democrat. A libertarian leaning message can undoubtedly reach the disaffected. A libertarian leaning, big-tent GOP can accommodate, and if it’s smart, lead with this message.
I’m also optimistic that libertarian Republicans are the true “electable moderates” the country has been waiting for. John McCain? Mitt Romney? JEB BUSH? Give me a break. Americans of all ideologies are fed up with being told that big government cronies who rob us blind and seek out war are “moderate” and “reasonable.” They’re far from it; people simply need to be educated about the alternatives. And the alternatives liberty Republicans provide fill a market void; something people have been clamoring for, but didn’t know existed. Let’s meet that demand, and win. Remember, there are markets in everything.
The much heralded libertarian moment that people, even media types have been talking about, is upon us. We can squander this opportunity by picking up our ball and going home when we face minor setbacks, or we can look at the big picture, stay engaged, grow our influence as a voting bloc, and take over the party infrastructure from the ground-up. The Republican Liberty Caucus has been a leader in working well with established GOP interests and making a difference, especially here in Minnesota.
While it’s exciting to focus on big elections, and also very important (particularly this year with a certain candidate who I’ll refrain from naming), it’s just as necessary to stay engaged on a permanent and localized level. The former requires the latter. Winning demands ground-up organizing, not central planning. Yes; markets in everything.
By being a happy warrior activist who stays principled but engages legislators and other Republicans with kindness, you can make a difference. I see involvement with the GOP as less of a hostile takeover, and more of filling a market void. Many more established members of the GOP know that they need us. As I said before, the polling of my generation proves it. There’s so much that can be accomplished when you approach people in good faith and truly make yourself useful. If you’re involved with your local GOP, be helpful.
Build your credibility as a grassroots activist who brings people to the table. When you see a battle truly worth fighting, then you’ll have enough cache to express your concerns and be taken seriously. When you scream about not voting any time you don’t get what you want, you’ll be relegated to preaching to a choir of ten on Facebook, and by that point, all of the politicians who may have read your statuses will have unfriended you anyway.
I know that this can be a fine line to walk. How can you be effective within a corrupted infrastructure without selling out? It’s a tough question, but that’s why the people in this room are here. You’re the ones who can change that infrastructure, make it more liberty friendly, and in the end, attract better candidates. No politician will run for office without a base, just like no company will sell a product without a market. You can either participate as an informed and influential consumer, or opt out then wonder why everything you’re being sold sucks.
I know everyone in this room is here because you want to make a difference. What you’re doing today, and what you’ve done in the past, is a major component of that. The question of what you’ll do in the future remains to be seen, but the best advice I can give is, do it with a smile. Far too often, I see liberty activists who think being nasty to established interests will somehow get them to either yield their power or change their ways. It’s an old cliché, but you truly will catch more flies with honey. It’s possible to be pleasant to people you disagree with. That’s ultimately the best way to influence them.
So keep up the fight, be the liberty consumers in the market of politics, then profit. Thank you.