A Party of Principles: An Interview with Nicholas Sarwark

At the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando, party chair Nicholas Sarwark and Aya Katz sat down for a brief conversation about this year’s convention, the chairmanship, and the issues.

LibertyBuzz: How did you become chair of the Libertarian Party, and why do you want to continue in this position?

Nicholas Sarwark: I became chair of the Libertarian Party in Columbus in 2014 at the National Convention. I thought that some of the things about the party – the direction we were going – wasn’t the right thing to do, and it was time to step up. In the last two years, it’s become a much more transparent LNC. People work together better. The culture is more congenial. We’ve made great strides as far as being on track to get fifty state ballot access again for the first time since 2000. We have a really exciting presidential year, and I didn’t think it was right to step down in the middle of an election cycle like that. I think there is still a lot of good work to be done as far as building up the state affiliates, putting us in a stronger spot for 2018 and 2020. And so I’d like, if the delegates will let me, to continue doing that work.

LB: Do you think that there is anything in the Libertarian Party platform that is non-negotiable? Anything that a majority of the Libertarian Party members could not vote out of existence?

NS: There is the statement of principles at the beginning of the platform. It is only amendable by a seven eighths ( 7/8) vote of the delegation. And seven eighths, especially amongst Libertarians who don’t always agree, is a very difficult vote test to meet. So I would say the statement of principles can never really be deleted, not as a practical matter. As far as the platform itself, you know, that is up to the delegates at the convention every two years. They can change the platform. And really we put our trust in the fact that all those delegates are libertarian party members who have been long time libertarians who fundamentally believe that everyone should have the right to pursue happiness in any way they choose as long as they don’t hurt anyone else and they don’t take their stuff. And so, as long as all those delegates are coming to  the convention with that idea of personal freedom over government control, I think the platform is safe. I think it’s safe from changing into something that doesn’t mean anything or does not really get to the core essence of Libertarianism. Our safeguards are not in the rules. It’s in the people and the party. We all come together committed to this idea of making a country that is more free for our children and our grandchildren.

LB: Do you think that we all agree about forced association?

NS: I don’t know if we all agree on it, but I think that as long as that disagreement and that conversation remains respectful, and we’re talking about people, I think that it can be a productive conversation. One of the things that I tell people about Libertarianism that  is different from being one of the old parties, Democrats or Republicans, is that Libertarians really care about other people —  they believe in other people. And sometimes that caring and that belief will lead you in different directions as you mull over these issues, and sometimes they’re very tricky issues where you have competing rights and freedoms. And so  I don’t know whether or not any kind of forced association will end up in the platform. I know that  it is part of the law that has been there for while. From my perspective as chair, that is not the fight I want to have. I want a fight to end the racist war on drugs; I want have a fight to bring our troops home. I don’t want to fight on grounds that the old party want to fight about when they just want to have these culture wars. The reason we have culture wars in this country is because people get to control your life. They get to control the government and they get to tell you how to live. And Libertarians want to take us to a place where we are not using the government to bully other people. Then it does not matter if we disagree on these issues. Because I’m not going to force you to live like me, and you’re not going to force me to live like you. And so it’s okay to disagree, and we don’t have to be disagreeable about it.

LB: This is an exciting year for the Libertarian Party because there are droves of disaffected members of the two major parties who are looking for a third party. With so many new members, do you see any danger of the party being co-opted by people who at heart are not really “libertarian”?

NS: I think it’s always a danger. I used to live in Colorado. In Colorado, it’s a beautiful state, very freedom oriented, lots of outdoor activities, low taxes. It’s just great. What would happen is people would move in from California, because Colorado is great, and then they would start wanting to make Colorado look more like California. One of the things that’s made it fairly unsuccessful in Colorado, and I think  is a thing that would work in  the Libertarian party, that the Libertarian Party, at this point, is the only ideological party. We have our core principles. We have something that defines us. So I think the culture of the party is strong enough that we can accept these political refugees that are coming in, without being shifted off of our core principles. The culture of the party is vital. We will have conversations with these people. They will bring in new perspectives on things we haven’t had as much exposure to, and that’s healthy as long as you know who you are. If you are comfortable with what you believe, it makes it easier to have that open dialogue. I don’t think that there is a risk of anyone co-opting the Libertarian Party as long as the Libertarian Party is for the libertarians.

LB: You have said in the past that at the Libertarian Party National Convention, every delegate is a superdelegate. What does that mean, beyond the fact that they are not bound in their choice of candidates prior to the convention?

NS: When I say every delegate is a superdelegate, I don’t mean every delegate is a corporate crony or an elected democratic official who gets a political favor and gets to decide for other people what their candidate should be, even though no one elected them. That’s not what I mean. What I mean that we all have the same power as delegates. I am a delegate from Arizona. So I have a right and a responsibility to  come to convention  and vote my conscience, vote for the people I believe in, vote for the people I believe best represent the party, vote for the important  issues in the platform and what is it that we want them to put out there. And rather than having our delegates come in and be forced to vote for whoever won  in a primary or in a  caucus, in our platform it’s explicit: no delegates can be bound like that. We prohibit the idea that you have to vote for this person because the majority said so. The Libertarian Party is the party of the individual and of individualists. And that respect for people’s freedom of conscience is so great that it’s just anathema that we would say that all the delegates from Colorado would have to vote for John Smith for president on the first ballot,  because somebody else told them they should.

AK: In the Libertarian Party , the nominee for Vice President is not chosen by the presidential nominee candidates, in the sense that a running mate is selected by the convention for the presidential nominee. Do you think this in any way handicaps the party’s nominee for president from making political deals or forming coalitions?

NS: The bylaws are set up in a way that I think prioritizes party unity and unity of the overall party over the power of a particular presidential nominee to get the person that they want to run with. It was set up that way explicitly. So what happens is the presidential nomination is completed, and the presidential nominee gets five minutes to address the delegates after vice presidential nominations are closed, to tell the delegates: “This is the person I want to run with.”   The delegates take that to heart, but they are free to say if we run this guy without this guy that’s going to cause an unbalanced ticket. Oftentimes presidential candidates get their vice presidential choice, but not always. It’s a safeguard. It’s in case of emergency, break that glass and make sure we put somebody else to balance that ticket. I have seen the presidential and vice presidential candidates end up running a  separate campaign almost. They are not running the same message. Whenever you do that, you break the glass, when the vice presidential candidates are not the ones that the presidential candidate has chosen, you are creating friction in that campaign. And how that presidential campaign chooses to deal with that friction is kind of up to them.

LB: What is your best case scenario for the Libertarian Party this year? Is it just the old 15% in the general election, or are we looking to control Congress and put our man in the White House? Are there intermediate goals that involve organizing on the state level?

NS: Best case scenario is I have to go to the inauguration party. I mean, that’s the best case scenario! It’s not outside of the realm of possibility. If you look at voters’ numbers in this country, the largest majority of people in this country, the largest voting block is the block of  people who don’t vote. The next largest block of voters are the block of people who have chosen not to affiliate with either of the two old parties. And if you can get a large chunk of both of those voter blocks, then you can totally win the presidency as a Libertarian. This is the presidential election where  due to the negatives in the old parties more people are willing to make that bold choice than have been in the past. Because in the past, people have gone: “I don’t like the Republican or Democrat parties, but I’ll keep doing what I used to do.” But this year it’s different. If you are a football fan… My wife is a Washington Redskins fan. So when Dallas and Philly play, because they are in the division, you wish there was a way that both of them could lose. Because you don’t like either team. And you don’t want to pick. You wish that a meteor would hit the stadium. And that is the opportunity we are giving  to the American people this election cycle: you can vote for the meteor. This is the way that you can tell the old parties: “No, absolutely not! I don’t support you! I don’t like your ideas. I don’t like the candidates. I want something better.”  We are going to offer the American people something better than that. And so the ceiling on that is up to the American people. As it should be.

LB: Do you think there is an opportunity this year for us to break out of the two party system and have three or more viable parties? Or do you think that with the nomination of Trump the GOP will be finished and we’ll have two parties again, only this time the Libertarian party will be one of them?

NS: I think in the short term we will have three viable parties. And I think that in the long term… You know, I started using the phrase older parties, because I don’t  like saying other things about them. And it’s accurate: they’re older. But it’s also accurate, because if you look at the composition of their membership, they’re older. Those parties are not replacing their voters who are passing on with new, younger voters. Younger voters are not coming in.  One or both of them will be displaced within the next ten, twenty years. Those parties are resting on the laurels of past achievements. Everyone I have talked to who has come over from the Republican or the Democrat Parties, they often  say “I didn’t leave. They left me.” Those parties are resting on  rhetoric, you know,  in the Republicans’ case, from Goldwater or Reagan. Thirty or forty  years ago somebody said something good.  They haven’t governed like that in ten, twenty years. What do they do? Take taxpayer money and use it to give favors out to their friends.

LB: What advice would you give delegates to Libertarian Party  National convention on how to behave in a way that will achieve the best possible outcome for the Libertarian Party?

NS:  So this is likely to be the biggest convention the Libertarian Party has ever had. This is likely to be one of the biggest opportunities the Libertarian Party  has ever had. And I have been to every national convention since 2000 in Anaheim. And the choices that the delegates have for presidential candidates this round are the best and the toughest choices that I’ve ever seen. I am so happy  that I get to be the chair and I have to be neutral. But the delegates have to look at having lots of good candidates who all have a strategy to move our agenda forward. They are all good candidates. The delegates really have to think what’s the balance between the libertarian principles that the candidates espouse and their ability to deliver the message.  Do you take a really great message with an imperfect messenger? Do you take a less great message with a perfect messenger? Do you take someone who has a balance of those two things? What is the balance between the message and the ability to deliver it? Do you take the candidate with the best message or the candidate with the best ability to deliver that message.That’s what the delegates have to do. Who do you think will make the Libertarian Party most successful?Who gives us that breakout shot. There are a lot of delegates I’ve talked to who have a lot of different opinions about it. Listen closely to the debate. The Libertarian Party is ultra retail. There will be about a thousand delegates plus or minus making these decisions. Your presidential candidates are here. One of them is literally standing right over  there. You can meet them, you can talk to them, you can ask them what their views are. So you can take advantage of that! Don’t get swept by the crowd. Think for yourself. That’s the Libertarian way!

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