It started out with great promise and toward the end there was a crescendo of excitement, but we went home completely let down. Ultimately, Libertarian Party or not, the last convention was politics as usual.
I am not merely disappointed that my chosen candidate for presidential nominee was not selected. I am not simply disenchanted that some of the planks of the party platform do not align with my beliefs. I am dismayed that the system let most of us down, and that without some kind of major reform to the system itself, we can never hope for a different outcome. The Libertarian Party National Convention in Orlando this year was not all that different from the Republican Party National Convention or the Democratic Party National Convention during any other year – we were subject to forces outside the party that have contrived over many decades to make the two old parties virtually indistinguishable. Now, in the general election, we can choose between Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, and if we want to protest, we can choose Gary Johnson and his running mate, Bill Weld. Maybe this year the Libertarian Party will achieve the 15% needed to be allowed into the national debate, but it will be thanks to how disillusioned the electorate is with the other two parties – not because anybody is enchanted with us. Clinton, Trump and Johnson are not all that different. Not one of them is a constitutionalist. Not one of them really believes in limited enumerated powers for the Federal government. And all three espouse progressive ideals and statist implementations of force against dissenters, though they may differ on some of the details.
But let’s start at the beginning. The beginning was great! My first task, before the Convention actually began, was to interview the Party Chair, Nicholas Sarwark, for LibertyBuzz. I found our Chair in the lobby, and he was accessible, courteous, helpful and very energetic. I came away from the interview with a great deal of respect for Nicholas Sarwark – and with a better understanding of how our system works and in what way it is different from those of the other parties.
All our delegates are superdelegates, Sarwark explained. This may at first sound like meaningless bombast – if they are all super then none are, right? – but there is great significance to this phrase. Unlike Republican delegates and most Democrat delegates, our delegates are none of them bound to adhere to the wishes expressed by the voters in the primary held in their state. Each is free to vote his or her conscience – and they may change their minds at any point during the convention for reasons that they need not ever explain to anybody else. As delegates, we are free! Entirely, totally free! The Libertarian Party is the party of individualism. We don’t believe in democracy. We believe in the right to opt out of anything our conscience tells is wrong. I like that!
There is just one problem with this set up: how do we know that our delegates won’t betray us? How do we know that they are at heart libertarian?
I came to the Libertarian National Convention as a delegate from Missouri. I was recommended for my slot by Thomas R. Fiedler II, who is a state committee member and member of the Missouri Libertarian Party executive committee. It was no secret that I supported Austin Peteresen for presidential nominee, but before being allowed to serve, I had to be vetted by the Missouri Party Chair, Greg Tlapek, who wanted to make sure that I was a true, blue Libertarian and not just an Austin Petersen fan. At the time, I thought this was a little odd, but in retrospect I see the wisdom in Tlapek’s inquiries. It is very easy to become a Libertarian Party delegate. You need not attend the local District Convention or the State Convention. You can come in at the very last moment, and if there are still vacancies in delegate slots, and your State Chair approves, you can become a delegate to the National Convention without ever having served in any other capacity. There are no dues to pay! There are no years and years of kowtowing to your District Chair. Most years, because we are a smaller party, there are plenty of delegate slots that may not go filled unless we follow this procedure. So it is very easy for outsiders to infiltrate the party and turn it into their own mouthpiece.
To ease Greg Tlapek’s concerns, I told him how I had read Ayn Rand when I was a teenager, tried to attend Objectivist meetings, learned about the Libertarians in Arlington, Texas and worked tirelessly to try to unite Trekkies, Blake’s Seven fans, anarchists and Objectivists to achieve some kind of meaningful coalition, while attending the Republican Party District and State Conventions and practicing law in Texas in the 1980s. I explained that I had been involved with the Republicans here in Missouri, but only because I wanted to help Ron Paul. After Paul dropped out of the race – or rather was pushed out — I voted for the Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson. And my friend Kathy Freeze and I tried to start a Libertarian group in Texas County, Missouri. For this, we had reached out to Greg Tlapek long before either of us had heard of Austin Petersen. Tlapek suddenly remembered.
That’s how I proved to our Missouri Party Chair, Greg Tlapek, that I was a real Libertarian. And that’s how I came to be talking to our National Party Chair, Nicholas Sarwark, in the lobby of the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, Florida. After the interview was over, Sarwark introduced me to Austin Petersen, who happened to be standing a few feet away from us.
“Hi, Aya!” Petersen said with great enthusiasm, a big smile on his face. Though we had never met before, and though I was not wearing a name tag yet, and Sarwark had only identified me as a supporter and not by name, Petersen remembered me from the endorsement video I had made. We sat down to talk at the same table that Sarwark and I had just vacated. Naturally, I brought up letters of marque and privateering, since my original interest in Petersen was sparked by his statement on privateering in the first debate hosted by John Stossel. We talked about the Neutrality Act and how it needed to be repealed, and I discussed Jean Laffite with him – a favorite of mine from the War of 1812 about whom I had written two novels. At first, I was hard pressed to show Petersen that Laffite was not a pirate, but then when I conceded that he was a smuggler, Petersen relaxed and agreed that we Libertarians have nothing against smuggling. “Sure,” he said. “Rum. Cigars.” And he smiled.
“The Embargo Act…” I started to say.
“That was Jefferson’s, wasn’t it?” Petersen asked.
“Yes! Not very libertarian of him, was it?”
Petersen agreed. “He was less libertarian after he was elected president than before,” he said. I was impressed that he knew that! Some people just worship Jefferson without reservation, if they support a limited government, but Austin Petersen knows his history!
So I went away from that first meeting with my candidate feeling very confident that he was the right man for the job and equally confident that he would win. He had to! All of us, both at the convention and back home, were depending on him!
The next day, I was present in the Austin Petersen hospitality suite when Jeff Carson, the campaign manager, gave us some directions on how to proceed. It was hard to know exactly how many delegates were backing us at the moment, as nobody was bound, and many had not yet arrived at the convention. We thought we were doing well, and it seemed as if we were running neck to neck with Johnson at least as to those delegates who were then present, but our goal was to convert as many delegates as we could to Petersen, while persuading those whose first choice was some other candidate – McAfee, Perry, Feldman and the others– to vote for Petersen on the second ballot.
We were fairly certain that nobody would have a majority on the first ballot, and we were prepared to go through several rounds of voting before coming out on top. Everyone was buoyant, energetic and very confident that Austin Petersen would be the presidential nominee.
I was present in the suite when Austin Petersen gave an interview with CNN, and I was there on the floor the next day to vote on the party platform. Several times during the voting, Austin Petersen sat down right next to me.
And here is where I have some criticism that may be unique to me about the way we were proceeding. It was as if there was no recognition by the party of the different and separate roles of the state and Federal governments.
Issues like abortion and the death penalty are highly divisive, because entering life and exiting life are precisely those aspects of reality that don’t work in a totally consensual way. We are the party of individualism. We are the party that requires consent for everything. That’s why we all agree that taxation is theft. If we don’t consent to something, it should not be done to us. The libertarian way works for fully independent individuals who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves. Grey areas show up at the periphery, where not quite rational and not quite independent beings – though admittedly fully human and admittedly very much alive – dwell among us and even inside our own bodies. Can we expel them if we do not consent to support them? It’s really a little like asking which is your favorite Dr. Seuss book: Horton Hears a Who or Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose? Despite my enthusiastic support of Austin Petersen, I don’t agree with him on everything. He likes Horton. I like Thidwick. He is consistent in his stance – “a person’s a person no matter how small” – and I am consistent in mine, that no person, no matter how small, gets a free ride on my antlers, unless I agree. I can respect Petersen’s position, and he can respect mine, because we have a constitution and separate state and Federal governments. I want Austin Petersen elected President of the United States, because he understands that as president, he has no jurisdiction over issues that belong to the state, such as the penalty for murder or laws about when life begins and ends. But he will see to it that Federal money is not used to finance anybody else’s medical care, including abortions. He would end Federal funding for Planned Parenthood, while legalizing over-the-counter sales of birth control. And I am very happy with that.
But when we voted on the National Libertarian Platform, it almost felt as if we were contemplating some kind of centralized government, where issues such as life and death had to be agreed upon by all. There was a lot of disharmony caused by questions we should not have been considering in the first place. Those issues should be taken up by the Libertarian Party Affiliates in each state separately.
Our Founding Fathers disagreed completely on questions of great moral significance. If they had had to agree about slavery, for instance, in 1776, then we would have had the Civil War before we ever had our Republic, and the British would have won! The constitution is an ingenious document that allows people to agree to disagree about matters of conscience, while working together to fight off a common enemy. On all issues that we don’t agree upon, we should leave it up to the states to decide, each according to its own preferences. But when it comes to our common enemy, the Federal government in the hands of Statists, we should all stand united, because today’s Federal government is a thousand times more oppressive than the British were in 1776. And that’s why I think the National Libertarian Party should have no plank on abortion or the death penalty – except to say those are state issues for our affiliates to decide for themselves.
As the convention proceeded, more and more people came in who had not been there at the start. I believe that on May 29 people arrived for the express purpose of voting for Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, people who had shown no interest in our platform, had not attended any of the debates and were not open to any kind of discussion of the issues. The way the Libertarian Party is set up, who shows up on the day of the big vote can decide everything, and it is possible for delegates to be recruited from outside the party on short notice if their state chair approves them. I think we may have been outnumbered by people who were Libertarian in name only.
On the day of the vote for the presidential nominee, I was expecting we would have a fight on our hands, but I still thought we would win. Gary Johnson had bombed in each and every one of his debates, including the last one in which he blamed free enterprise for the loss of jobs in the coal industry. He had earlier spoken in favor of forced association in the famous Nazi cake debacle, and he was endorsing a vice presidential candidate who was for gun control and had blocked ballot access for the Libertarian Party in his state. There was no way any Libertarian delegation was going to vote for him, we thought. He was not libertarian about the economy, he was not libertarian about second amendment rights, he was tone deaf to the core beliefs of our party, and so he was bound to lose. At least, he would, if Libertarians voted their conscience.
We knew Austin Petersen would not get a majority on the first ballot, because many people were supporting John McAfee and Darryl Perry and even Dr. Marc Allan Feldman. These were all viable libertarian candidates, and we understood why someone might want to vote for them. But we had spoken to the delegates, and they said that if their favorite candidate dropped out, they would vote for Austin Petersen. This seemed good enough. We were all agreed we would prefer to have a second choice candidate with core libertarian values rather than see Gary Johnson win. If McAfee had gotten more votes than Petersen, then I think Austin Petersen would have dropped out, and then I would have voted for John McAfee along with all the other Petersen delegates. That’s how responsible delegates behave. We wanted to choose a real libertarian to represent our party in the national presidential election. We did not want another Statist.
The first ballot was cast. Our group voted for Petersen. Gary Johnson did not get a majority, although he did get the highest number of votes, and this meant that if all those who had voted for someone other than Johnson had chosen to unite behind one candidate, then we — the real libertarians – and not Johnson, would have had a majority. We did not necessarily think this would happen on the second ballot, but we did not expect to lose so fast. We knew that our candidate was speaking with the other candidates in hopes of working out a deal.
Contrary to what we had hoped, John McAfee did not step down. On the second ballot, his supporters continued to vote for him regardless of how it would hurt the party. Most of the Feldman supporters switched to Gary Johnson. A few Petersen supporters bailed ship, though we did gain some votes. And so on the second ballot, Gary Johnson was the party’s presidential nominee.
Those of us who were supporting Austin Petersen were devastated. However, Petersen was a true gentleman, conceding victory to Johnson, offering to support him, and showing a token of his esteem by gifting Johnson with a valuable replica of George Washington’s flintlock. But, Petersen said, he could not support Governor Johnson’s pick of a running mate, Bill Weld, and so he was endorsing Alicia Dearn.
We were all prepared to vote for Alicia Dearn as the Libertarian Party’s Vice Presidential nominee, but before we had a chance, Dearn, instead of giving her prepared speech as a VP candidate, called Bill Weld to the podium and asked him to promise all of us assembled there on the convention floor that he would not betray us.
I turned to Thomas R. Fielder II, then sitting to my right, and asked: “Is she endorsing Weld?”
Fiedler replied: “I don’t know what she’s doing.”
Weld, standing at the podium next to Alicia Dearn, told us that he was now a “Libertarian for Life”, something he had said before in his own speech. From the floor, many voices called out in unison: “But will you betray us?”
Weld kept refusing to answer the question, reiterating the same tired statement about being a “Libertarian for Life”.
People called out: “Say: ‘I will not betray you!’”
When pressed again to promise not to betray us, Weld clarified that if not leaving the Libertarian Party was what we meant by not betraying us, he would not betray us.
Of course, that is not what we meant. We are libertarians with a lower case l first, and party members second. If we were the sort of people who play to win no matter the price, we would have been members of one of the old parties. We are the party of principles, and betraying us does not mean leaving the party. Betraying us means scuttling our rights as individuals to do whatever we want as long as it hurts no one else. Ron Paul left the party to run as a Republican, and nobody thought he’d betrayed us. He still adhered to libertarian values. We knew that Bill Weld did not believe in libertarian core values of individual rights. He could stay a Libertarian Party member for life – and turn the Libertarian Party into a Statist party, just like the Democrats and the Republicans. And so, of course, he would betray us.
We knew we could no longer count on Alicia Dearn. At this point, most of the delegates who were real libertarians attempted to do what we should have done in the presidential race – we tried to band together. When we saw that Larry Sharpe was the most successful rival to the Weld nomination, we all voted for Sharpe, whether we were excited about him as a candidate or not. It was no longer about getting what we wanted. It was all about stopping Weld. It was close. But still we lost. And Bill Weld joined Gary Johnson on our party’s ticket.
Later we heard that Gary Johnson threw away the flintlock that Austin Petersen had given him as a token of his support. Someone saw him do this, retrieved the gun and gave it back to Austin Petersen. Some of his supporters did not believe Johnson had done this – until our presidential nominee, Governor Gary Johnson himself, admitted it!
Austin Petersen is honorable in defeat. In victory, Gary Johnson struck me as hardly presidential and far less a candidate of peace than one might have expected. If you are not able to accept a peace offering gracefully, then what sort of diplomat will you make? How will you unite our party? How will outsiders see us?
I had other moments of disillusionment later on in the proceedings. At one point, John McAfee scolded all the delegates for being white males. “Shame on you!” he said. I looked around. There were people of many different ethnicities sitting all around me. The Vice Presidential candidates included blacks and women. In the Colorado delegation sat Lily Tang Williams, born in China and an escapee from Maoist Communism, who is running for public office in her state. Like me, many delegates were women. What was McAfee thinking? He lost my support at that moment. He had been my second choice. I had wanted him to run with Austin Petersen. But when it came right down to it, he let Johnson and Weld win, by not banding together in a coalition of liberty loving people. And now he was scolding me for being a white male? Did he even see the delegates he was addressing?
Austin Petersen was the ray of sunshine in the great debacle, keeping our spirits up even in defeat. All was not lost. There would be other elections. But when I returned to Missouri, it was raining down hard, and it has rained without let up every day since. That’s how I feel now.
We did not support Austin Petersen because we were charmed by his looks or personality or speaking presence. We supported him because he was the right man for the job, and he espoused the right principles. For many of us, tomorrow – or the next presidential cycle – may come too late. In my Facebook feed yesterday, a local woman wrote about feeding her family on ramen noodles, because she could afford nothing else after paying for Obamacare. Savings account do not accumulate any interest to speak of, and this has been going on for almost two decades now, and there is constant inflation that steals everyone’s savings and leaves the elderly without their nest eggs. US Fish & Wildlife are going after domestic chimpanzees, while sending taxpayer money to Africa to fund conservation efforts there. Ranchers are moldering away in prison, and grazing rights have completely been eroded. Soon there will be no beef to buy for love or money. There are people in Federal prison who have committed no crime against anyone, but who will die as captives and will not live to see the next presidential election. America is in debt to China. We are teetering on the brink of an economic collapse. If that happens, there will almost certainly be a big, great war started to divert our attention. Can we really afford to wait another four years?
I am not saying don’t vote for Johnson/Weld. I am saying vote your conscience, whatever that may be. We are libertarians. We are the party of principles. We know better than to think that by compromising those principles we can hope to save our country.
To all those who helped make my trip to Orlando to support Austin Petersen’s candidacy possible, all I can say is: Thank you. And I’m sorry we could not do better — deeply, deeply sorry.