My grandfather would start it, every time. Discussing the news, he’d eventually get so frustrated that he’d mutter, “The only good Democrat…” and my Dad would chime in and finish, “…is a dead Democrat.” My other grandfather served as state chairman of the Republican Party, and his vanity license plates read “GOP-1.” Previously, he’d been a state senator. Republican, of course. And that’s how it was: We were Republicans. Midwestern Republicans — quiet but firm.
But deep in my heart, I knew we were wrong. I discovered the Libertarians in sixth grade, during the 1980 election, and I liked what I saw.
Our class sponsored a school-wide mock election, and my very first political act was that day giving a speech in favor of Libertarian Presidential Candidate Ed Clark. Clark won exactly two votes that day at my exclusive private elementary school. But he went on to have the best-ever (and still) showing by a Libertarian candidate. Ronald Reagan of course won, and I hid my Libertarian self deep in the closet. It was Morning in America, and I wasn’t going to miss the bandwagon. Besides, Reagan was talking about actually winning the Cold War — but the Libertarians didn’t seem all that interested in spreading liberty. It was our first falling out.
By the autumn of ’88, I was a sophomore at the University of Missouri and decided it was time to come out of the closet. There were fliers all over campus for a meeting of college Libertarians at a local pub — what a perfect place to reveal myself to the public. And how. The local NBC affiliate showed up to interview us, all six or seven. My coming out party included a brief appearance on the ten o’clock news. After, I put a “Ron Paul for President sticker on the back of my Ford Escort, opposite the other sticker which read, “F*ck Authority,” only with all the vowels intact.
The next day, my very Republican political science professor, Rick Hardy, asked me privately, “I didn’t know we lost you.” I told him, “I’m not lost, but I am trying to nudge you guys in the right direction.” The semester before, I’d worked with Dr. Hardy on his giant mock ’88 election, as the campaign manager for Pete DuPont. He should have known then that I was “lost,” because I’d picked for myself the most libertarian, the most hopeless, of the entire Republican field.
Being a Libertarian was hard work, but I set right at it. I even went so far as to read the entire party platform. Pro-choice? Right on! Free trade? Hell, yes! Privatize all the schools? Start with mine! Abolish that Social Security Ponzi scheme? I was never going to see a dime, anyway! Bring all our troops home from Europe and Japan and South Korea and everywhere else and close half our embassies and cut defense spending at least in half and forget about enforcing freedom of the seas? Whoa, Nelly! “But,” I rationalized, “they don’t really mean all that stuff. A Libertarian president wouldn’t be that naive.”
But come election day, I held my nose, covered my eyes and pulled the lever for George HW Bush — no easy feat with only two hands. There was still a Cold War to be won. I could be a real Libertarian — we all would be! — once the Soviets caved in.
Almost exactly a year later, that’s exactly what happened. On November 9, 1989, the people of East Berlin took hammers and chisels and even their bare hands to that Wall. Soon, the governments of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, and even Romania had fallen — mostly peacefully. The peoples of Eastern Europe had liberated themselves from Communist oppression, and at long last I was free to throw off the last shackles of my Republican heritage.
I changed my party affiliation to Libertarian, smiling all the way back from the voter registrar’s office.
I spent the ’90s as a proud, loud, and argumentative Libertarian. I subscribed to Reason magazine as soon after stumbling across it in a store rack. Then, after moving down to San Francisco where I could really let it all hang out, I started buying every new issue of the even-more subversive Liberty. If Virginia Postrel’s glossy Reason was for inside-the-think-tank policy wonks, then the pulpy Liberty was for ponytailed radicals like me, living on the very edge of the nation. Reason made you feel smart. Liberty got you angry.
We had a good ten years together. Those years probably weren’t as fun for my friends, who got an earful of Libertarian cant every time politics came up. And I made sure politics came up often.
I voted for the Libertarian presidential candidate just once, in 1996 for Harry Browne. Andre Marrou’s ’92 campaign was uninspiring, and by 2000 it had become obvious that Browne had maybe not been entirely honest with the Party’s finances. But on every other place on the ballot, every time a candidate had an L after his name, I voted for him. I was changing the world, one losing candidate at a time.
It felt so good, so right, not to belong. Clinton’s little foreign interventions came and went, and I could scoff at them all. Why were we messing with these tiny countries of no account? Surely we had no national interests at stake. Haiti wasn’t aiming nuclear missiles at us, and Somalia wasn’t even a real country, just a spot on the map where other countries weren’t. I yawned through reports from the Kosovo War.
In 2000, I changed my party registration back to Republican for one reason, and one good Libertarian reason only: To vote against John McCain (and his statist threats of campaign finance reform) in the primary. I fully intended to switch back before the next general election.
Then we all woke up one morning to learn that airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and into the wooded hills of Pennsylvania. “Well, here’s a war even a good Libertarian like me can support.” We’d been attacked, directly, and we knew who the culprits were and where their protectors and sponsors were. We would go after them with such righteous fury that no one would dare strike New York City ever again.
Boy, was I wrong.
The angry folks at Liberty were mad at most everybody but Islamic terrorists. One even went so far as to denounce the Afghan War as “racist.” It was all imperialism this, and blowback that, and without a care in the world for protecting American lives, commerce, or, well, liberty. Then Postrel turned over Reason to Nick Gillespie, who seemed more interested in presenting libertarianism as something hip, arch, fun — and ultimately unserious. Such should have been no surprise, coming from the former editor of a magazine called Suck.
I felt abandoned, betrayed, by my comrades. By my former comrades.
If Libertarians couldn’t agree about the clear-cut case for war in Afghanistan, you can imagine how Iraq must have divided us. I had to stop reading Liberty months before my subscription finally, mercifully, ran out. Blogger friends of mine stopped emailing me. Ron Paul, whose name once graced the back of my first car, started sounding to me, less like a principled defender of American liberty, and more like a suited-up reject from the Summer of Love.
I stopped voting Libertarian for local candidates, leaving lots of blanks on my ballot. Next year, I’m not sure which party I’ll support for President, much less which candidate. From here, it looks as if the Republicans have become wrong and corrupt, the Democrats are stupid and corrupt, and the Libertarians have gone plain crazy.
It was easy tearing up my LP membership card. It’s quite a bit harder to find something to replace it. But I know this much: There’s no going back. Maybe there’s just too little room for principle in such a violent world.
Then again, maybe leaving the Libertarians is like leaving the mob. Somewhere in the back of my mind there are echoes of Al Pacino. “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!”