1. Was it worth it?
by Harry Browne
Like other Libertarians, I was disappointed with the vote total we received.
I had hoped we would achieve two electoral breakthroughs:
Neither achievement would have created a turning point in American politics. But either one would have been a boost to Libertarian morale, probably would have accelerated the flow of new members to the Libertarian Party, and might have helped us command more media attention in the future.
As it turned out, we came pretty close to beating Pat Buchanan (getting 386,024 votes to his 448,750), despite his having roughly 15 times the money we had and probably more than 50 times the press coverage we had.
But we didn’t come anywhere close to getting a million votes. Any hope of it went up in smoke when the closeness of the race between George Bush and Al Gore became the focal point of press coverage during the final weeks of the campaign. The result was a much lower vote than expected for Ralph Nader, for Pat Buchanan, and for us.
THE WASTED VOTE SYNDROME STRIKES AGAIN
How much were we affected by the perceived closeness of the race?
A great deal, I’m afraid.
The Clinton-Gore administration generated such hatred among many small-government people that a great many of them would have done anything to keep Al Gore out of the White House. I’ve received a number of emails from people who say they voted Libertarian in 1996, but couldn’t bring themselves to do so in 2000 — for fear that not voting for Bush would help elect Gore.
It isn’t just Republicans who felt that way. A somewhat prominent California Libertarian who has been in the LP since the 1970s sent a message to his email list that said in part:
To that Libertarian our getting a million votes and beating Pat Buchanan were far less important than keeping Al Gore out of the White House.
For the life of me, I don’t understand how people can hope they will ever get any better choices than they’re getting now from the Republicans and Democrats if they keep choosing the “meaningful alternative” or the “lesser of two evils.” If you’ll vote for them despite what they do, what incentive do they have to offer you more of what you really want?
WHAT WE HAVE
Now we have George Bush in the White House promoting greater intrusions into education, health care, charity, and dozens of other areas of society. I can understand it if you dislike Al Gore, but thinking the minor differences between Gore and Bush will affect your life significantly is simply beyond me.
And if a Libertarian can be inspired to throw his vote away on the lesser of two perceived evils, imagine the incentive for someone who’s been a Democrat or Republican all his life.
Of course, it’s our job to help people see things differently. And recognizing the hurdle posed by the close race, I made it a point in all my appearances during the final month of the campaign to bear down on the need to vote Libertarian if we are going to have real change in the future. Obviously, I didn’t do a good enough job.
I’ve read an analysis of the campaign that maintains that, because we didn’t do any better in states that were very one-sided either for Gore or Bush, the “wasted vote” syndrome wasn’t the cause of our lower vote total. Anyone who lives in a state where his vote wouldn’t tip the election one way or the other would have freely voted Libertarian if that’s what he really wanted. The fact that so few people chose to vote for us supposedly demonstrates that virtually no one likes what we’re offering.
That argument doesn’t hold up, however. The average voter doesn’t study political websites, read detailed analyses of the campaign, watch CNN and C-SPAN, or in any other way stay abreast of the fine points of a presidential campaign. All he knew was that the news broadcasts were saying this would be one of the closest presidential races in history.
He may live in a state like Nevada (that went almost 2-to-1 for Bush) or a state like New York (that voted overwhelmingly for Gore), but he still thought he must vote for Bush or Gore in order to keep a worse alternative out of the White House.
Not only were most voters ignorant of statewide polls, many of them (I was surprised to find out during the campaign) didn’t even understand how the electoral vote works. It was only after the post-election recounts repeatedly explained how Bush won in spite of Gore’s larger popular vote that those people understood the significance of a statewide total.
IS THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN IRRELEVANT?
Given our small vote total, a natural question arises: was the presidential campaign worth the trouble? Was it worth the money donated? Was it worth the time and energy expended by the campaign staff, by the thousands of volunteers, and by me?
In the December-January issue of Republican Liberty, the newsletter of the Republican Liberty Caucus, editor Thomas D. Walls wrote:
Are LP presidential campaigns irrelevant?
I don’t think so.
During 2000, I appeared on 53 national television shows and 90 national radio shows — plus 80 local TV shows and 375 local radio shows. I had hundreds of press and Internet interviews, and I gave dozens and dozens of speeches.
Those appearances told millions of Americans that there was something well beyond the big-government proposals of George Bush and Al Gore. People heard that it was possible to have an America quite unlike anything they had seen in their lifetimes.
It is an America in which the government stays out of your life — and government is so small that you don’t pay any income tax at all. An America in which you’re completely free from the oppressive and wasteful Social Security tax. An America in which the government doesn’t foster gang warfare and violence through an insane War on Drugs. An America in which government doesn’t interfere in any way with your ability to defend yourself, your family, and your property.
It is an America of charity hospitals, free clinics, doctors who make house calls, low-cost health insurance accessible to almost everyone, and hospital stays that don’t bankrupt you — in short, the kind of health-care system we once had before the government systematically destroyed it with Medicare and Medicaid.
If there had been no Libertarian presidential candidate, how many times would Americans have heard ideas like that on television and radio?
That’s right: not once. No one else was describing possibilities that go beyond the narrow, depressingly pessimistic choices offered by Democrats and Republicans.
No one else was on TV and radio across the country proposing to reduce government dramatically. No one else was giving specific examples of government failing to achieve what it promises, or explaining Libertarian proposals to large audiences.
Having a Libertarian candidate lets millions of Americans know that there’s a large number of people who think as they do — who want to get government out of their lives, who want them to be free to live as they think best, not as George Bush or Al Gore thinks they should. Such a campaign gives hope — no matter how faint — to people who had long since given up on the idea that anything would ever change or that government could ever be cut down to size.
It’s true that LP officials appear on TV and radio outside of presidential campaigns (and so do I). But those appearances are very rare compared to those generated by a presidential campaign. More important, a non-campaign appearance is linked almost always to a specific issue of the day — and usually an issue in which the Libertarian has to argueagainst a change in the status quo. During the presidential campaign, most of the time I was able to raise the issues I wanted, I was able to talk about a better world that would come from positive change toward truly smaller government, and I was able to draw people to our website where they could learn more about libertarian ideas.
In addition to the media appearances, a presidential campaign contributes to the growth of the libertarian movement in other ways.
We had over 1.5 million different visitors to the website — people who learned that there’s a better life possible than what the Republicans or Democrats are offering. Many of them came back over and over to become new members of the LP or the libertarian movement.
And then there were the many speeches and media appearances that our vice-presidential candidate Art Olivier made. He represented our ideas articulately, persuasively, and passionately.
Lastly, we should recognize the help that all this coverage gave to local LP candidates.
The more coverage the presidential ticket generates, the more votes accrue to down-ticket Libertarian candidates. Many people hear of Libertarians only through the presidential campaign, and they are persuaded by libertarian ideas. But they have learned to detest one or both of the two major presidential candidates. And they feel constrained to vote for the major candidate they detest the least, in order to keep out of the White House the one they detest the most.
In most cases they have no such strong feelings about Congressional, state, or local candidates. In fact, I think most voters have never even heard of any of the candidates for most lower offices. So they have no emotional urge to defeat any particular person. They are perfectly free to vote Libertarian in these races if they’ve become convinced that Libertarian ideas are the closest to what they want. The more visible and persuasive the Presidential candidate is, the better local Libertarians do.
Here is one of many similar emails I received after the campaign:
We should recognize that no local LP candidate is going to be invited to appear on Hannity & Colmes, Meet the Press, National Public Radio, or Politically Incorrect. And yet it is the national TV and radio shows that give an aura of respectability and plausibility to our ideas — that in an unspoken way tell the voter that our ideas are not beyond the fringe.
Happily, local Libertarian candidates reached a new record in votes received. I don’t think those kind of vote totals could be achieved without a presidential campaign.
Although we didn’t get the vote total we wanted, we did get a great deal of exposure.
Here are excerpts from just a few of the many emails I received from new Libertarians:
None of these people would have heard of the LP or libertarian ideas if there had been no LP presidential campaign.
So was the campaign irrelevant? I don’t think so.
What would be irrelevant would be a political campaign in which the only proposals offered would make things worse — greater government intervention in health care, in schooling, in charity, in social control. Without a Libertarian presidential candidate, millions of Americans would have believed that the only alternatives on any issue are a Democratic plan to increase government and a Republican plan to increase government.
VOTES & WINNING
No, we didn’t get a lot of votes, because Americans knew we had no chance to win now. But millions of Americans got something better than a Republican President: the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be this way. And if we keep putting these better proposals in front of the American people, someday we may well win.
No, we Libertarians aren’t winning significant electoral victories yet.
But neither is anyone else who believes in individual liberty, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and small government.
It’s no victory to elect a man who wants to increase federal subsidies to the destructive government school system, who wants to enlarge the disastrous government health-care system, who wants to add religious charities to the list of institutions hooked on government aid and control, and who claims that government (an agency of coercion and bureaucracy) can be compassionate so long as he’s the one running it.
If “insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result,” why do so many people continue to support Republicans or Democrats — thinking this will somehow lead to smaller government?
The question isn’t whether you want to be on a “winning side” whose prize for winning is to get more government — nor which of the two old-party candidates is the “meaningful alternative” or the lesser of the two evils. The question is whether we want to do what we can to make it possible to elect a Libertarian President and a Libertarian Congress in the not-too-distant future.
THE LIBERTARIAN FUTURE
In later chapters of this report, I’ll discuss some of the things I believe can put us in a better position to reach the American people and induce them to vote for us — even if they believe we can’t win.
I still believe we have good reasons to be optimistic about the future. And I’ll give some of my reasons during the course of this report.
The war hasn’t been lost. I don’t even know that we’ve lost a particular battle.
I do know that we are the only party offering to set people free, the only party offering dramatic improvements in the life of almost every American.
With that on our side, there has to be a way to win eventually.
I feel proud and privileged to have been chosen to represent such a party in 1996 and 2000. And I thank you deeply for the opportunity.