Is the Libertarian Party on the verge of collapse or rebirth? Depends who you ask
The takeover of the national Libertarian Party by a more extreme faction has divided the party and could have implications for the 2024 election
Chris Luchini has never understood why someone would call themselves a Democrat or a Republican. Despite his parents’ leftward lean, he became a registered Libertarian at age 18 and has only voted for Libertarians in the decades since.
“It’s the only political philosophy that has ever made any sense to me,” Luchini said in a phone call with the Deseret News. “‘Leave people alone and don’t steal their stuff’ seems like a pretty good basis for our society.”
But a recent upheaval in Libertarian Party leadership accompanied by a radical shift in its aims and tactics has alienated Luchini, as he worries the national party has taken an extremist turn. Others defend the changes, claiming they are necessary for the party to win at the local level and become a significant cultural force.
Luchini has spent decades as an active participant in state Libertarian politics. A former NASA scientist and business owner, he headed the 2016 presidential campaign of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in Los Alamos County, New Mexico, where he helped capture the highest percentage of votes for Johnson of any county in the country.
The 2016 election seemed like a high water mark for the Libertarian Party, not only in New Mexico where Johnson had been the Republican governor from 1995 to 2003, but nationally. In a race against two unpopular major party candidates, Johnson won 3.3% of the popular vote, nearly 4.5 million people, eclipsing the results of past Libertarian efforts, including his first presidential run in 2012.
But in the years since Johnson’s presidential bid, the national party has taken a turn of a different kind, culminating in the complete replacement of leadership in last May’s party convention by members of the Mises Caucus, a group formed in opposition to the “pragmatist” approach that got Johnson nominated for the first time a decade earlier.
The Mises Caucus’ aim of making the “Libertarian party libertarian again,” through brash messaging and a supposed return to its ideological roots, has won it the support of many within what is the United States’ third largest political party, including many new young members. But the pivot has also caused deep intra-party division over worries that the new strategy will transform the Libertarian Party into the ideal home for increasingly extreme and offensive ideas.
A Ron Paul Revolution 2.0
The Mises Caucus began as a Facebook group in 2017 in response to what the group’s creator, Michael Heise, saw as a national party that had wandered too far from its ideological roots, said Aaron Harris, a board member of the Mises PAC Executive Committee, in a phone call with the Deseret News. Harris said Heise believed that despite record-breaking turnout for the party in 2016, the pragmatic approach exemplified by Johnson and his controversial running mate, Bill Weld, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, had no lasting effect on the success of the Libertarian Party.
“The pitch was, ‘Hey, we’re more committed to these ideas than the Republicans are, but let’s not get too crazy and be too libertarian’,” Harris said of the Johnson-Weld campaign.
The model the Libertarian Party should be following, Harris said, was that of Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman who had run for president first as a Libertarian in 1988, and then again in 2008 and 2012 as a Republican. These latter two campaigns were noted for their surprising mobilization of young people and disaffected Republicans, as well as their lasting impact on spreading basic libertarian ideas such as eliminating the income tax, legalizing hard drugs and ending all military involvement in the Middle East. Heise wanted to bring this level of cultural energy and no-apologies messaging to its natural home in the Libertarian Party, said Harris.
“In a nutshell it was to bring the Ron Paul Revolution to the Libertarian Party and to have the (Libertarian Party) be the leader of the liberty movement,” Harris said, explaining that the Mises Caucus’ focus on bold, Paul-style messaging is intended to create a grassroots cultural movement that will get Libertarian candidates elected to local office where they can then nullify “unconstitutional, anti-liberty” laws coming from state and federal government.
Billed as a “Ron Paul Revolution 2.0,” the Mises Caucus was met with early defeats in 2018 and 2020. But a growing sense of frustration toward party leadership perceived as being pro-establishment during COVID-19 lockdowns and overly supportive of “woke” causes, such as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, paved the way for the Mises Caucus to gain support among rank and file party members, according to Kevin Vallier, a professor of political philosophy at Bowling Green State University who specializes in libertarianism.
“The elites got far away from the base, and the Mises Caucus was able to represent the base by representing a certain degree of outrage,” Vallier said. “In many ways it’s supposed to be a movement for a kind of consistent radicalism and one that is uninterested in bowing and scraping before anybody else.”
By 2022, the Mises Caucus had gained control of a majority of state parties, allowing them to sweep party leadership at May’s convention and make changes to the party platform, the most controversial being the removal of a statement condemning bigotry as “irrational and repugnant.” It was replaced with a line defending “the rights of every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or any other aspect of their identity.”
Some saw this move as making room for alt-right and nationalist elements to enter the party, while Harris said it was simply to make the statement “more clear and more libertarian” while avoiding the finger-pointing that comes along with a word like “bigot” whose meaning is always changing.
Party in turmoil
After the Mises Caucus takeover, several state parties attempted to sever ties, some successfully, with the Libertarian National Committee, including the Libertarian parties of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the party Luchini now chairs in New Mexico, which formally disaffiliated itself from the national committee on Aug. 25.
“You have conducted the business of the National Party in a manner that is unprofessional, incompetent, and unworthy of support,” Luchini declared in a letter to national chair, Angela McArdle, saying the committee had conspired “with a faction inimical to the principles of libertarianism,” imposing rules and adopting messaging that were “hostile to the principles for which the Libertarian Party was founded, serving no purpose other than to antagonize and embarrass.”
On Sept. 11, the State Central Committee of the Libertarian Party of Virginia voted 7-5 to dissolve itself, shutting down its website and returning donated funds, saying “the voice of the national party has been used to so thoroughly damage and denigrate the name and reputation of the Libertarian Party” that they could no longer effectively engage in candidate recruitment or public information campaigns.
The move was later rejected by other Virginia state party leaders who are working to reactivate the assets shut down or destroyed by the committee. They say the vote to dissolve the state party violated its governing documents and state law. The state party website has since been brought back online and the party remains affiliated with the national committee.
Though the actions of Libertarian Party leadership in New Mexico and Virginia may not represent the views of the majority of party membership, they show deep disagreement about what the future of the party should look like.
“You’ve got a national organization that wants to go in one direction and state parties that want to go in another direction,” said Andrew Koppelman, professor of law, political science, and philosophy at Northwestern University and a historian of libertarian thought.
Though intra-party drama is not unusual for the Libertarian (or any other) Party, this instance could have more lasting effects on the party, and the country, Koppelman said. “(The Libertarian Party) is changing in ways that are likely to drive away voters, disrupt the organization, and increase the likelihood that it’s not going to be able to be on the ballot in all 50 states, because it will be too divided by internal dissension,” he said.
This prediction has borne out in Virginia and Idaho, where Libertarian candidates have either backed out or refused to run due to division among party leadership and disagreement over the new direction of the party.
According to Harris, these examples are outliers and hide the fact that most state parties have welcomed the Mises Caucus with open arms.
“The overwhelming majority of people in the party are either on board with the Mises Caucus, or are willing to work with us,” Harris said. “We just want a functional party.”
From radical to offensive
The Libertarian Party of New Hampshire is at the center of the controversy swirling around the Mises Caucus. The Mises Caucus takeover of the state party in 2021 was followed by party officials releasing a string of offensive tweets, including posts deriding the significance of Martin Luther King day and joking about the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Another tweet, posted by the party on the fourth anniversary of John McCain’s death, shows a picture of McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain, crying over his coffin with a caption reading, “Happy Holidays”.
These messages caused the previous national leadership team to engage in a failed attempt to disaffiliate itself from the state party, resulting in the resignation of then-national chairman Joseph Bishop-Henchman and two other members of the committee, as well as the dissolution of the Pragmatist Caucus of the party.
The messaging coming out of New Hampshire is emblematic of the party’s rightward shift under the Mises Caucus, according to John Hudak, creator of the Fakertarians blog and podcast which aims to denounce “alt-right” voices in the party.
Hudak joined the Mises Caucus soon after its inception in 2017 for the same reason as many others: frustration with the party’s 2016 presidential and vice-presidential nominees and their gradualist, watered down approach to libertarian policies.
“The Mises Caucus claimed to be all about radical libertarian principles at the start, and that’s what attracted me to them,” Hudak said.
Before long, Hudak was attending Mises Caucus leadership meetings and was tasked with moderating its Facebook page. But by 2019, he no longer felt at home in the caucus or comfortable with the people it was trying to recruit.
“It was almost like they were trying to appeal to far right internet culture as opposed to actually pursuing radical libertarian principles,” he said.
Like others, Hudak is surprised by the direction the caucus has taken and finds its messaging focused on culture war attacks un-libertarian.
“It’s gone from the Libertarian Party sending out tweets in favor of trans rights and things like that to the Libertarian Party Twitter account wanting to jail teachers who teach critical race theory,” Hudak said.
Mises Caucus messaging was one of the central reasons cited by the Libertarian parties of New Mexico and Virginia for their decision to attempt to break ties with the national committee.
“Statements from the national party, including those endorsing thinly-veiled antisemitism, explicitly welcoming bigotry into the party, reversing the LP’s 50-year legacy of support for LGBTQ+ rights, and openly denouncing women’s suffrage, the civil rights act, and democracy itself, has rendered the national image of the party functionally indistinct from other alt-right parties and movements,” said the letter announcing the dissolution of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.
To this claim, Harris responded by saying that while the national committee was “not happy” with all the messaging of its members, including some of the tweets from New Hampshire, he believed most of the negative reaction came from the fact that the tweets spoke out against culture war orthodoxy, not because they represent truly alt-right beliefs.
Down and to the right
Either way, the party’s more confrontational approach is a loss for the liberty movement, according to Vallier.
“There used to be this language about libertarianism being that kind of third way, and I think in a heavily polarized society, having a party that positions itself as a third way is really important. But now the Libertarian Party seems so much more hostile to the left than to the right,” Vallier said. “It’s lost its ability as a potential depolarizing third party.”
Despite its current success, Luchini thinks the caucus’ tactics will prove to be self-defeating.
“I think their messaging is turning off members. It’s certainly turning off members here in my state. And I think that’s going to be reflected in donations,” Luchini said.
According to a Libertarian Party end of month financial report from September 2022, after reaching a near two-decade high in 2020, the number of active donors has steadily declined since the beginning of 2021, with the party running a deficit for the last three months.
China and Russia can't tax you, conscript you, seize your wealth, or throw you in a cage for a nonviolent offense.— Libertarian Party (@LPNational) October 26, 2022
Know who your real enemy is.
In addition to funding, the Libertarian Party’s transformation at the hands of the Mises Caucus could also have an effect on voters who, after seeing the party move further to the right on social issues, might consider it less of an alternative to the GOP, according to Vallier.
“The Libertarian Party’s changes have lowered the opportunity cost of voting Republican. So, in effect what’s going on is that there’s less of a point of voting Libertarian,” Vallier said.
Though registered Libertarians make up only a fraction of the population, any rightward shift in their voting preferences could make all the difference. The margin between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump’s vote total in key states like Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, was less than the portion of the vote carried by Libertarian Party presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen. In other words, if a sizable number of Libertarians in those states had voted for Trump in 2020 he would have won the election. And if the Libertarian Party were to decide not to nominate a presidential candidate in 2024, some say the Libertarian vote would, or should, migrate to the Republican side of the ticket.
To Harris, this line of reasoning is ridiculous.
“We’re not social conservatives. We’re not Trump people. We’re not Republicans. We’re libertarians. And most of the party has seen that and has welcomed that,” he said.
Indeed, many members of the Libertarian Party see the Mises Caucus as a revitalizing force that has focused the party on the core principles that define libertarianism, such as Austrian economics and political decentralization.
While not a member of the caucus herself, Emily Goldberg, chair of the Arizona Libertarian Party and a longtime political activist, says the Mises Caucus has strengthened the party by communicating its message in a way that is drawing in new members, including veterans, members of the working class and younger people.
“I do see cultural change with the Mises Caucus. Some of it I am very grateful for,” Goldberg said. “I’ve been waiting for that new blood and that energy for 20 years.”
What’s next for the Libertarian Party?
The Mises Caucus recently announced a new program designed to “recruit and train local candidates and campaign managers” as well as a “Take Human Action Tour” scheduled for next year that will include lectures on economics and decentralization. The caucus hopes that these initiatives will help spread the message of “peaceful separation,” or “national divorce,” which advocates for the political independence of local government, Harris said. The caucus has also donated to Libertarian candidates and ballot initiatives that aim to nullify federal law.
Despite the caucus’ rapid growth and future plans, Hudak predicts it will lose big in the next party convention.
“Ballot access is falling apart. State parties are leaving. It just seems like this is going to blow up a lot sooner rather than later. I could see Mises just losing power completely in 2024,” Hudak said. “I don’t see them taking the party to new heights like they were talking about. That’s just not gonna happen.”
While uncertainty looms over the future of a Mises-controlled Libertarian Party, Luchini remains optimistic about the party in New Mexico.
The Libertarian Party of New Mexico recently affiliated itself with the Association of Liberty State Parties — an organization created in response to the Mises Caucus takeover that calls itself “the national home of autonomous state political parties furthering the agenda of free people and limited government.”
Though the Libertarian National Committee has hinted at a lawsuit for trademark infringement, the Libertarian Party of New Mexico and the Libertarian Party of the Mises Caucus will likely keep moving in different directions even as they function under the same name, which is only fitting for a party whose core belief is an inherent right to self-determination.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said the Libertarian Party of Virginia dissolved itself on a 7-5 vote on Sept. 11. However, the initial vote to dissolve the party was later rejected by other state party leaders.