The Libertarian Party (LP), America’s third largest political party, was founded in 1971 but has not yet made much of an impact at the ballot box.
As of now, it has no federal representatives, only four out of over 7,000 state-level representatives, and a few mayors of relatively small cities. Its best showing in a presidential election was made this last cycle, when Gary Johnson received 3.28% of the popular vote, aided by a strong showing in his home state of New Mexico, where he had been a successful Republican governor.
Registration with the Republicrat parties has been in decline for a while.
That showing in the last election, unremarkable as it was, represented a significant improvement on previous years.
Indeed, Libertarians should be sensing opportunity. Registration with the Republicrat parties has been in secular decline for a while, encouraged by an apparent failure of both of them to deliver what they say they will—in either legislation or even principled presidential candidates. Meanwhile, the public seems to be increasingly aware that the two main parties have more in common than either would be comfortable to admit, and that their commonality is more responsible than anything they disagree about for the decline in the representation, prosperity, optimism, and even unity of Americans.
Seven years ago, I wrote an article on the Huffington Post that launched the largest coalition for a self-identified libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul, who was nevertheless running as a Republican. That article, written for the Huffington readership, made the progressive case for Dr. Paul, even while the mainstream media at the time were calling him “ultra-conservative”. Their failure to understand what Ron Paul believed or why he could fill stadiums with tens of thousands young people, just as Bernie did in the last cycle, was not unrelated to their inability to do anything except laugh at Trump’s prospects—right up until the day he became their President.
It’s a matter of some pride for me that the largest coalition for Ron Paul in 2011/12 arose from my article and comprised mostly self-identified Liberals and former Obama-voters.
Since then, I’ve had increasing cause for optimism.
But it was also a complete travesty that someone who had never dabbled in politics, such as myself, could with a single article do something that the libertarian movement had failed to do. That it did taught me that the political family with which I was most closely aligned (“the liberty movement”) had a sales and marketing problem.
Since then, though, I’ve had increasing cause for optimism. Every invitation I get to speak or present a seminar on political communication seems to reflect an increasing awareness among lovers of liberty that the ever more detailed discussion of a political philosophy is very far from—and sometimes even at odds with—actually improving lives by implementing that philosophy through any part of the political process.
The Four Principles of Political Insurgency
Most successful political insurgencies share a few common necessary conditions, which must be understood by Libertarians and Independents if they are to have a chance at making any significant impact on American politics.
First, people are inclined to support candidates who reflect back to them what they already feel—not those who tell them what to think. This has a corollary, which is that you are more likely to win someone over by describing a problem they care about in a way that resonates with them than by describing a rational solution to it. The Spanish philosopher Ortega was right when he said, “Tell me to what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” If you know that I am moved by the same things as you, then you will be likely to trust me, my experience of the world, and my moral basis—regardless of the particular solution I offer, which you’ll want to believe because of where it came from, before you even hear its content.
You are more likely to win someone over by describing a problem they care about in a way that resonates with them.
Second, people will react most positively to a candidate who is reflecting back to them a felt sense of injustice that offends their basic human nature rather than any particular political ideology they may hold.
Third, support is most likely to grow into a political insurgency that overwhelms mainstream politics when the injustice that is being reflected back by the insurgent candidate or party is being exacerbated by the political mainstream.
Fourth, the presentation of the message must be consistent with the content of the message. This could be regarded as a political corollary of Ghandi’s entreaty to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The above principles are obviously not philosophical or moral; rather, they are psychological, and psychology must be the focus of any political party that is serious about doing what it is formed to do—which is win elections.
When a political or cultural figure successfully harnesses all of the above, the resulting shift feels more like a movement than a campaign—which should be expected since culture precedes (and constrains) politics. Thus, it is by triggering such “movements” that Libertarians can increase their chances of winning significant offices above zero.
The Brexit Example
All psychological principles can be exploited for good or evil, and anything in between. Indeed, hundreds of successful political shifts across time and culture closely fit the above model, including those of Trump and Bernie in the most recent presidential cycle.
To feel injustice requires no political ideology.
The Trump example, and especially his harnessing of felt injustice around immigration, exacerbated by both political parties, is a perfect fitbut since emotional and physical distance often serves clarity. Here is another illustrative example of the above principles in action: the vote of the British to leave the European Union. I happen to think that this vote is one of the greatest blows against statist tyranny that has been struck at the ballot box in my lifetime—but nothing that follows depends on that personal assessment.
With respect to Brexit, the felt injustice (principle 2) was that the people who made laws that governed Britain and the British could not be voted out of office by the British—nor did they even share common interests with Brits because they were from a completely different country and culture. To feel the injustice in that fundamental lack of representation requires no political ideology.
Nigel Farage was the insurgent political leader who reflected back that sense of injustice by calling it by its name (principle 1). He didn’t preach a political philosophy or try to change anyone’s mind about anything. (You’d have to work very hard to find on the webpage of his political party, UKIP, formed for the purpose of getting the UK out of the European Union, that it was libertarian.)
Meanwhile, all of the main political parties in Britain—the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats—were officially arguing for staying in Europe or getting even more deeply involved in it. In other words, they were making the injustice worse (principle 3).
He talked like “the people” rather than like the politicians.
Farage was effective for too many reasons to list here, but chief among them was that he didn’t just talk about the gulf between the views of mainstream politicians and the people they supposedly represented when it came to that injustice: he modeled the very opposite of that gulf.
He talked like “the people” rather than like the politicians; he talked about things that voters were bothered by but politicians were too scared to broach; he spoke to politicians as a Brit, while the mainstreams politicians were speaking to Brits as politicians; he was passionate while his mainstream opponents were controlled and predictable; he had righteous anger while they had rehearsed arguments; he liked a beer and a cigarette while they liked—well, no one really knew what they liked.
In other words, he didn’t just argue for a break from received politics as usual: he was that break (just like Trump, and other recently impactful American insurgents such as Bernie and Ron Paul).
In 2014, Farage’s party, UKIP, without a single national representative (just like the LP), won the European elections in the UK. When it did so, it was only about half the age of the Libertarian Party in the US.
Two years later, Brexit happened.
If the above four principles of insurgency had not been exploited, Britain’s referendum to leave the EU would surely have gone exactly as the mainstream media “knew” it would—and Britain would still be a European colony.
Harnessing Cognitive Dissonance
Even a message perfectly crafted according to the first and second principles above must be received in a way that does not cause it to be dismissed as soon as—or even before—it really “lands”.
A confused customer never buys.
Each of the main parties benefits from having a massive base (tens of millions of people in each case) that by default believes and approves of whatever the party claims because of pre-existing trust and identification.
A small third party has no such advantage. Whereas Americans have a mixed reaction to the word, and therefore the brand, “Libertarian”, almost none of them currently identifies with it, which means that sticking that (L) label on an otherwise powerful message will tend to increase resistance to it among the general population. (Our job is, of course, it to change that neutral-to-negative perception, which can be achieved only by—surprise, surprise—communicating effectively enough to start winning.) A specific aspect of the packaging problem is that a voter who doesn’t actually know what it means can only be confused by it on first encounter—and as the old adage goes, a confused customer never buys.
For these reasons, it’s critical that Libertarian campaigns cause voters to encounter a properly crafted message, as per the principles above, before they are told that it’s a Libertarian message. In this way, we can harness cognitive dissonance in our favor.
How so? If I have already decided that I identify positively with a message, which I was able to do because I was not confused or alienated by the labels that it came with, then my need to avoid cognitive dissonance will cause me to have a positive (or at worst neutral) view of the person or organization it came from.
In contrast, if I receive a message from a person or group that I don’t trust, then my need to avoid cognitive dissonance will cause me to ignore or dismiss it—even if I would have accepted it from another source.
The Numbers Game
Even a perfect message, packaged without self-defeating labeling, does little good if too few people are exposed to it.
Mass exposure of a message benefits from brand awareness and resources. But to get one, it helps to have the other; and whereas the Republican and Democratic parties have both, third parties have neither—so their marketing has to be creative and guerilla, generating disproportionate earned media and word-of-mouth.
Third party messaging must be sufficiently interesting, surprising, novel and empathic.
To candidates I work with, I often say something like this. The (R)s and the (D)s are throwing the same old party they throw every election time. They have lots of money to spend on it and everyone knows what to expect. People go to it because there are no other options. And if you’re not invited, you can’t crash it and expect anyone to take any notice of you because they all know each other and have a big goody bag for all of their friends (they have a big list of friends) who turn up. So, to get people to pay attention to you, you have to have your own party down the street—and make it so different, so unexpected, and so responsive to the tastes of people who are sick of the same old (R) and (D) parties, that everyone becomes curious enough to check it out.
Third party messaging must therefore be sufficiently interesting, surprising, novel and empathic that a) people are jolted into so much surprise or curiosity that they share it with each other, and b) the media see in it a story worth telling.
All non-mainstream candidates who are serious about winning are asking voters to do something those voters have probably never done before; actively support a third-party candidate. Those candidates do not deserve—and will not get—that support unless they can provide an emotional, cognitive, or even spiritual experience that those voters have never had before or, at the very least, can’t get from their mainstream political options. That is a tall order, for sure, but achievable when the principles of insurgency are engaged.
There is a rule book for failing. It involves fighting on the terms of the main parties.
Tactically, there are many ways of running a guerilla marketing campaign. They vary with time, place, demographics, local issues, local culture, available human and financial resources etc.: there is no rule book.
However, there is a rule book for failing. It involves fighting on the terms of the main parties; telling people what to think, rather than what they feel; running a political campaign, rather than igniting a movement; adopting a typical political look (why do all the campaign websites look like campaign websites and all yard signs look the same?); doing things that depend on a pre-existing broad base of trust (arguing about policy, denouncing opponents, and trying to “explain” everyone into agreement); and using only the standard channels of message delivery.
But of course, you know all of that already, because Donald Trump is your President—and by no accident whatsoever.
So if you’re a Libertarian and despondent because 47 years says that your guy never gets elected, I invite you to spend a little less time reading up on the principles of liberty (because you already know them and they don’t win elections per se) and a little more time learning about the principles of political insurgency (because you don’t and they do).
As Paolo Lugari famously observed, “Yes, it is impossible. Therefore it will take a little longer”. He wasn’t a man who did the same thing and expected a different result.