by Phil Jacobson
In the enclosed picture, you see my first involvement with the Libertarian Party of North Carolina. It was in 1976, during the Presidential campaign of Roger McBride, at the Fayetteville airport. (I'm the scruffy one in the back.) There weren't many of us then. There were no regular LP meetings in most parts of the state, and there weren't many opportunities like this. And yet, the LPNC is still active today, like no other (ahem) "small" political party.
A continuous core of serious activists has always existed in party, but none of those in the photo will be at this year's state convention, except for me, who will attend only online. The others are no longer active with us. Some moved away. Some passed away. Many burned out. Still, the organization survived, slowly growing (on average) for over forty years. But so have serious internal controversies. Some of the controversy was about issues which were important to voters. Some was about issues only libertarian scholars usually care about. Some was about issues of internal organization. Sometimes a clash seemed personal.
But the organization is still here and active. Why? Because among those of us who have remained active a certain ethic has evolved, which over time has transcended most controversy. I've been calling it Respectful Disagreement.
The most controversial issues were the ones most important to us as individuals. One of the most fundamental issues is the question of how much government we are willing to endorse, "limited" or "none." That one is still with us. In my case a related issue is which of the party's officially stated goals is most important: educating the public about our ideas or trying to get our candidates into elective offices. At other times, there has been controversy over which individuals should represent the party as candidates.
Still other times, the issue was how "radical" we should present ourselves to the public, during elections and between them. Should we emphasize our opposition to the Drug War? Should we stress our belief that the government should stay out of people's bedrooms? Should we put a lot of energy into defending the 2nd Amendment? Exactly how far do we take the notion of religious freedom? Most recently, I have seen controversy develop over the use of Federal funds to support the Ukrainians in their war with Russia.
There are really no perfect answers to any of these questions - at least none which turn the LP into a perfect advocacy machine. We should not expect such neat perfection of strategy. Instead, we should remind ourselves that the core of our beliefs is that each individual should have both the responsibility and the ability to decide what or who to support, based on that individual's personal beliefs. Nor should we expect to find allies outside the LP who will stay with us on all issues, especially not on the most important ones.
Instead, we have found the most success by being "Single Issue" libertarians. We attend rallies with civil rights advocates to oppose excessive use of force by police. We find a different set of external allies (for the most part) when we demonstrate against the income tax. We find yet another set of allies when we lobby for ballot access reform. This same kind of shifting alliances happens within the party itself. Support for one Presidential candidate may find LP members gathering together one year who had been behind several different candidates in previous years. Special interest groups within the party all have unique membership lists.
But why should it be any other way? Individual choice is the whole point of libertarianism. Respectful Disagreement is why we survive. Respectful Disagreement is how we grow.