Why don’t libertarians win elections? Simple. Most people don’t want the things that libertarians promise. They don’t believe in the things that libertarians believe in. So the question is why libertarians bother to run campaigns.
This has been a question I’ve heard debated ever since I became a libertarian 20 years ago. It always seemed like a contradiction to me. When I was active in the Libertarian Party, it felt as though we weren’t clear on what we were doing. Were we trying to win elections? Or were we just trying to educate people?
Every libertarian campaign suffers from the same confusion. Some people try to talk themselves into believing the candidate can win, but more realistic people understand it’s not going to happen. Those people tell themselves that the campaign is worth it anyway, because they’re educating people and “spreading the message of liberty.”
Both groups are lying to themselves, but they don’t realize it. If they read what I’m saying here, they will be certain that I’m wrong. But if I’m wrong, I’d like someone to show me the successful libertarian campaigns that are changing people’s minds and then winning elections. Here’s a hint. You won’t find any.
It took me years to figure out the reason that libertarian campaigns are so useless. It’s simply that a libertarian campaign is trying to reap a harvest where we haven’t really planted. Campaigns are not about educating people or changing minds on basic principles. Campaigns are about convincing people that you are the candidate best in alignment with what they already believe.
How do people’s beliefs change? In a small minority — which would apply to almost all libertarians — it happens because of a reasoned decision that their old beliefs are wrong. This tends to be the case with people who have a strong interest in politics and are very rational. If you’re going to come to a libertarian conclusion in modern America, this is probably how it happened for you. But — contrary to what most libertarians believe — this isn’t the way most people change their views. They change their views for emotional reasons that they’re not entirely conscious of. Their views change because the culture around them changes — and they don’t even realize it.
Campaigns are about going out and collecting votes. It’s like harvesting crops that are ready to be gathered. If the fields have been properly planted and tended — and the culture has changed — people will be receptive to a view that would have been foreign before. But if the sowing hasn’t been done — and the culture hasn’t changed — there is no harvest to reap. And that’s why libertarian candidates lose every time.
You can’t combine sowing and reaping, not with crops and not with votes. Any effort to do that is going to meet with spotty “success” in limited individual cases — enough for the campaigns to say, “See?! It’s working!” — but not enough to ever win an election. The sowing has to be done through changing the culture. That takes time and it takes work of an artistic type, not an intellectual type.
How did race relations change in this country? To the extent that they’re better, was it because of laws? Or was it because culture changed? I think it’s plain to see that for the most part, the laws changed because the national culture changed. (There was still regional resistance, but it couldn’t withstand the national culture, which dictated the laws.)
The culture about race relations and many other things started changing in the ’60s and ’70s because people who held liberal views on those subject put themselves into positions of influencing the culture — through movies, television and music. They weren’t overtly pushing their ideas, but they did it through entertaining art that was able to change how people saw certain things. I’ve said before that “All in the Family” did more to change ideas about race in the ’70s than all the legal and political efforts to change during the ’70s.
Until libertarians are willing to put their time, money and energy into changing the culture — through supporting writers, directors, actors, comedians and songwriters who share their views — libertarian campaigns will continue to be the sad spectacle they are today.
Politics today doesn’t matter to us. Or it shouldn’t. Doesn’t it bore you? You know what’s going to happen. You know that people with the same old statist views are going to get their way. Why do we waste as much time as we do following it? Why aren’t we concentrating on finding the ways to change popular culture? If we do that — and if we’re still living in a place that holds elections — people will be receptive to our views after we’ve changed the culture. I don’t believe in any form of the state or voting, but if you do, you need to understand that until the culture changes, elections are irrelevant to us, even on a pragmatic level.
If you’re trying to collect votes from people who don’t agree with you, you have to change what they believe. You don’t do that by arguing with them or lecturing them. You do that by changing the culture. If you do that, you’ll find crops that are ready to be harvested. If you don’t do that, you’ll continue finding barren ground and continued disappointment.
If you enjoy fighting and begging people to listen — only to be disappointed — you’re on the right course if you’re trying to get people elected now. If you’re ready to actually change the world, get serious about changing the culture. When that happens, people will be looking for ways to be free. But not until then.