Nicholas Sarwark on Libertarianism in 2020 and Beyond

The LP National chair on the challenges for third parties and the trouble with Libertarian — Republican alliances.

On the 4th of July, Congressman Justin Amash declared his independence from the GOP in a Washington op ed for the Washington Post, writing that “The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.”

He went on to channel George Washington’s farewell address, in which he warned against the consolidation of political power in the parties:

“The founders envisioned Congress as a deliberative body in which outcomes are discovered. We are fast approaching the point, however, where Congress exists as little more than a formality to legitimize outcomes dictated by the president, the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader.”

Given that he was always a “liberty Republican,” it would seem obvious for Amash to join the Libertarian Party — the closest thing to a serious challenger to the two-party system.

Unfortunately, there are major systemic obstacles to third parties gaining traction in the U.S.

Third party candidates have trouble getting on ballots, getting on stage for debates, and generally getting a fair hearing from the public. Furthermore, they are often accused of siphoning off votes from the candidate who would otherwise be most favorable to liberty.

Nicholas Sarwark is the 19th and current chair of the Libertarian Party. He wants to distinguish it as the party of free markets (including free trade), open borders to peaceful immigrants, and civil liberties for all.

Next year, some of the biggest names in the liberty movement will gather in Austin for the 2020 Libertarian Convention, including California’s own Jeff Hewitt. Hewitt is a county supervisor in Riverside, CA, which makes him the most powerful libertarian elected to public office in the U.S. according to the LA Times. Could this be a model for a libertarian Realpolitik of the future?

Nicholas joined the show to discuss a practical strategy for growing the party and making political inroads at the state and local level.

We’ talk about what distinguishes Libertarians from Republicans, the difference between big “L” and small “l” libertarians, and why some libertarians (rightly or wrongly) feel more at home in the Republican Party than with the Democrats.

Transcript: Libertarianism — A Party or a Philosophy?

Bob Zadek: Welcome to The Bob Zadek Show. Thanks so much for listening. The Libertarian Party is a unique political party. It is both a political party and a political philosophy. That description doesn’t apply to any other major political party.

The Democrats and the Republicans do not represent a philosophy. The other political parties are nothing other than election cooperatives. They are parties which through polling determine what positions, and what combination of issues, will produce 50.001% of the popular vote. And they get elected.

If the polling indicates a different position will win, the “philosophy” of the political parties will change. The goal is not to promote a philosophy, it is to get candidates elected to office.

As I said before, the election to the Senate and the House creates the ultimate entitlement program for the ultimate entitlees. Those people in the House and the Senate are as entitled as Americans can be.

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party is a philosophy. Here to discuss both the philosophy and the party, I’m happy to welcome to the show Nick Sarwark. Nick is the current chair of the Libertarian National Committee, which means he is the executive head of the Libertarian Party. It is the third most popular political party in America. Nick was elected in 2014 and he has been on many LP committees along the way.

Especially important to me is that Nick’s Libertarian creds were earned as a law student when he clerked at my favorite public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice. Here to share his experiences as head of the Libertarian Party and its goal for 2020, as well as the issues involved in being the third party in America.

Nick, welcome to the show this morning.

Nick Sarwark: Thanks for having me on this morning, Bob.

Bob Zadek: Now Nick, you are the head of the Libertarian Party, a third party in America. Needless to say, as a third party or a fourth or a fifth party, the deck is profoundly stacked against you at the ballot box. Certainly at the national level, less so, but still to a substantial degree at the state and local level, because state and local elections are often nonpartisan, and therefore we have a shot at winning based upon philosophy rather than the color of our yard signs. Tell us if you will, some of the problems involved, the structural problems involved in getting the voice heard as a third party.

Third Parties on the Ballot Box: Playing Against a Stacked Deck

Nick Sarwark: Well one of the things that is different about libertarianism and the Libertarian Party from the other two you talked about is that we’re not trying to get elected in order to give your money to our friends, which is really what the Democrats and the Republicans do. They want to get elected so they can take your tax money and they can give it to the right people. It’s all about getting up your tax money and who they give it to.

The Libertarian Party strives to reduce the amount of things that government does, thereby reducing the amount of money we take and giving it back to you, so you can run your own life. So, you can see why the two old parties wouldn’t want us on the ballot. They are selling moldy deli sandwiches and we are selling fresh delicious tacos.

So, they pass laws and create ballot access barriers where in some states a libertarian candidate has to get 10 times as many signatures as a Republican or a Democrat in order to get on the same ballot. They make us run races before we can start the race and they take us to court. People will cheat to keep power, and that’s what we have to fight against. That’s why we have a lawyer and a lot of volunteer lawyers around the country, and we push back.

Bob Zadek: Now, Nick, you made a very excellent point in telling our audience that there are many structural legal and statutory barriers in a third party being able to compete with the other two parties, for obvious reasons. The other two parties, while they want to defeat each other, they want to collectively make sure that nobody competes against them. As I pointed out years ago, and I recall the show, the political parties get away with monopolistic practices that if private business did them, they would go to jail or be broken up. If two major competitors in the private marketplace got legislation enacted or schemed on how to keep away competition, they would break the law.

You cannot deprive the public of a choice. As a country, we should be embarrassed. We should be embarrassed because we are very protective of our right to buy a choice of breakfast cereal but we are not protective of our right to be exposed to candidates and ideas. How could ideas and candidates be less important to protect than breakfast cereal? But that is regretfully the attitude of the establishment of our country. Look at the presidential debates.

Now, Nick, you don’t automatically get to stand at a podium at a presidential debate even though the public would certainly be interested in what we have to say. In fact, you and I know the public would be drawn to the Libertarian party positions if they knew about them. So, give us just a smattering of what’s involved if you hope to get on the stage at debates and get attention at other meetings and get on the ballots. Give us a hint of what the other two parties have done in a monopolistic way to make sure your point of view does not get exposure.

Nick Sarwark: If we look at the 2016 presidential election, even though the Libertarian Party had been around for over 40 years at that point and was working on getting ballot access in the various states, we still spent probably about a three quarters of a million dollars getting our candidate to be on the ballot around the country and in all 50 states. And when we had somebody on the ballot for every single American, just like the Republican and Democratic nominees, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is a bipartisan effort and is run by former Republican and Democratic campaign chairs, set a standard that you have to have 15% of the country, in a poll, to vote for you before your voice can be heard.

If you ask the wrong questions in life, it doesn’t matter what the answers are. If you’re polling not whether or not people want to hear from a candidate, but whether or not they were already going to vote for that candidate before they had an opportunity to be heard — you are rigging the system.

I think what needs to happen in this country is people need to realize that the largest political identity that exists is not Republican, and it is not a Democrat — it is the middle who don’t choose to align with a party. That’s a larger group than either of the two sides. What they depend on is that you’ll so hate Team Blue that you’ll vote for Team Red, even though you’re not on a team.

If we can get those people who are not on a team to realize that issues that are important to them will never be addressed by Republicans and Democrats — they don’t want to talk about free trade; about ending wars, because that’s where their campaign contributions come from — but the majority of Americans want that. The key is really to break through. Our candidates have to run on issues that the two old parties refuse to address, and put ourselves on the side of the people who are in that middle who make up a majority of this country.

Libertarianism Boiled Down

Bob Zadek: When you say that the other two parties don’t want to talk about free trade or they don’t want to talk about ending war, I’ll add a slight qualification. They will talk about these things if the pollsters say they will win by talking about it. They don’t want to talk about it as a philosophy because they lack a philosophy. The only philosophy they possess is the philosophy of getting elected, and once you’re elected, staying there. They will adopt positions only for the selfish purpose of getting elected. Those who identify as Democrats or Republicans are as politically unprincipled as one can be, because their principal is just making sure that the other guys don’t get elected.

Whenever anybody runs for office as a Democrat or Republican, people vote for them defensively. Those who voted for Hillary voted so Trump wouldn’t get elected and vice versa. You identify with a party for negative reasons just to prevent the other guy from getting into power. The Libertarian Party doesn’t have a poll-driven agenda. It cites as the source of its beliefs political philosophers going back hundreds of years through and including today.

The Libertarian Party has real principles. If you read the platforms of the Democrats and Republicans from four year cycle to four year cycle, you will see items on the Democratic platform that used to be on the Republican platform. Items on the Republican platform used to be on the Demcoratic platform. What changed? The polls.

So Nick, tell us the core Libertarian principles. Give us the bullet points of the principles that Libertarians vote for when they vote for libertarian candidates.

Nick Sarwark: One of the people who said it best and most simply was Matt Kibbe, who said libertarianism boils down to “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” So, if you’re not hurting somebody else and you’re not stealing or defrauding somebody else, then you should have a right to pursue happiness the way you see fit. I should have a similar right and we should all have the right to do what we want with our lives as long as they’re peaceful. What would happen if you elect libertarians to office is that government would do less and do it better. We want to reduce the number of things government does and the number of ways that interferes in your life.

For those things that it still does, we want to make sure that it is doing them efficiently and not wasting your tax dollars. I think we can key in on that defensive voting pattern because that’s a real thing. People feel scared that the wrong team is going to get in. Libertarian is kind of the ultimate defensive vote, because by voting for a libertarian, you didn’t give that vote to either of the teams that you are more or less afraid of — you took it away from them both.

When politicians look at the number of votes that libertarian candidates get, they know that those votes are only available to them if they change their platform to come closer to us. We can use the way they try to build up their coalition to make some of our issues some of those that poll well.

We have to understand what kind of a system politics is and not try to fight against it, but try and fight better, because we have ideas underneath. We have a core set of principles, but we can still identify those places where the two old parties agree. They don’t want to talk about places they agree because it doesn’t get them anywhere. They don’t get one over on their opponent. So we point out, “Hey, both of those people agree with each other, but they are against what you want.”

The Unseen Success of Libertarian Efforts

Bob Zadek: What occurs to me over and over again, somewhat agonizingly, is that since Libertarians have taken a position on many public issues in an intelligent way, the public always seems to come around. That cannot be said about either of the other two political parties. Remember when we had a War on Drugs? Well, that War on Drugs is not over yet, but it is receding. We are releasing prisoners from federal and state prisons who were committed on low-level nonviolent drug crimes.

So, the war on drugs goes in our column as a profound win. Eminent domain and the “Little Pink House Case” in Connecticut. The states were confiscating property under eminent domain. We lost in the Supreme Court, but we won in the state houses and in Washington. Eminent domain has since been pulled back tremendously. Another one is civil asset forfeiture. We’ve done many shows on that. Free speech on campus. Nation building and foreign policy.

The country and maybe even the world is coming around to our point of view. We have had bipartisan legislation to fix these social evils, and yet nobody will identify these victories as a victory of libertarianism, and without a libertarian point of view we wouldn’t have these victories. How do we explain the fact, Nick, that libertarianism as a philosophy is enjoying great success, where it doesn’t spill over to the ballot box?

Nick Sarwark: I think we have to make sure that we are following Bastiat — both the seen and unseen. What you see is that these policy proposals are getting enacted, and it may be a Republican or a Democrat, but the Libertarian party was out there in the vanguard talking about these issues back in the 70's.

They do those polls to check what people feel on a specific issue. I think that the votes that Libertarian candidates have been getting and the rising percentages that happens when they run on issues like ending the War on Drugs or on stopping wars, even the old party politicians look at that and come around to our issues in order to notch up the win for their side and not lose the votes to us.

So it’s a constantly evolving battle. Whatever issues we start having success on, they are going to try to take before people get on Team Gold instead of Team Red or Team Blue. We just can’t let up. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that we got these victories without putting a lot of people in the Congress or the Senate — be encouraged by it, and don’t give up the fighting. Don’t slow down just as we’re starting to break through.

For the first time in our party’s history, our presidential candidate got more votes than the balance between the two old party candidates.

We control the balance of power in American politics now, and if we seize that opportunity, we’ll have incredible success. But we can’t back away from it because we didn’t get Gary Johnson elected. We have to come back every cycle and in the midterms and just keep pushing on these issues because success doesn’t happen by accident. Without the Libertarian party, we don’t get the country to where we’ve gotten it to.

Bob Zadek: Gary Johnson, as a candidate, didn’t have his heart into it. Therefore, too much is given to the failure of Gary Johnson to poll higher than many people had expected. I think the problem was he just was not a good politician. His defeat, therefore, was not a failure of the message. Gary Johnson, of course, polled much more on the national level than any other libertarian presidential candidate ever had. I would say that Gary Johnson polled 3% despite being a weak candidate, which means libertarianism, with a strong candidate, would have done far better.

Power to the States

Bob Zadek: Nick, when you and I had a Twitter exchange, you made a very important point — that States don’t have rights. People do. The power of the states is embodied in the Constitution. And while there’s been a lot of debate amongst constitutional law scholars and amongst politicians as to whether the Constitution is a living constitution which changes with the times.

There is the idea that we cannot let 55 white men who lived 240 years ago determine life in America today. That is a vacuous policy statement. Many people subscribe to this statement. While the times have changed for sure, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that we had states back in 1779 and we have states today.

The relationship between the states and the federal government remains the same, except it has been changed in the courts. So those who opt for a living constitution because they claim times have changed are missing the point. We still have states and they haven’t changed and we still have a federal government and it hasn’t changed except it has gotten bigger. The Libertarian Party has enjoyed success at the local level. That seems to be on the accent.

Shouldn’t the Libertarian party be measuring success at the state and local level, and most importantly, shouldn’t it measure its success by how many Democratic or Republican candidates seem to be, in their hearts, libertarian? Isn’t that as much of the goal as electing Libertarian party candidates?

Nick Sarwark: You have to do both. Every party that hasn’t run a presidential ticket and has started going with the regional, local focus, has devolved down into being a regional party. That’s just how political science works in our country.

So we have to run the top of the ticket to show people that we are truly a national party that’s willing to contest this race in all 50 states. It is a show of strength, if you will, but we also have to run state and local candidates, because if you have a new political party that you’re not familiar with, you’re going to judge it by who you see on the news or in the debate or on your ballot. What kind of person is that? Is that the kind of person that you want to elect to county supervisor or mayor or to state legislative district or whatever.

We need those candidates out there making that first touch to people — showing them that there is a real political alternative.

The nice thing about the Libertarian Party is that you know what you’re getting. The platform is very simple and concise. It talks about our principles. It talks about what we believe in, what we want for the country.

The reason that being a Libertarian is so much better than just unenrolling from the two old parties and being an independent is that it is very hard to quantify what “independent” means. There are people who are independent for so many reasons and their votes don’t really send a signal. If you vote for a Libertarian Party candidate in the political arena, that vote sends a very clear signal because we’re so open about what it stands for. It tells the other politicians a lot about what the community wants. That’s where our strength lies. It is that clear messaging — election after election after election — from the lowest level and municipal office up to the presidency.

Libertarianism: A Commitment to Maximum Freedom

Bob Zadek: What strikes me as so interesting is that when I speak in friendly conversations at public meetings with committed Democrats or Republicans, I can identify as many issues where this Democrat or Republican says, “I know, but…”

That is, they say they agree with some of the points of view but not with others. I know Democrats want profound wealth transfers, but they also support a non-aggressive foreign policy. That’s not really true. But that’s the point of view. They think the good outweighs the bad.

With an identified libertarian, there has never been one instance when I have had to say “I know, but…” There is no “but.” It is the only philosophy where, whenever an issue is being discussed in American politics, I am totally all in and committed to the Libertarian position. I don’t know of any Democrat or Republican in this country who can say they are all in on the Democrat or Republican point of view. Why is the country voting from an “I know but…” point of view?

Nick Sarwark: It’s fear and prioritization. One of the messages we used during the 2018 cycle was, “All of your freedom, all of the time.”

To use an example that has changed a little bit, but illustrates the point. If you are a young gay couple in San Francisco and you live in a rough part of town, you want to be able to be married to who you love, while also being able to defend yourself by owning a gun. The two old parties make you choose which one of those is more important to you. Is it more important to have that self-defense right? Because that is a right you have. Or, is it more important to have that right to be treated equally before the law and get married to who you love? Because that is also an important right to have. The other parties force you to make a terrible choice between one or the other.

The Libertarian Party is the only party that says that you can actually have both freedoms at the same time. There is no reason we should be rationing out our libertarian positions. A Republican politician might have a few libertarian positions. A Democratic politician might have a few libertarian positions, but they’re just going to give you a couple of crumbs. A Libertarian Party politician has all libertarian positions. They want to support all of your freedoms, both economic and social and civil rights. We want you to be as free as possible to raise your kids and build your community up and start a business and live the American Dream.

We don’t want to put any barriers in your way. These other candidates want some of them but not all of them. Once you see that this is the case, you start to vote Libertarian in every election. Voting is an expression of what you want. If you vote for what you don’t want you’re going to get it. If you vote for what you want, the worst case is that position doesn’t get elected, but at least you sent the message that this is still what you want. If you keep voting for it, eventually you’re going to get it.

The Majority Ultimately Returns to Libertarian Positions

Bob Zadek: One of the phrases I hate the most in political discourse is when a politician –Clinton and Obama were masters at this — when they “evolved.” Evolved means, “Oh my God, was I wrong? I was a moron. But now I got better and I’m no longer a moron with a wrongheaded point of view.” Libertarians never have to evolve. They start in the right place and there is never any reason to evolve.

I invite our friends listening to the show to do this exercise. When Biden changed his position on bussing, or when Kamela Harris changed her position on criminal justice and on incarceration for low drug crimes and the death penalty, the change was always 100% a change towards Libertarianism.

Politicians have universally evolved to a Libertarian point of view on most issues. It’s a lot better for the country if you start with post-evolved politicians than those who will ultimately get there but are not there yet.

Nick Sarwark: Libertarians are a little different from the rest of the world and we think about things a little differently. I’ve had the experience where I’ve put words out there and asked people on social media, “Is this something that appears to you to be racist? Is this something that is not right for an American politician to say?” I put it out there without the name on it. And you would be surprised how many people say, “Well, you have to tell me who said it first and then I’ll tell you whether or not it’s right or not.”

That’s not how we look at things. One of the things that people can’t take away from you in life is your integrity. That willingness to look at things with a clear eye and call out people on your own team if they do bad things. You know, one of the things that Congressman Amash from Michigan made was we were elected and sworn oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, not whoever’s in charge at the particular time or whoever’s in my particular political party. We have an oath to the people and the Constitution, and Congress just isn’t exercising that oath. They’re all calculating whether something helps or hurts their team or the other team. They’re not thinking about what is good for the country and good for our future generations.

As Libertarians, it is comforting to have that integrity, but I think it’s also important for us to be kind to people who are evolving and bring them in and realize that there is something emotional that keeps people very attached to who is on their team. We have to find a way to talk to that if we’re going to get people to think about politics in a different and I would say a better way.

Bob Zadek: I’d like you to speak about something which has troubled me for a really long time. In the policy arena, going back 20 years, there have been profound changes in federal and state drug policy and criminal justice reform, in free speech, and in major areas of gay marriage, etc. All of these profound changes, which took a long time and were really a struggle. All of these changes were changes towards a more Libertarian point of view.

Libertarianism as a philosophy is the driving force. Why? Because it is the natural way people see their lives. People are naturally born libertarians, but that is suppressed. The public doesn’t understand the link between libertarianism as a philosophy and all of these improvements in life in America. The Libertarian Party itself has not done a good enough job in identifying these important changes in life in America with a libertarian point of view. I don’t know what the cure is. Am I identifying a real problem or overstating it?

Nick Sarwark: You are identifying a really solid problem. Wayne Gretzky used to talk about the way to be successful in hockey. He said, “You skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck is.” The puck is moving. You have to think ahead. We have not been good at taking credit for these changes.

We’re going towards individual freedom because as you point out, people are born free. Most of the decisions that you make in your day to day life are done voluntarily and peacefully amongst consenting adults, right? What you ate for breakfast, what kind of clothes you put on, which route you want to take to get to work. All of those things are done without the government telling you what to do. It is an exception when we let the state have some power over what we do.

When you realize this you start looking at the world and asking, “Do we need these many exceptions to that rule? Do we need this many laws where, if you don’t comply with the law, the police will try and arrest you and people will get shot and killed.”

I was taught in law school, “If you don’t want people with guns potentially shooting somebody over some issue, then you shouldn’t ask for there to be a criminal law in this instance.”

Once you create a criminal law that will be enforced by agents of the state, they will be armed and people will die. Don’t have a law for something you wouldn’t do that for. So murder, rape, etc., those are things that you should definitely have a law against. But how you choose to relax at the end of the day, you in your house with whatever substance you choose, I don’t think I want anyone to die over that.

We need to move in the direction of liberty. We need to go where the puck is going and be ahead of the curve. The Libertarian Party is the political tool of the liberty movement. Joining the Libertarian Party is one of the best ways you can do that in the political arena. I’m not saying joining the Libertarian party or running as a Libertarian candidate is going to fix everything, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Bob Zadek: The litmus test of whether a political policy makes sense is, if you look at almost every position they require force to be carried out. People will naturally not be willing to do follow those policies by their own behavior. They have to be compelled. Every Democratic and Republican policy requires somebody with a badge or gun to force you to do it. No Libertarian policy requires force.

Cooperative transactions among consenting adults without coercion, force or fraud is the norm in Libertarian policy. When you are having a conversation with a Democrat or a Republican, just have them understand that their policy has to be forced with a gun. It is coercion that distinguishes a Libertarian policy from a Democratic or Republican policy.

Nick Sarwark: We need to get people recognizing that every time you pass a law stating how we are going to enforce this behavior, they are at least taking a shortcut, because they don’t want to take the time or the effort to convince people the idea is a good idea. They want to take the shortcut of forcing people.

Bob Zadek: Tell us about Austin 2020. What’s happening?

Nick Sarwark: So we’re going to be in Austin, Texas next May [Register for the 2020 Libertarian Convention]. That’s where we’ll be picking the next presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party. It is a real convention where you don’t know who is going to win in advance. It’s very exciting and it’s a great way to get involved.


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Bob Zadek

Bob Zadek • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.